What a difference a year makes. This time one year ago Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Peter Robinson lost his Westminster seat, his wife had been involved in a scandalous sexual affair with a much younger man, and his career appeared in tatters.

Fast forward to last Saturday, and a triumphant Robinson emerged from the Northern Ireland Assembly elections with an enhanced mandate and a new term as Northern Ireland’s first minister.

Consider the grace note of Robinson’s speech as he dedicated it to the brave young Catholic policeman Ronan Kerr, who lost his life in a dissident IRA bomb attack last month.

This a new and improved version of Peter Robinson, humbled by his recent troubles but clearly a better political leader as a result of them.

He replaced Ian Paisley as head of the DUP, and now appears to be filling those shoes with political acumen and integrity.

Consider too Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, whose party received yet another boost and won an increased number of seats in the election, once again proving that the Sinn Fein/DUP partnership now utterly dominates Northern Irish politics.

With Sinn Fein recently polling very well in the Irish Republic and now once again in Northern Ireland, can there be any doubt any more that their turn towards politics and away from violence has been incredibly successful?

Consider the losers on all sides. The dissident IRA members come first. They have tried to wreck the current coalition, but now see it return more dedicated and united than ever.

It’s noticeable that they failed to field any candidates of their own, knowing full well that the vast majority of Northern Ireland residents want nothing to do with their bombs or bullets.

Consider too the Ulster Unionist Party, which once ran the state as its own private fiefdom. Their leaderTom Elliot is a hardliner who saw his party’s vote collapse. He was then was reduced to referring to Sinn Fein supporters as “scum” in his post- election remarks.

Consider too the Traditional Ulster Voice party which secured all of one seat, that of party leader Jim Allister, and that came in the very final count.

So what we have is a clear playing field for the foreseeable future in Northern Ireland, a strong and effective partnership government which must face up to the many economic and social issues that confront the state.

Those issues are not going away, nor are the dissident IRA forces that will grow increasingly more desperate to make an impact as they see the political relationships bedding down.

Even the fact that a lower percentage of voters than usual went to the polls last week sends its own signal about normality and the lack of a pressing sectarian agenda on either side.

All good news then, but the price of peace is eternal vigilance. There are still many obstacles to overcome before Northern Ireland society is out of the woods.

The 2011 Northern Ireland Assembly elections are now in the books, and they have once again pointed

Northern Ireland towards a brighter future with a clear recognition by voters that a cross-party, cross-community agreed government is the way forward.

That can only be good news.

Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson