Who knows what the future for DUP will hold at Westminster
Ukip's rise has shaken the Tories and Labour to such an extent that the DUP could end up holding the balance of power in London, writes Malachi O'Doherty. But while promising influence for Peter Robinson, it could also prove very risky for all concerned
Little parties are thinking big. And they are frank about it, where in the past they might have been coy. Peter Robinson told the DUP party conference at the weekend that his MPs might hold the balance of power after the next Westminster general election.
And so they might, with Ukip eating votes away from the two big players and threatening to change the political profile of the country.
The most recent example of a unionist party trying to hitch a lift to power and influence was UCUNF, the merger of the Ulster Unionists with the Tories that came to nothing, simply because the party was in such decline that not even telling voters it could be in government could charm them back.
The days when either Labour or the Conservatives could hope to rule alone appear to be over.
Either party, if it wants to form a government, is likely to have to recruit others into a coalition or at least into a working accommodation, a deal not to bring it down while it governs with a minority of seats.
That is how politics works in many other democracies, including one just 40 miles away from Belfast, and the UK has just joined the club.
And when small parties have the chance of grabbing the balance of power they can trade a very few seats for radical political change; at least that is what they hope to do. For politics is about trading power and influence.
In the past James Molyneaux, as UUP leader, was able to offer support to John Major on difficult votes around the Maastricht Treaty. That is how he secured a select committee to debate Northern Ireland affairs, but Major believed that Molyneaux was on side anyway to prevent Labour getting in and advancing a plan for joint sovereignty over Northern Ireland.
Unionists had also tried to use their influence over a vulnerable Labour Government in the Seventies to argue for a separate inflation index here.
So what might Peter Robinson charge for supporting the Tories if his assent looked like making all the difference and putting them in power or cutting them out if withdrawn?
Well, that is what David Cameron has already asked himself and his advisers no doubt.
He will have concluded, of course, that the DUP is hardly going to threaten to put Labour in charge - and that calculation weakens the hand that the DUP can play.
On the day the results come through, Cameron will talk to the party leader and discuss the shopping list.
Robinson has said that he will get the best deal for Northern Ireland, but what he really means is that he will get the best deal for the DUP.
He will need to get us out of the mess we are in over welfare reform, lifting the fines we pay for not implementing the changes and the cuts.
He will want, if he hasn't already got it by then, devolved powers for setting corporation tax, a measure that some business advisers think will be the making of us, and which others regard as suicidal.
And since we may still be up to our necks in stalled or sluggish talks on flags, parades and the past, he may want political cover for the DUP vision of how best to deal with these.
Robinson will have an eye not just to the threat from Sinn Fein, but also to the rise of Ukip and the TUV, and will want some symbolic indication that the tide has turned, something that humbles his enemies.
A complication there might be is that the Conservatives could also be in bed with Ukip in Westminster and the DUP would therefore have to be a little more attentive to the demands of its MLAs at home. All very interesting.
The best that Robinson might secure would be a coalition with the Tories and a seat for the party in the Cabinet.
There would be a price for that.
In an era in which ministers get sacked for lack of tact, a coalition with the Tories would put an end to Gregory Campbell's schoolboy antics and sneering at the Irish language.
This would be elevated to being the sort of issue that the London media would notice, and the party leader would have to deliver a stern "druid do bheal!"
And, while it might seem an attractive opportunity, coalition can be the death of a party. As the Lib Dems in England or Labour in the Republic well know. Gerry Adams once sniffed at the prospect of coalition by saying that the danger for the vanguard was that it might become the mudguard. The humiliation of having to lay down your coat for your former political enemy to walk over can be terminal.
Some in the DUP might be fantasising about the prospect of having one of their MPs appointed Secretary of State, but the Tories could exact any act of self-abasement from it for a prize like that, and would. More likely they wouldn't risk the upheaval it would cost here, and the DUP would be mad to ask for it anyway.
But the DUP isn't the only party dreaming of the chance to be the power broker in Westminster, the maker or destroyer of a government. This is Ukip's grand prospect, that it might force the Tories further right and throw some weight behind a 'no' vote in a referendum on membership of the European Union.
And Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish Nationalist Party leader, is looking at the possible opportunity to make a deal with Labour, put it in power and exact promises of legislating advanced devolution powers.
She may find herself in a much stronger position than the DUP.
Another prospect is that the balance between the parties will not require an ally with a large number of seats; it may require only one or two independents or small parties. When the counting is finished, Cameron may find that he doesn't need to risk being embarrassed by Gregory Campbell; Miliband may find that he doesn't have to shovel more money towards Scotland; a wee word in the ear of the Greens or the Alliance Party or the SDLP might be enough. Labour has probably forgotten that the SDLP's Gerry Fitt brought down Jim Callaghan's government by voting the wrong way in 1979 and ushered in Margaret Thatcher. This is not how it is shaping up, but it's possible.
It is also possible that Sinn Fein will sit on its hands through another round of deal-making, refuse to take the seats and squander the moment in which it might have put Labour in office and got its welfare reform deal for swallowing its pride.
All we know for now is that British politics has been transformed into the standard European model in which governments are formed out of coalitions and deals.
This makes it worthwhile to support small parties in the hope that they will get their day at the big table and state their price.
Robinson at least knows the rules of the game and is ready to play.