The election of exactly five years ago was very much as “as you were” election, with very few seats changing hands and the DUP and Sinn Fein given a clear renewed mandate with two thirds of Assembly seats between them. A calamity in Ulster Unionist selection also handed the Alliance Party its first Executive seat “as of right”.
Within Unionism, which picked up one seat overall, the story was subtle and on the margins. The DUP’s growth (based on an aggressive campaign to secure the First Minister’s position for Unionism) continued at the expense of the Ulster Unionists in the half of constituencies in and around Belfast, but in fact it lost votes to other Unionists in rural and border areas. Although neither Dawn Purvis nor her successor as PUP candidate could hold on to a seat, the Ulster Unionists threw away a seat to their former incumbent David McClarty (running as an Independent) in East Londonderry, and Jim Allister edged home for the TUV’s first ever seat in neighbouring North Antrim.
On the Nationalist side, the Unionist story was mirrored – Sinn Fein continued to grow away from Belfast and the suburbs but lost some ground inside them (though ultimately not, in fact, to other Nationalists). The SDLP’s decline was not halted by Margaret Ritchie, the new Leader (and first female Leader of an Executive party). Nationalists actually lost a seat despite supposedly favourable demographics – a trend which began to speed up in subsequent elections.
The Alliance Party was disappointed not to pick up more than one seat after its Westminster breakthrough the previous year, but did emerge as the third largest party in the nine Greater Belfast constituencies in terms of vote share and took the last Ministry from the Ulster Unionists. Despite a difficult election for other parties, the Greens (now with a single Leader, Steven Agnew) held on to their only seat in North Down.