Alarm bells for the DUP as their vote is eclipsed by Sinn Fein
Peter Robinson's party still has the biggest tally of council seats, but its support is showing signs of slippage, writes Liam Clarke
This is an election where the DUP felt the heat. Although it emerged with 130 local government seats, far more than any other single party, its vote has begun to decline and its seemingly irresistible rise has faltered – and possibly been thrown into reverse.
Overall, however, the council elections were predictable.
Four of the new 11 super councils, which will exist in shadow form alongside the existing 26, will be controlled by nationalists.
Six will be controlled by unionists and Belfast will be split.
Alliance, and smaller groups like the Greens and People Before Profit (who have one Belfast City councillor each), will hold the balance of power.
That will call for some complicated deal-making.
Most interest will focus on the splintering of the unionist vote and the continued decline of the SDLP fortunes, which lost 1.5% of its vote and whose Foyle Westminster seat is now vulnerable to Sinn Fein.
But first, to the unionists.
In cold hard terms the DUP is 34,535 votes down on the last council elections in 2011 and it has lost 4.1% of the popular vote.
The party will be looking nervously at next year's Westminster elections and will be on the hunt for deals with rival unionist groups like the UUP which has seemingly halted its 25-year decline with a rise of just under 1% or 742 votes.
It is a modest enough increase, but it was enough to put a bounce into the step of party activists.
"Simply, the DUP have peaked, the Ulster Unionists have bottomed out and are back on the rise, and the DUP couldn't handle it," crowed leader Mike Nesbitt.
"You couldn't annoy me today," tweeted Colin McCusker, their General Secretary yesterday. He attached the front page of the local edition of the Sunday Times which announced: "UUP back in the mix".
Mr McCusker won a seat himself on the new 'ABC super council' which takes in Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon
There was plenty more UUP craw-thumping on Twitter.
"DUP drop 35k votes since last Council election, SF drop 12k, SDLP drop 14k, and Alliance drop 7k. UUP total vote is up. DUP/UUP gap halves," tweeted Rodney McCune, rounding the figures for maximum impact. Mr McCune is the special adviser to Danny Kennedy, the UUP Minister for Regional Development.
Worse still, from a DUP point of view, their support has slipped well behind Sinn Fein, 6,209 votes, despite a drop in Sinn Fein's overall share of 0.7%.
The last time the DUP dipped below Sinn Fein, in the 2010 Westminster and European elections, it was dismissed as a blip.
Now it is beginning to look more like a trend.
If the DUP can't reclaim its position as the largest party, Sinn Fein will be entitled to the post of First Minister in 2016, a massive blow to unionist prestige.
The DUP worries about losing momentum, even for a moment.
When it was on a roll, it grew by mopping up smaller unionist parties and independents to rebuild the unionist monolith.
Now smaller groups are beginning to feed off it, just as it did with the UUP in the 1970s and 80s.
Jim Allister's TUV, for instance, had a great election. The total number of councillors across Northern Ireland has fallen because of local government reorganisation. Yet TUV representation has more than doubled – from six to 13 – and in percentage terms it more than doubled from 2% to 4.51%.
It now has bases in councils across Northern Ireland and can no longer be described as a one man band built around its leader's strong personality.
It will be a particularly bitter blow that Timothy Gaston of the TUV topped the poll in Ballymena's Bannside ward, the very place which Ian Paisley took as his title when he was elevated to the Lords.
The PUP has also popped up with three councillors, two of them poll toppers in Belfast and one in Coleraine.
Ukip has also entered the equation with three councillors.
The DUP is ruthless about these things.
It has considerable resources and talent which will now focus on next year's Westminster elections.
The concern now will be to try and find unity candidates in the hope of taking East Belfast off Alliance's Naomi Long and South Belfast from the SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell.
In contrast, the nationalist monolith that has built up around Sinn Fein has held up pretty well.
Its share of the vote is down marginally but the SDLP has been unable to capitalise on the bigger party's difficulties and has fallen a little further.
Where there has been slippage in Sinn Fein's vote, the beneficiaries seem to have been independent candidates.
There are, for instance, four in Londonderry and Strabane, including Gary Donnelly a republican dissident who topped the poll.
Sinn Fein is philosophical about this. "He will now have to put his arguments to the people and if there are attacks by the dissidents it will be his phone ringing," said Niall O Donnghaile, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Belfast.
Despite the battering it took over the flags dispute and the support for Irish unity expressed by its Euro candidate Anna Lo, Alliance seems to have weathered the storm with only a modest drop of 0.7% in its vote. It looks in good shape.
Even NI21 wasn't entirely snuffed out by the implosion that occurred in the closing days of its campaign. It got one councillor, Johnny McCarthy. The fact that he got elected with the help of both Ukip and Sinn Fein transfers shows the potential cross community market for a new party with fresh ideas. The main beneficiaries of NI21's meltdown were probably Alliance and the UUP.
As it is there will be more of a mix on the councils than before.
That will mean more diversity and more pressure to cut deals rather than dictate terms.
The responsibility for managing the system will still fall to the two big parties, and both have critical rivals snapping at their heels.
Winners, losers, risers and fallers: an in depth look at how the parties fared
Sinn Fein got the highest vote of any party in Northern Ireland and is also the largest party in both the Belfast and Derry and Strabane councils. However, vote management let it down so it emerged with 25 fewer seats than the DUP. The party lost out mainly to independents.
The effective DUP election machine maximised the impact of its vote and took 130 seats out of a total of 462 on all 11 councils. That’s an achievement — but there will be worries that the party's share of the popular vote is starting to slip. Expect long post mortems in its Dundela Avenue headquarters.
After a quarter of a century of decline the UUP has produced an increase in its vote. It hasn't simply moved to the right as some claim. Mike Nesbitt has harried the DUP from every angle and at every opportunity — just as the DUP chipped away at his party when the roles were reversed.
The slippage has continued for this nationalist party and though it is not a headlong decline there could be internal problems for its leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell. Some favour his deputy Dolores Kelly. It lost some good councillors, like Nichola Mallon in Belfast, though 40% of its representatives are now female.
The TUV hasn't hit the big time yet but it has made an impact. Strong performances on TV but its sole MLA and Euro candidate Jim Allister helped the profile. It has elected talented people who will be hard to dislodge. It can also hope for another MLA in the DUP's North Antrim heartland.
This has been a tough year for Alliance but it has emerged relatively unscathed. The flags dispute, when its offices were attacked by loyalists, and Anna Lo's musings on Irish unity may have transformed its image as a ‘unionist lite’ party and gained it seats in Newry and North Belfast.
A determined voter registration effort in loyalist working class areas has given the PUP its strongest ever presence in Belfast and a councillor in Coleraine. It is a complex party with left wing social policies as well as uncompromising loyalist credentials, so it is one to watch.
With just 0.88% of the vote this is a modest presence for the Greens. However it has a reasonable base to build from in North Down and Ards, where it got three seats on the new super council, partly at Alliance's expense. Its Euro candidate Ross Brown took one in Belfast.
Ukip hasn't reached the same dizzy heights as it did in England where it is the story of the election. It has just 1.48% of the vote here, and three councillors. Henry Reilly, a sitting councillor who is also standing for Europe, topped the poll with 1,964 first preference votes in the Mournes.
There may well be ructions on Derry City and Strabane Council when Gary Donnelly, a 32 County Sovereignty member, comes face to face with Sinn Fein across the chamber. There are three other independents adding to the mix on that council and a total of 15 across the province, including one People Before Profit member, socialist Gerry Carroll, in Belfast.