This election, to create a 110-strong forum to pave the way for all-party talks, was billed as the gateway to talks, an expression of the democratic will which would serve as a preliminary for far-reaching peace negotiations. But that was when there was an IRA ceasefire: now there is none, and unless one appears soon, the talks set for 10 June look like being severely limited in their scope.
Worse than this, from London's point of view, is the fact that support for the extremes seems to be holding up well. The Rev Ian Paisley is on the electoral rampage, while there is no sign that Sinn Fein is losing ground. This is not a promising basis for talks.
The election was asked for by David Trimble, the newish and electorally untested leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, and was called despite angry nationalist protests. His Unionist opponents sense some dismay in the Trimble camp that they, rather than he, will benefit from it - "We're making Trimble tremble," one of his rivals gloated.
The results, to be declared tomorrow, may yet confound everyone, but it has to be said that most of the electoral surprises of the past have not been pleasant - not a single poll is remembered by the moderate centre as a success. Rather, it has been a story of a steady diminution of the middle ground.
Elections tend to expose the grim geology of Northern Ireland politics, with a smallish island layer of middle-ground moderation forever pressed between the tectonic plates of Unionism and nationalism. And Mr Paisley is always around to provide spectacular, and generally highly effective, vulcanism.
Countries like South Africa can find elections uplifting and even joyous occasions, but in Northern Ireland the prevailing sense is of the voters trudging to the polls to do their tribal duty, an exercise in keeping the other side out rather than affirming a faith in democratic processes.
Unionists have traditionally liked elections, confident as they are that on a straight headcount they always win. But of late Unionist politicians complain that some of their people have become cynical and disillusioned with elections, and increasingly stay at home.
Nationalists, by contrast, have become increasingly organised, with both Sinn Fein and John Hume's Social Democratic and Labour Party building formidable machines. Two years ago, Mr Hume startled Mr Paisley by almost matching his traditionally gigantic European vote; Sinn Fein, meanwhile, notches up the highest percentage vote of any party in Belfast city council. The tectonic plates move slowly, but they do move.
The history of elections reflects the history of the Troubles: the 1969 victory for Bernadette Devlin, which showed nationalists could win elections; the meteoric rise of Mr Paisley, who captured a Westminster seat in 1970 and has held it since; the fragmentation of Unionism; the rise of Sinn Fein as an electoral force in the early 1980s. Soberingly, there have been two by-elections resulting from the murders of politicians.
But very often the real focus of events has lain elsewhere - in Anglo- Irish talks and, most of all, in the back streets' terrorist war. Elections themselves have made no apparent contribution to banishing the gunmen.
But this time there could yet be a happy ending. Once the election is out of the way some way might be found of reassuring republicans that the talks will be for real, and not simply about IRA arms de-commissioning. There might then be another ceasefire.
Sean O'Callaghan, page 19Reuse content