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If Northern Ireland's big two can't talk, they will lose the house

By David Gordon

So, there you go. After all that, the two big parties are still on top.Sinn Fein have had a great election, bringing to mind Gerry Adams's maxim of never wasting a crisis.

They've got their vote out and managed the succession from Martin McGuinness to Michelle O'Neill with impressive aplomb.

The SDLP have been squeezed yet again and People Before Profit don't look like much of a problem any more.

The DUP have emerged bloodied, but unbeaten. It could have been a lot worse for them, given the campaign's starting point with the RHI story at full blaze.

The now-departed Mike Nesbitt wanted this election to be a referendum on RHI.

The results show that certainly wasn't the case on the unionist side. If it had been, Jonathan Bell wouldn't have been sent packing by the voters of Strangford.

The UUP look like the big losers of this campaign.

If it can't eat into the DUP vote in these circumstances, then when?

To be fair to Nesbitt, he and the party faced a long-term problem carving out a place for themselves on the political spectrum.

In his relatively short political career, he had been part of the Tory-UUP UCUNF experiment and been involved in pacts with the DUP.

Then he tried opposition and a link-up with the SDLP - the "Vote Mike, Get Colum" experiment.

That clearly hasn't helped either party, so what's left?

The fact that Sinn Fein has come within a whisker of topping the overall poll is bound to alter unionist thinking.

Turnout will occupy a lot of unionist minds in future elections.

But in the immediate future, there's the not-so-small matter of whether the Assembly and Executive can be put back together again.

It looks a big ask, with a string of major issues waiting on the talks table to be addressed.

To take but one: just how do you resolve Brexit to the satisfaction of parties firmly on either side of the debate?

Clearly, there are also relationships to be built or rebuilt if power-sharing is to be saved.

It's surely pretty difficult to negotiate on something as intangible as relationships.

Looming over everything is the threat of direct rule.

You can bet whatever you have that James Brokenshire and Theresa May don't want to take charge. They have enough on their plate with Brexit for a start.

But they may have to.

The absence of a Budget means that the current limbo with no Executive can't last indefinitely.

The DUP and Sinn Fein won't want direct rule either.

London Tories in charge is not what Sinn Fein voters were flocking to the polls for yesterday. The DUP, meanwhile, will not be too trusting of the Northern Ireland Office.

So the question is: what are the two parties prepared - and, indeed, able - to do in the talks to stop direct rule happening?

Their support bases want fundamentally opposing things in politics - so much so that Stormont power-sharing can feel like managing and suppressing contradictions.

That's hardly the best way to govern. But it's all we've got and can be viewed as the least-worst alternative.

The two big parties have had a nasty split.

But, in this case, a full divorce means that they both lose the house.

There is, of course, still the possibility of another election if the talks hit stalemate. Who's up for it? Anyone?

Don't all rush at once.

David Gordon is the former Executive Press Secretary

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