I've been recording Northern Ireland election results online in one form or another since 1994, and set up the main online elections archive in advance of the first Assembly elections under the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Back in 2001, I came over to Belfast the day after that year's Westminster election to cover the counts for RTÉ radio. The BBC approached me several months ago to check my availability for this year's election, and after the necessary discussion with my employer and family I agreed to do it; quite a long stretch away from home, with rehearsals on Saturday and Sunday, then a few days off (which I used for historical research at the other end of the island) before the night itself.
The rehearsals required my presence but not much of my intellect; it was mostly about the production team practising on the studio set-up. That in itself was rather interesting to watch. Most of my previous TV work has been straight interviews, either with a single cameraman or (less comfortably) down the line with a remote interviewer. Many many years ago I appeared on University Challenge, but that is a well-established, pre-recorded quiz show where we contestants were simply slotted into our seats for an hour (a few minutes of rehearsal and then the half-hour take). So this was the first time I had seen the actual creative process of a live TV show at close quarters.
What really struck me was the sheer number of people coordinating - three or four (or was it even five) cameramen, the sound guys, the technicians, the floor manager, the make-up artists coming by every so often to dab more foundation on my face, and of course I could not see or hear the hidden voices in the gallery who were giving instructions to the three BBC journalists who were fronting the show. I did meet the graphics and computer people who were all based in a large marquee constructed in the BBC's back yard, which was also where the production team held brief post-mortems on both days of rehearsals.
The studio was split into three sections; half of it was reserved for the BBC's Noel Thompson hosting a discussion for representatives of the political parties, the other half had Jim Fitzpatrick managing two separate panels - in one corner, three pundits talking about the results from the rest of the UK, and in the other corner (nearest the door, which oddly made me feel safer, as if I could run away and seek refuge when necessary) myself and Mark Devenport crunching the numbers as they came in - me doing the more numerical stuff, Mark reflecting on the political implications.
I did not find this difficult. I have been breathing Northern Irish elections for a long time; and there are only eighteen results to analyse (and one of those has yet to declare at time of writing). Indeed, the worst problem was when several declarations came in close together and we had to remember to go back and give decent coverage to those seats that might have got lost in the flurry.
Like everyone else, we had a couple of hours of doing very little except talking about the exit poll (issued to us under conditions of strict secrecy at a quarter to ten; none of us believed it, but it has turned out to be right). After the first three results came in from the northeast of England, the next two were both from Northern Ireland (though neither wasparticularly exciting). Then came the one huge surprise of the evening, more or less out of a clear sky: rumours and reports started reaching us that Northern Ireland's First Minister, Peter Robinson, was facing a closer race than expected in East Belfast; then that he was actually behind the Alliance Party's deputy leader, Naomi Long; and abruptly we got the result, that she had indeed won by over 1500 votes. It was, as ias was I think the first to describe it, Northern Ireland's very own Portillo moment. Naomi had doubled the Alliance vote from the 2007 Assembly election, and indeed trebled it from the 2005 Westminster electio; I hope I shall not be accused of bias towards an old friend and former colleague when I describe it as a stunning result.
After that, the next four hours were a matter of watching the results trickle in - I had access to the BBC's election info software which meant I could also keep tabs on the rest of the UK, in particular the generally lousy news for the Lib Dems and the failure of the Conservatives to make the breakthrough. People who follow me on Facebook and Twitter (where I am nwbrux) will have noticed that I also had full access to the internet. Mark Devenport, sitting beside me, was churning out blog entries for the BBC site.
When South Antrim was declared, Sir Reg Empey (who I had done a radio show with on Sunday) became another main party leader to fail at the polls, and it became very clear that for the first time ever, the UUP - despite their alliance with the Conservatives - would fail to win any seats at all in Northern Ireland. The UUP's representative in the studio, perhaps unwittingly, provided the show's one real soundbite of the night by predicting that Sir Reg's leadership was now over. He very firmly clarified that he was not calling for his leader to resign, simply stating the facts as he saw them; but really it comes to the same thing. (The DUP's representative in the studio, Arlene Foster, had meanwhile left early to go to her home constituency of Fermanagh-South Tyrone, where early indications were already of a very close result.)
We finished up with East Londonderry - delayed by an attempted bomb attack - at about 4.45, and I slipped across the road to my hotel; had literally just got between the sheets when the BBC phoned again to ask me to come back for their 7.30 news programme. At that stage it was in for a penny, in for a pound; I got about two hours sleep, then went back for the show (seven minutes or so live with Jim Fitzpatrick; by this stage I could do it on autopilot) and then went on to the Slugger O'Toole / Stratagem election breakfast at the Europa Hotel, nipping back again to the BBC for one more interview (jointly with Mark Devenport, on Radio Foyle). Leaving the building for the last time I was pleased to bump into Naomi and Michael Long in the foyer so that I could congratulate them in person.
So, noww I have an afternoon flight to Heathrow and an evening flight to Brussels, and then my life is back to normal. I'm lucky; for me it's only been a week, and the only stake I had was preserving my modest reputation as an expert on matters electoral. For many other people this election campaign has started, or ended, or fundamentally changed their careers. This morning, I feel for all of them, from all parties and from none. The democratic process is a cruel refining fire, and I'm not envious of those who choose to participate rather than observe.