Election: Nicholas Whyte – DUP likely to drop seats but stay top

News Letter election supplement front page, April 28 2016
News Letter election supplement front page, April 28 2016

This is the lead story to the 12-page election supplement, which is in the shops:

The DUP are likely to remain the largest single party at Stormont.

The last time their vote decreased over an electoral cycle was at the last Assembly election 2011, and that only by a whisker, from 30.1% in 2007 to 30.0% five years ago.

Since then, they posted modest upticks for the local government and Westminster elections in 2014 and 2015, and a slightly larger gain in the European Parliament election in 2014.

At the same time, it would be extraordinary if the DUP did not drop a couple of seats. With fewer first preference votes in 2011 than 2007, they managed to elect 38 MLAs, a net gain of two – 35% of the seats with 30% of the votes.

On the numbers alone, I can see several constituencies where if the dice should roll slightly differently, the DUP will need a robust defence to keep their last seat – these include South Antrim, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Lagan Valley, North Belfast, East Antrim, maybe South Down. The most likely challenging party in each case is the Ulster Unionist Party, though I can see the PUP in with a chance in North Belfast and TUV in East Antrim.

Of course, the DUP could well lose half a dozen seats and still be the largest single party in the Assembly, with the right to nominate the First Minister. This is probably not their preferred outcome.

In the 2011 Assembly, the UUP got their worst ever election result, winning just 16 seats with 13.2% of the vote. (They did rather better in the simultaneous local government elections).

Since then they have posted an almost equally poor result in the 2014 European election, on the same day as a further modest step forward at local government level, and last year’s Westminster election saw the dramatic election of Tom Elliott and Danny Kinahan in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and South Antrim, though the overall vote share was stable once one allows for electoral pacts.

Perhaps a minimum threshold for success for the UUP this year is to repeat the Westminster success by gaining Assembly seats in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and South Antrim from the DUP, along with retrieving the seat won by the late David McClarty in East Londonderry last time after the UUP deselected him and those lost by defection in Strangford, Lagan Valley and South Down.

A UUP optimist could be excused for seeing additional prospects in North Belfast, East Antrim, and maybe even a second in Lagan Valley, all from the DUP (though in East Antrim there is another possibility). A net gain of three would be decent enough.

Of the smaller unionist parties, Jim Allister’s TUV has now weathered an electoral cycle. An excellent European election result, 12.1%, and a decent local election result of 4.5% did not really translate to the Westminster elections where they got only 2.3%. My instinct is that in last year’s Westminster contest, UKIP gained support from a number of voters who had voted TUV in 2014; and that they will be more inclined to vote TUV again this year.

I would expect Jim Allister to be safe enough in North Antrim, with a chance of bringing in a running mate in East Antrim, and/or just possibly East Londonderry or South Down. The PUP, going by the 2014 local elections, have a chance in North Belfast and possibly East Belfast.

On the nationalist side, it is noteworthy that the overall combined vote for the SDLP and Sinn Fein has decreased at each election in the last five years. Sinn Fein’s vote share has fallen (not by much, admittedly) at every election since 2011; the SDLP’s vote share has fallen at every election since 1997.

To start with Sinn Fein, who won 29 seats with 26.9% of the vote last time: the only two potential gains I can see are in Upper Bann and Foyle, both from the SDLP and both quite a stretch. On the other hand, three seats are clearly under pressure – the third seat in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, gained from the SDLP by a mere 62 votes last time; the fifth seat in West Belfast, which will face a serious challenge from Gerry Carroll of People Before Profit – or possibly even the DUP, if unionist turnout matches its levels in the local government election – and East Antrim, where Alliance came within a whisker of taking the seat won by SF last time.

Colum Eastwood, the new SDLP leader will need to demonstrate that the comeback starts now; that means at the very least holding the 14 seats won in 2011 with 14.2% of the vote, and if possible adding to that score.

Fermanagh and South Tyrone really should be within reach; so should a gain in Strangford, where the SDLP have been runners-up in every election since the Good Friday Agreement. It is easier to point to vulnerabilities than potential gains: the second seat in South Belfast will be tough to defend (though it’s equally difficult to see who might gain it), seats in West Belfast, Upper Bann and Foyle are under pressure from SF and the left, North Belfast looks wobbly if the party has yet another bad year, and once again there is local trouble in West Tyrone. It’s quite a challenge.

Alliance’s electoral record has been solid over the last cycle, with a small downtick in the 2014 local elections offset by bigger up-ticks elsewhere, and Naomi Long gaining the party’s highest ever vote in a Westminster election in East Belfast last year, though it was not enough to retain the seat.

In 2011 I doubted the wisdom of Alliance running a second candidate in either North Down or East Antrim; in both cases they came within 100 votes of winning a second seat, which demonstrates that it is always difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. One does not have to be too starry-eyed to see prospects also in South Belfast and North Belfast, unless the SDLP can reverse their recent decline.

It’s worth noting how few of these marginal seats are marginal across the community divide. I see only one Unionist seat, in Strangford, which is a serious prospect for a nationalist gain; there are a few more nationalist-held seats which could go the other way, or to Alliance.

Unless there is a hidden groundswell of latent nationalist voters, the 2016 Northern Ireland Assembly is likely to be a reaffirmation of the constitutional status quo.

Perhaps Northern Irish politics has reached a new normal.

• Nicholas Whyte has run the Northern Ireland Elections website since 1998. He is a Visiting Professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences in Ulster University and works as a Senior Director at APCO Worldwide in Brussels

More stories from the election will be put on here later on Thursday and on Friday