Gamechanging moments 2: Unionism realigns…

Now truth is we will not know for sure how things line up for unionists until Monday, but the unprecended coverage of the detail of the verification process (brought to you mostly by Slugger (and When Slugger Cowpes) we know there is crisis looming at the heel of these results. The DUP puts themselves ahead of Nicholson 20 to 16. The UUs put themselves just ahead of the DUP on 18 to 17. Health warnings come with both. There is, no matter how thoroughly you check it, a sampling bias towards your own tallies. Add to this is verification and not an actual count, and well, there’s the caveats.

The SDLP at this stage are conceding their docket is beaten…So it looks like, unless we’ve all gotten our sums completely wrong, that the incumbent parties of 2004 will come home as expected. But the game has changed, and quite profoundly, if the tally estimates are right.

There is a tranche of DUP seats now in peril for the next Westminster election. Some, directly from the TUV (North and East Antrim). Others from a strong Nationalist surge in the likes of Upper Bann. And Lagan Valley and South Antrim look vulnerable to a UU and TUV pincer attack.

Count that down, and the DUP go from holding 9 out of 10 unionist seats to 4 out of 9 seats. There may be others I’m not taking account of that could be vulnerable in a three way unionist split if the incumbent were to step down (East Londonderry, for instance).

You’d have to say that was carelessness in the extreme.

Bear in mind too that the ructions in England today also mean that a UU rally in fortunes (however skin deep) mean that it could be on a rising Tory tide in the next general election. And that election might come sooner rather than later.

I’ve been saying privately for days now that this election looks like a turning point in the general fortunes for the two tribes. If the last four years have been a prolonged crisis for Nationalism, the next four may presage a similar crisis for Unionism.

Some months ago, Frank Millar warned the DUP that their easy triumphs over an incompetent Sinn Fein Education Minister, and their heavily legislated locks on the devolution of Policing and Justice was leading them in to the illusion that they could go on draining that particular milch cow ad infinitum.

They took an old campaign off the shelf (Unionism must top the poll) and tried it one more time. Their polling a focus groups approved. No one told them on the door steps it was wrong. But as Noel Whelan noted at our Slugger Live event in 2005, landslide defeats are often silent.

This is not in the strictest sense a defeat for the DUP, but in a moral sense a new party to their nominal right, has conjured itself out of the ether and eviscerated their comfortable lead, dragging them from easy complacency to a near brush with electoral death.

According to one liberal Unionist I spoke to this evening, the DUP is suffering the same problem as David Trimble had (though this a very different configuration to those days): when they had the opportunity to press on generously they faltered.

Now they linger on a shakey rope bridge. The UU, soon no doubt to transform into the Ulster Tories, ahead of them beckoning them on (if they understand the best way to play this game), and the TUV telling them they have to come back.

I would not like to be in Peter Robinson’s shoes when this is over. His compensation: that he is not (yet) Gordon Brown.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty