Unionists awoke yesterday morning to the nightmare scenario that their vote continued to be splintered between multiple parties, while nationalists had consolidated the position of Sinn Féin.
If the pattern was repeated in next May’s Assembly election, republicans could emerge as the largest party and lay claim to the symbolically charged title of Northern Ireland First Minister.
Yesterday the election story in Northern Ireland was dominated by the fall of DUP leader Peter Robinson in East Belfast and the defeat of Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey in South Antrim, but the poll’s true significance could be that it heralds the major battle yet to come.
Northern Ireland has 18 Westminster constituencies and at the last election the DUP won nine, Sinn Féin took five, the nationalist SDLP won three and the Ulster Unionists took one seat. By yesterday the tally had shifted to the DUP with eight seats, Sinn Féin still on five, the nationalist SDLP on three and the Alliance taking its first seat after the historic defeat of Peter Robinson.
But the unionist parties have suffered several serious blows to their confidence, while Sinn Féin has been able to rouse its troops by continuing its march forward and by securing a psychological lead over the SDLP.
The DUP, UUP and the Conservatives had united behind an agreed unionist unity candidate in the border constituency of Fermanagh-South Tyrone in a bid to oust Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew. But her victory by a mere four votes has given a further symbolic boost for republicanism.
The results will inevitably revive calls for a renewed search for unity among the unionist parties. But any move to cobble together a new unionist bloc at Stormont to keep Sinn Féin out of the top office is likely to see republicans refuse to take part in the Assembly. A new round of crisis negotiations would follow, where unionists could be forced to concede further ground to save the Assembly.
The general election results have given pause for thought to all the major parties.
The Democratic Unionists had to tear-up their election blueprint in January when their leader Peter Robinson became mired in scandal after it emerged his wife Iris had an affair with a 19-year-old and secured £50,000 from property developers to start a business for her lover.
The party was also left reeling by the furore over MPs expenses, but suffered a hammer blow last June when the European election saw Northern Ireland’s new unionist hard men – the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) – seize 13.7% of first preference votes in their first major political outing.
The stage seemed set for a very difficult general election campaign for the DUP.
The shock unseating of Peter Robinson from the Belfast constituency he has held since 1979 has rocked the party hierarchy. The collapse of support for the party leader, who has been a key strategist for the DUP for decades, presents a major and unexpected problem.
Rumours of a top level take-over, which first emerged when the Iris Robinson scandal broke, will now resurface. But Mr Robinson has already shown his determination to hang on to his position.
Republicans used their battle against the ranged forces of unionism and Conservatism in Fermanagh-South Tyrone as a key feature of their election campaign. Their unionist enemies may have inadvertently helped to underline Sinn Féin’s status within their own community and to isolate the nationalist SDLP.
Sinn Féin entered the election with five seats and leaves with the same tally but it has emerged with the largest percentage share of the vote, repeating the poll-topping performance of last year’s European election.
It made substantial ground in the unionist heartlands of North Belfast and Upper Bann without taking the seats, while also adding to the tallies of sitting Sinn Féin MPs.
Republicans hope their success in building their support, while simultaneously beginning a new propaganda battle against their nationalist competitors in this election, will keep Sinn Féin on track to becoming the largest party at Stormont next year.
The success for the party comes despite a tough run-in for its leader Gerry Adams who faced renewed allegations of former IRA membership, plus claims he mishandled child abuse allegations against his brother.
The Ulster Unionists tried very hard to make their marriage with the Conservative Party work, but the political union they unveiled in 2008 in the North has ended in failure.
The parties stood joint candidates in 17 of the 18 constituencies in the region and it was hoped that the last-minute decision of UUP leader Reg Empey to stand in South Antrim represented the pact’s best chance of success. But his failure, and the failure of his colleagues to secure even a single seat, has rocked the once mighty UUP.
Many Ulster Unionists hoped the high-profile backing of Conservative leader David Cameron would provide a crucial PR advantage at election time. And they placed great store in the Tory pledge that the North’s MPs could find themselves in a future Conservative government.
Both promises, however, failed to charm the voters.
The pact was dented at an early stage by the refusal of the UUP’s sole MP Sylvia Hermon to stand under the Tory banner. Her success last night in defending her North Down seat as an independent has rubbed salt in the wound.
It is also significant that when the new partnership was first agreed it promised to be a non-sectarian platform that offered Protestant and Catholic voters a chance to step away from the old “Green and Orange” politics of the past and play a role in forming the next Westminster government.
But that promise unravelled amid news of secret talks with the DUP aimed at securing unionist unity in Fermanagh and at Stormont to frustrate Sinn Féin.
The mixed messages meant that the UUP lost old voters and failed to gain any new ones.
The SDLP’s newly appointed leader Margaret Ritchie faced a tough task taking her party into an election only months after taking on her new job.
The party will be pleased to have held its three seats, including Ritchie’s own successful defence of the South Down constituency held for decades by her mentor Eddie McGrady.
The new-look SDLP leadership sought to take the party out from under the shadow of the dominant Sinn Féin by highlighting the differences between the two wings of nationalism.
But the electoral battle between the SDLP and Sinn Féin was largely a dry-run for the crucial Assembly election, which will reveal if Margaret Ritchie can have any success in her professed aim of turning the tide on Sinn Féin.
The party led by former DUP stalwart Jim Allister threatened to undermine the DUP support base.
But its general election candidates secured only 4.2% of the vote, a fact that supports the theory that while Allister commanded support when he stood for Europe, he does not have the calibre of candidates to replicate that success in a wider contest.
The TUV leader went head-to-head with Ian Paisley Jnr who was defending the North Antrim seat his father held for decades.
But the younger Paisley won 19,672 votes against Allister’s 7,114.
The TUV might fare better in a proportional representation poll for Stormont, but its advance has been halted for now.
Optimists are asking, however, whether the stall in the TUV project, plus the success of the Alliance Party in seizing East Belfast, might be signs that some voters are moving away from extremes and are more willing to vote for more liberal parties.
The Alliance Party’s Naomi Long won in East Belfast against all the odds.
A senior unionist yesterday wondered if, as the North moves further away from the violence of the Troubles, more voters than before are prepared to step outside traditional orange and green boundaries.