David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, lost his Westminster seat as his party support almost disappeared in the face of a challenge from the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party.
The UUP lost four of its five seats after the counts yesterday, leaving Mr Paisley as the unchallenged champion of the Unionist cause as the DUP soared to success in an election which also saw Sinn Fein advances.
For Mr Trimble the loss of his Upper Bann seat and the destruction of his party's Westminster representation means the end of a turbulent career which saw him serve as Northern Ireland's First Minister and win the Nobel peace prize.
The defeat of the party leader and three Westminster colleagues leaves the Ulster Unionists in a state close to ruin, with Lady Sylvia Hermon their only survivor. By contrast, the DUP will have nine MPs. The final tally of the 18 Northern Ireland seats is expected to be nine DUP, five Sinn Fein, three SDLP and one Ulster Unionist.
Mr Trimble lost the Upper Bann seat, which he has held since 1990, to the DUP's David Simpson, who taunted him that the era of "pushover Unionism" was over. Mr Simpson had a majority of more than 5,000. Gains by the DUP and Sinn Fein left the two parties in effective control of the political landscape.
The results confirmed the impression that the Ulster Unionist Party was badly organised while the DUP has fashioned itself into a professional electoral machine. On the nationalist side Sinn Fein confirmed its lead over the Social Democratic and Labour Party, its long-time rivals, with an increase from four to five seats.
But the SDLP will again have three Commons seats. The party pulled off a largely unexpected victory in South Belfast. Its candidate, Dr Alasdair McDonnell, who has been fighting the seat unsuccessfully for many years, benefited from a split in the Unionist vote.
UUP and DUP candidates shared 16,000 votes, the SDLP man taking the seat with 10,000. The two Unionist parties blamed each other for the loss of a traditionally Unionist seat to a nationalist party. Mr McDonnell said: "I want to thank the people of South Belfast who have sent a loud message that tribal politics is not the only way forward in Northern Ireland."
Major political figures such as Mr Paisley and Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein's president, scored their traditional easy victories, as did the DUP's sitting MPs Peter Robinson, Iris Robinson, Nigel Dodds and Gregory Campbell. The DUP's Sammy Wilson convincingly captured the East Antrim seat from veteran UUP politician Roy Beggs.
The results showed that incidents such as a major pre-Christmas IRA bank robbery in Belfast, as well as a fatal stabbing involving republicans, did not result in any electoral punishment of Sinn Fein.
At the start of the campaign Mr Adams dramatically announced that he had requested the IRA to commit itself to wholly peaceful means. The IRA response has not yet been announced, but some dramatic and convincing move is needed if the peace process is to be kick-started.Reuse content