N. Ireland Politics

NI Assembly election: what next for the parties?

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness
Image caption Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness both have reason to celebrate

Peter Robinson kept his head when he lost his seat - and his steely determination to persevere has turned up political gold for the DUP leader.

A triumph at the polls - his party has improved the "high water mark" 36 seat share it won under Ian Paisley in 2007. The DUP finishes with a record 38 seats.

Having lost two seats, one in Strangford and one in West Tyrone, the party picked up four in North Down, South Antrim, North Belfast and Lagan Valley.

Sinn Fein's victory, although less impressive, represents an advance. The party consolidated its position taking seats in Fermanagh-South Tyrone and East Antrim.

Oliver McMullan's victory in East Antrim was a breakthrough. The party has seen off an SDLP veteran in Fermanagh-South Tyrone. And it has narrowed the gap in Foyle to 500 votes.

Martin McGuinness, however, seemed disappointed the results were not better, regretting weak vote- management perhaps in Mid-Ulster. But already the party is eying up another seat there next time out.

Losing out

As for the Ulster Unionists and SDLP, it is a tale of triumph and disaster.

The Ulster Unionists finished on 16 seats - a net loss of two. Some say its defeat in East Antrim means it will only have one ministerial place at the executive table. The Alliance Party expects to take the tenth choice.

By the end of play the Ulster Unionists will have lost seats in North Belfast, North Down, East Londonderry and East Antrim.

"Lost" actually is kind: the party threw a seat away in East Londonderry by falling out with incumbent David McClarty.

On the upside, the party won two seats, Ross Hussey in West Tyrone and Mike Nesbitt in Strangford. The party has also managed to keep two seats in Upper Bann, despite poor vote management.

And the Ulster Unionist deputy leader John McCallister has won in South Down despite boundary changes that made his seat marginal.

The SDLP has dropped from 16 seats to 14. The big story is the party losing the west.

Fermanagh South Tyrone has fallen to Sinn Fein and victory for Joe Byrne in West Tyrone is marred by its narrowness.

The SDLP did well to keep three seats in Foyle, but what happens next time? The party lost its South and North Antrim seats.

In East Antrim, the SDLP's dreams of a breakthrough evaporated as soon as the first preferences were announced - and it was another bitter end in Strangford.

The SDLP can console itself with two seats in South Belfast and the fact the party grew in Newry and Armagh and stayed ahead of Sinn Fein in South Down. But questions are being asked about vote management there, which may have cost the party a seat.

Image caption Time to go? The SDLP's performance has lead to calls for Margaret Ritchie's resignation


Alliance takes the prize for most improved. The party picked up eight seats in the Assembly election and if David McClarty is not enticed back into the Ulster Unionist fold they could be entitled to a ministry by right.

And the TUV leader Jim Allister is facing what some would call a disastrous win. He just scraped in.

Paul Frew of the DUP said Mr Allister is going to Stormont "on his hands and knees".

While the DUP and Sinn Fein plot their strategy for continued dominance and growth, the question is what will the junior partners of unionism and nationalism do?

Will the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP decide their glasses are half-full and drift on? Or will they decide the glass is half-empty and go for radical change?

Most commentators suggest the Ulster Unionist's biggest problem is incoherence - too many squabbles and no clear sense of what it stands for.

Can Basil McCrea and David McNarry, who fell out bitterly at the start of this campaign, co-exist peacefully?

The SDLP suffers from a lack of strong, charismatic leadership - no one has yet been able to fill the shoes left by John Hume and Seamus Mallon.

A decade has passed and the party has halted the sharp decline but where does it go from here?

Members of the party are telling me Margaret Ritchie has to go - that she has failed to deliver any bounce.

One member said: "On the doors no one wanted to talk about jobs - it was all about the leader." And the remarks were not kind, effectively that Ms Ritchie was "not leadership material".

Can Tom Elliott - who called Sinn Fein "scum" at his count - keep the support of the modernisers and stave off the pretenders to his throne.

Even before Mike Nesbitt was elected in Strangford he was being tipped as the next leader.

But switching leaders is no panacea. There seems to be an east-west, liberal-traditional divide that may never be crossed.

Mr Elliott made it known that opposition was an option for his party in this term but will he force the issue if the Ulster Unionists are reduced to one seat in the executive? Can he get agreement on a new policy?

The SDLP, which endures the Ulster Unionist wounds at being second division players in the executive, shows no appetite to go into opposition.

All questions perhaps for the post-mortem.