No love lost as bitter Unionist rivals face off...and no change at polls either
Expect a brutal campaign in the run-up to next May's Assembly election, with civil war within unionism - and the same result as before
The UUP has had a very good two months since Mike Nesbitt surprised everyone with his statement that he was "going to withdraw from the Executive, to form an opposition and offer people an alternative, as is the way in any proper democracy".
The DUP, who didn't see it coming, has had a very bad two months in which they resembled rabbits in kaleidoscopic headlights and gave Baldrick a run for his money when it came to cunning plans and nonsense on stilts.
Nesbitt was almost cocky at the UUP's annual conference on Saturday. He was enjoying himself during his speech and played the audience for every laugh, cheer and round of applause.
They, in turn, were also loving it, because this is the first time since the mid-1990s that they are a few months away from an election in which they are pretty confident about gaining votes and picking up seats.
And there were many in that audience who want revenge - and there really is no other word for it - for the abuse that was heaped upon them by a DUP which is, as one delegate put it to me, "now doing far worse than Trimble ever did by jumping straight back into an Executive which Peter Robinson thinks has IRA army council members and input".
All of this unsettles the DUP. They can put up with the rough and tumble from the TUV, PUP and Ukip, because they don't regard them as a serious electoral threat.
But a UUP revival is of concern to them, because if the UUP is looking like a credible alternative - in other words, people think it's no longer a wasted vote - then there may be an awful lot of voters who could decide to settle their own scores with the DUP.
And that includes TUV, PUP, Ukip and others (plus UUP voters who switched to the DUP post-1998) who may not have their own candidates to vote for.
All of which means that we could have a fairly brutal intra-unionist election campaign between now and next May. Jim Allister, Billy Hutchinson and David McNarry don't want their parties to suffer as a consequence of a UUP revival, so expect them to be putting the boot into Nesbitt and reminding people of the "rollover unionism" of 1998-2005.
Given what it's had to do since 2007 - and particularly over the last 10 days - the DUP will be reluctant to play the "rollover unionism" card, but it will remind people that a shredding of the pro-Union vote could see Martin McGuinness or Gerry Kelly in the role of First Minister.
In one sense it would hardly make a button of difference if it were McGuinness rather than someone from the DUP (and I'm assuming that Robinson won't be standing at the election) as First Minister, because there is still the veto. But having to serve as deputy to McGuinness would be a huge psychological/political problem for any unionist leader and I think the DUP will play and keep on playing the, "If you don't want McGuinness or Kelly then the only realistic way of preventing it is to vote DUP" card.
How do Nesbitt, McNarry, Allister and Hutchinson counter that argument? It would be a very brave unionist leader who utters the words, "If a shredding of the vote leads to McGuinness as First Minister then so be it - I would serve as his deputy."
Also, I have no doubt that there will be many, many unionists unhappy with the DUP who will still "hold their noses" and vote DUP first before working their way down the ballot paper.
But how likely is it that we'll see the sort of DUP collapse that the UUP and others think is possible? Well, all of the electoral evidence suggests that the DUP is still strong. Their average vote in the five elections since the 2011 Assembly election is 167,642: compared to UUP (97,786), TUV (30,044), Ukip (11,767) and PUP (6,034). In other words, it would take a downturn of crash-level dimensions for the DUP to be eclipsed, let alone run close by the UUP.
So, how about another question: how likely is it that the DUP (38 seats) would lose enough and Sinn Fein (29) gain enough to put Martin McGuinness into office as First Minister?
That gap may seem small but, as I say, it would require an absolutely dreadful performance by the DUP, along with an absolutely spectacular one by Sinn Fein.
But it suits the interests of both parties to play up the possibility of the gap being closed, so we can expect another polarising campaign between two parties who know that they will still be stuck with each other when the election is over.
Unless, of course, they cut a deal in the next few weeks that they are both happy to promote and commit to delivering during the next Assembly. Yet the fact that the five unionist parties are pretty sure that the DUP is going to remain top dog means that they will be knocking 10 bells out of each other from now until next May. Just this week, the DUP was pointing out that former/existing UUP members Lords Trimble, Laird, Taylor, Maginnis, Empey and Rogan either voted for or were absent during the vote on "Osborne's tax credit raid that will harm 100,000 people in Northern Ireland."
It's worth noting, of course, that this line of attack suggests that the DUP and Sinn Fein are going to sort out their impasse on welfare fairly soon.
But the problem with all of this is that unionists attacking each other actually does long term damage to unionist morale. Yes, there is an argument that greater choice leads to more pro-Union votes, but it clearly doesn't lead to cohesion or coherence.
And if the UUP does, as I suspect it will, go back into the Executive after the election (if they get enough seats for two ministries then I'd be very surprised if they turned down the chance to get their hands on education), then we still won't have a "unionist alternative" propping up an Opposition. Indeed, we probably won't even have an opposition worthy of the name.
So it looks like the usual sort of showdown for the next few months: unionists fighting other unionists, the DUP and Sinn Fein fighting each other, the SDLP and Sinn Fein tearing lumps out of each other and the rest being ignored.
And when the dust has settled I'll be very surprised if the five existing parties aren't sitting around the Executive table and having the same sort of arguments they've been having for years.
But, hey, it's what they call "stability" around here.