Page last updated at 20:56 GMT, Monday, 8 June 2009 21:56 UK

Who hit and who missed Euro target?

By Mark Devenport
BBC NI political editor

Jim Nicholson
A jubilant Jim Nicholson celebrates with Owen Patterson

When the candidates, their supporters and election officials had all left the King's Hall in Belfast the only people still in the grounds were a group of archery enthusiasts trying to hit targets on a grassy area outside the hall.

On the face of it, three politicians hit the target in this election.

Sinn Fein's Bairbre De Brun, the Ulster Conservative Unionist Jim Nicholson and the DUP's Diane Dodds will be the only ones amongst the field of seven booking flights to Brussels and Strasbourg.

However, the cheers and whoops which greeted the defiant speech from the Traditional Unionist leader Jim Allister made it clear that, despite his defeat, the anti-power unionist had still hit the bullseye.

Mr Allister was the only high profile DUP politician to quit the party after Ian Paisley did his deal with Gerry Adams in 2007.

For the past two years he has proved the sternest critic of his erstwhile colleagues, accusing them of selling out their principles in order to take ministerial office at Stormont.

The DUP hit back, accusing Mr Allister of being out of touch.

Their strategists must have regretted the moment five years ago when they decided to invite the articulate barrister back to frontline politics after two decades in which he had concentrated on his legal career.

They had assumed he would be a worthy successor to Ian Paisley as an MEP. Instead he turned into their toughest opponent.

At the start of this campaign most observers thought the outgoing MEP might get 30,000 to 40,000 votes.

One DUP official dismissed him as "a minor irritation".

But as the campaign gathered momentum expectations mounted, and most estimates climbed to 50,000 plus. In the end, the TUV took more than 66,000 votes, all of them apparently at the expense of the DUP.

In a rumbustious speech Mr Allister promised to build on this in the forthcoming Westminster and Assembly elections.

Humbled after a series of election successes, the DUP are promising to work out how to reconnect with their lost voters.

'Perfect storm'

The British and Irish governments will be watching anxiously to see if the party goes cold on power sharing and shifts back towards it old "never, never, never" posture.

At the count, however, senior DUP figures were rejecting this route as a cul-de-sac.

Instead they undertook to try to sell the benefits of devolution to disillusioned unionists.

They blamed the TUV success on a "perfect storm" for Mr Allister the main ingredients of which were the Westminster expenses saga which impacted on the DUP as the biggest Westminster party in Northern Ireland and public concern about "double jobbing", short hand for MPs holding second jobs as MLAs.

They didn't mention the limitations of their candidate, Diane Dodds, when facing Jim Allister in debate, but all the other parties reckoned this was a factor.

So the stage is set for future TUV/DUP showdowns, with a potential battle royal between Jim Allister and Ian Paisley Junior in the North Antrim seat in the next General Election.

But of course this is not a two-way fight.

Also in the race will be the Ulster Unionists, now reborn as a result of their link up with David Cameron's Conservatives. After a long period taking a battering from the DUP, it was a sweet victory for the Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force.

They saw their candidate Jim Nicholson slightly increase his percentage vote and must have taken satisfaction at the sight of the DUP being mauled by the TUV in much the same way that David Trimble used to be baited by Ian Paisley.

In this election the three-way unionist split enabled Sinn Fein, without increasing their percentage vote, to emerge as the largest party.

If they reproduced this performance at the 2011 Assembly election, Martin McGuinness would be in line to be First Minister.

For republicans that might constitute hitting the bullseye, but such a development would test to the limit the DUP's commitment to power sharing at Stormont.



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