Last Thursday changed everything and nothing for the DUP. Gone is the petition of concern. Gone too is the large buffer of seats with Sinn Fein. What hasn’t change is the outcome.
They still have the First Minister’s position and with the UUP’s downsizing are more dominant in unionism.
On the other hand, in the course of less than a year, Mrs Foster has overturned recent patterns of nationalist and unionist turnout in a way that has cost her both in seats and public prestige.
She quickly became for Sinn Fein what Ian Paisley had once reputedly been to the IRA, a political recruiting serjeant.
Her thin-skinned reaction to the RHI crisis cost her credibility amongst voters who care as much about competence as they do about the tribal head-count. The siege based “vote for me or the Union gets it” works, but it has a ceiling.
In its heartlands, DUP voters either stayed at home or flipped.
So what happened to the seemingly invulnerable DUP? The simplest way is to look at how they failed to hold on to all but one of their firewall three-seaters: South Antrim (-3.8%), East Antrim (-0.9%), North Antrim (-2.4%), East Londonderry (-3.3%) North Belfast (-2.9) and Lagan Valley (-5.9%).
The coup de grace was in Fermanagh South Tyrone where Foster’s own running mate fell to a 2.8% drop in the party vote, and humiliatingly for those now calling for unionist unity, the second unionist MLA only came in on SDLP transfers.
Overall the vote held, with an aggregate loss of just 1.1%.
Lagan Valley offers a clue to the nature of their troubles. Poll topper Paul Givan’s decision to cut the Liofa programme before Christmas inflamed the passions of many who barely give the language the time of day, but was rewarded by a socially conservative base who appreciated the cut of his jib.
It was this narrowing of the party’s recently achieved broad appeal that brought it below the 30 seats and put it uncomfortably close to Sinn Fein. In Lagan Valley this meant voters rolled the shutters down on Brenda Hale, their only candidate with a broad appeal, rewarding the SDLP instead.
If the party thought voters would be afraid to vote nationalist after their voluble attacks on the UUP leader for saying he’d transfer out of the family, they weren’t discouraged in south Antrim either where both unionist parties dropped vote share, the UUP by 1.4%.
In May 2003, when the Assembly elections were put on the long finger pending negotiations over IRA decommissioning we published A Long Peace. The last few sentences seem relevant:
1066 and All That tells us that the English Civil War was ‘an extremely memorable struggle between the Cavaliers (Wrong but Romantic) and the Roundheads (Right but Repulsive).’
In future struggles, unionists need to be both right and attractive. For that, a firmer, bolder, more far-sighted unionism will be needed. In a ‘long peace’, after all, people must want the Union for it to survive.
We await to see what comes out in the Public Inquiry on RHI twelve months hence. I suspect it will take a far more positive view of Mrs Foster’s role in the whole affair and her party’s belated but relatively effective attempts to fix it than either the media or the voting public has given them credit for.
“Right but Repulsive” may hold on to enough votes to win, but it doesn’t grow them. In greater Belfast, the party has found much to its cost that whatever grip it thought it had achieved with the Protestant middle class has melted like snow off a ditch in the course of one short election.
The contrast with a year ago when we were asking if the only way was up for the DUP is stark. Their best hope is a period of stasis to cool things off while they recover and figure out exactly just what went wrong.
Only time will tell if they are actually capable of putting things right.
You can pick up all the post election profiles here.