Even by Northern Ireland standards, the second Assembly Election, taking place in the dark and cold on Wednesday 26 November 2003, was bizarre – electing as it did a legislature which never actually sat as one.
The story was the emergence of the DUP as the largest party (led by Ian Paisley but in practice at Stormont by his deputy Peter Robinson), and of Sinn Féin as the largest Nationalist grouping at Stormont. This was expected, although the Ulster Unionists polled marginally better than predicted – their biggest problem came soon after the election, when three of their MLAs including Jeffrey Donaldson (who polled over 14,000 first preference votes on his own) defected to the DUP.
Within Unionism, the DUP overtook the Ulster Unionists primarily by sweeping up other Unionist seats and adding one to the Unionist total in Belfast West. The Ulster Unionists only lost one overall, but the DUP gained 10, leaving only two other Unionists (Robert McCartney and David Ervine) in the House. The Ulster Unionists actually remained the largest party in the Belfast Suburbs and narrowly outpolled the DUP in the Border area.
The SDLP was the only Executive party to change Leader between elections, to Finance Minister Mark Durkan. However, on the Nationalist side, positions were reversed exactly – the SDLP went from 24 down to 18 and Sinn Féin did precisely the opposite, generally outpolling its rival everywhere except the Belfast Suburbs.
There was also drama among the “Centre” bloc, with the Alliance Party (now led by David Ford after Seán Neeson’s brief tenure at the helm) suffering a near-death experience but clinging on to all six seats while the Women’s Coalition was wiped out – notably, given what was to come, Alliance newcomer Naomi Long only scrambled the last seat in East Belfast thanks to Mr Robinson’s determination to top the poll and consequent failure to split the DUP vote properly. However, the biggest story at the time within the bloc was the poll-topping performance of independent Health campaigner Dr Kieran Deeny in West Tyrone.
An oddity of the d’Hondt formula was that a relatively unchanged balance by designation saw Unionists pick up an Executive seat from Nationalists – not that it would ever matter.