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General election 2017: what to look out for in Northern Ireland

The polling looks decidedly ordinary, but there are several fascinating contests in store. Could Nigel Dodds be dethroned by Sinn Fein?

By Patrick Maguire

Could we be set for a paradigm shift in Northern Ireland? Not according to LucidTalk, the province’s sole polling house. Its eve of the election survey predicts that just one seat will change hands: Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the hyper-marginal currently held by the Ulster Unionists, is projected to fall to Sinn Fein.

The headline figures are broadly as we would expect them to be. The Democratic Unionist Party, which holds eight of Northern Ireland’s 18 Westminster seats, top the poll on 28.9 per cent, followed by Sinn Fein, which holds four, on 28.1 per cent. The moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, which holds three, is on 13.8 per cent, while the Ulster Unionists, who hold two, are on 15.4 per cent. 

Of course, the unionist-nationalist split in the Northern Irish electorate means those figures aren’t necessarily all that helpful by themselves. Much more interesting are the pollster’s seat predictions. With the exception of outgoing UUP MP Tom Elliot in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, no incumbent is given less than a 55 per cent chance of holding on, while 10 of the 18 candidates are given a 100 per cent chance of re-election.

The election-on-election change figures for each party’s vote share are more noteworthy, but still not all that surprising. There is evidence of the “reverse crocodile” effect I suggested could boost unionism when Theresa May announced the election in April. The DUP, badly bruised in March, are up 0.8 per cent on their assembly election performance, while the UUP are up 2.5 per cent. The figures are even more heartening for the DUP when compared to 2015. By that metric, they are up 3.2 per cent. 

Meanwhile Sinn Fein – who surged both in terms of vote share and seats at the last assembly election – have consolidated their position: up 0.2 per cent on March, and up 3.2 per cent on 2015. And the SDLP, who confounded expectations by holding firm in terms of both seats and vote share in March, are up 1.9 per cent since the Stormont poll, as one would expect them to be, given the historical importance of tactical voting in each of their constituencies.

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The overall picture, then, seems to broadly be one of consolidation: not all that conducive to high drama. But though the top line figures may look unexciting, closer analysis of LucidTalk’s data suggest there could still be surprises – if not shocks – in store for election night. So what might the numbers mean in practice?

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Up or down for the DUP?

There is little reason to believe that this election will be as bad a night for Unionism Plc as March’s assembly poll was. The ten seats the DUP lost then were largely priced in, due to the overall reduction in seats from 108 to 90. Its vote share held up overall – as have its polling numbers – and the majority of its Westminster seats are safer than safe. 

Though LucidTalk’s findings suggest Arlene Foster remains widely distrusted (even among Protestants), she has by no measure had a bad campaign. She and her party have, adroitly, cast this election as a referendum on Northern Ireland’s place in the union.

That, and the pronounced dip in the UUP’s polling numbers – down 0.3 per cent since May and 0.6 per cent since 2015 – could well deliver them a hold in East Belfast, where Gavin Robinson faces an energetic challenge from his Alliance predecessor Naomi Long, and in South Belfast, where Emma Pengelly is attempting to overturn an SDLP majority of just 906. LucidTalk gives the moderate nationalists’ Alasdair McDonnell a 60 per cent chance of holding on, but a four-way split in the pro-Europe vote and Ukip’s decision not to run could let the DUP in.

They stand a very good chance too of gaining South Antrim, which they lost in 2015. The UUP’s Danny Kinahan is defending a majority of just 949 and the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice, who won 1,908 votes in 2015, are not standing.  And while the UUP could well lose their only other seat – the perennial marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone – to Sinn Fein, the wipeout of fellow unionists would not necessarily be mourned by the DUP. This is because the latter could make two gains, which would result in 11 unionist MPs, 10 of them DUP, would remain (plus independent Sylvia Hermon in North Down). This would increase the value of their Commons stock exponentially, and allowing them to wield even more influence with the Northern Ireland Office. 

But what if the DUP lose seats after all? This scenario appears unlikely. Even if they do, they will likely be cancelled out by gains elsewhere. Gavin Robinson won handsomely in Belfast East in 2015. LucidTalk give him a 55 per cent chance of holding off the challenge of Alliance leader Naomi Long, a Snapchat lover and self-styled “ginger ninja” who sensationally defeated then-Northern Ireland first minister Peter Robinson in 2010 before losing it to the younger Robinson (no relation) in 2015. 

In neighbouring Belfast North, home of the party’s formidable Westminster leader Nigel Dodds, the DUP faces another high-profile challenge that could provide one of the biggest upsets of the night. The chances of Sinn Fein’s John Finucane – son of Pat, the human rights lawyer murdered by loyalist paramilitaries at the height of the Troubles – have been talked up by some, especially given the absence of popular SDLP assembly member Nichola Mallon on the ballot.

The arithmetic, however, appears to be loaded in Dodds’s favour. Every 2015 SDLP and Alliance voter would have to back Finucane for the incumbent Dodds to lose, which, given the longstanding toxicity of the Sinn Fein brand, isn’t going to happen. But the demographics of the constituency are shifting. One stat from LucidTalk’s findings stands out: nationalists and republicans score markedly higher (96 per cent) on likelihood to vote compared to unionists and loyalists (86 per cent). So one scenario cannot be discounted entirely: the perception that Dodds’s stronghold is finally winnable bringing out more republicans than ever before.  

Can Alliance redraw the political map of Belfast?

The cross-community party are hopeful of making two gains: in DUP-held Belfast East and SDLP-held Belfast South. Can they do it? The jury is very much out: and if a since-deleted blogpost by Alliance notable Ian Parsley would indicate even true believers doubt their chances (he suggested the DUP would win both, but has since revised his prediction to two Alliance wins). Long is the bookies’ favourite in East, where she topped the poll in the assembly elections, but might well struggle to overturn Robinson’s 2,597 majority.

I profiled the contest in Belfast South for last week’s NSand though Alliance’s Paula Bradshaw is running an energetic campaign, many constituents subscribe to the view that the race is fundamentally a two-horse one between Alasdair McDonnell and Emma Pengelly (LucidTalk gives McDonnell a 60 per cent chance of holding on).

It is not inconceivable, however, that Bradshaw might do cause an election night shock. Sinn Fein, who won the most first prefence votes in South Belfast in March’s assembly election, is fighting hard, and could well eat into the SDLP’s base. But with Alliance having finished 2,849 votes behind the SDLP in 2015, it is difficult to envisage an obvious route to victory. The campaign has been among the most bitterly contested in Northern Ireland and it is likely that Bradshaw will find the constituency’s 2,238 Green voters much harder to woo than expected and the centrist elements of McDonnell’s base more resilient. The SDLP are quietly confident of victory but if the arithmetic favours anyone at their expense it is the DUP, not Alliance.   

In both cases, the UUP vote will be decisive. It is tempting to overplay the importance of the middle U – for unionist – and assume it will flock wholesale to the DUP. However, the party’s assembly election pitch was a consensual one that advocated power-sharing with the SDLP. Alliance’s hope is that those voters who backed the UUP in the hope of a new kind of politics in Stormont – riven by sectarian posturing – will transfer their allegiance to them. But it remains to seen just how soft the softer unionist elements of the UUP’s base, or, indeed, anywhere near enough of them exist to carry Alliance from no seats to two. 

Can the SDLP resist the Sinn Fein surge?

The SDLP, who hold South Belfast, South Down, and Foyle, could potentially be in for a grim night. By LucidTalk’s reckoning, two of its three seats are among the most at risk of changing hands. Margaret Ritchie’s chances of holding South Down have fallen to 55 per cent, while Alasdair McDonnell is on 60 per cent. Sinn Fein believe they have Ritchie on the run, and the Republicans also believe they are in with a shot in McDonnell’s seat (unlikely, but any increase in their vote will likely come at the SDLP’s expense).

Counterintuitively, Ritchie is arguably the more at risk of the two, despite her majority being six times the size of McDonnell’s. The perception that the race in Belfast South is a straight fight with the DUP has helped shore up McDonnell’s position, while Ritchie faces a trickier green-on-green fight. 

Sinn Fein won the most number of first preferences in South Down in March, as was the case in Foyle, though Mark Durkan is likely to win comfortably. The SDLP can take heart, however, from its leader Colum Eastwood’s strong performances in this week’s television debates. It also has a unique selling point, as the only anti-Brexit party likely to win Westminster seats (and the only nationalist party to take them: a significant factor I covered here). And, as LucidTalk point out, they are much more likely to attract support from softer unionists spooked by the possibility of a republican MP. 

The modest increases in the SDLP’s headline poll numbers since May reflect something that may well save its two at-risk MPs: plenty of nationalists – and inded unionists – who would not necessarily back them for the assembly are still willing to vote tactically to send the party to Westminster.

But Sinn Fein’s willingness to fight these seats harder than ever before reflects the fundamental truth both they and the DUP have acknolwedged: this election is a straight orange-on-green fight for dominance. A scenario where all but one of Northern Ireland’s 18 seats is held by both parties is on balance unlikely – but should not be ruled out. 

Now read why the results will matter should the Tories win a small majority