Ben Lowry: This election of MEPs is one of the most important contests ever held in Northern Ireland

For your vote to have maximum potential impact, it is important to vote well down the ballot paper because in a close contest your lower preferences might help one candidate defeat another
For your vote to have maximum potential impact, it is important to vote well down the ballot paper because in a close contest your lower preferences might help one candidate defeat another

Some voters might not be bothered about next week’s election in Northern Ireland to send three MEPs to Europe.

After all, elections to the European Parliament have some of the lowest turnouts of any elections.

This year, it is not even clear whether the MEPs will take their seats. If the UK passes a Brexit deal before the summer, its 73 MEPs will probably never sit.

If it leaves by October 31, the next Brexit deadline, they will only be sitting MEPs for a small number of weeks, given that the parliament will be in recess over the summer.

But this is in fact a crucial contest, from almost every perspective: from a unionist perspective, because the Union itself is at stake, and from a nationalist one, because Irish unity is on the agenda in a way that it wasn’t a mere four years ago.

From a pro European perspective a big vote for anti Brexit candidates across the UK is one way to put a brake on Britain’s departure, and a good result for them in Northern Ireland strengthens the case for special treatment. The opposite is true from a pro Brexit perspective.

Unionists have most at stake and stand to lose badly if Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement goes through.

The same is not true in reverse for republicans. The worst that can happen for republicans is that the constitutional status quo in Northern Ireland remains in place.

That, however, is the very best that can happen for unionists.

But if the backstop is formalised it is the biggest constitutional change since the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement, which gave Ireland a consultative role in the running of Northern Ireland.

I think the backstop is a small step towards limited joint authority in a specific set of areas.

Do not be fooled by the argument that the backstop is an insurance that will never be used. Once it is agreed, Dublin will veto any trade UK-EU arrangements that have any other outcome for the Province.

Therefore a large unionist vote will challenge the notion that the backstop has widespread support, and that even some unionists who voted Remain are now disillusioned with being in the UK due to Brexit.

There is a tiny fraction of unionists who might feel such alienation, and a larger number of Alliance Party voters (and even among the latter it is probably a minority).

But most of us unionists who voted Remain do not want our place in the UK to be softened in any way.

There are polls that purport to show that many unionists back a ‘soft Brexit’. They do if they are asked whether they support that option, unless they are asked whether they support a ‘soft Brexit that involves a border in the Irish Sea,’ in which case it is a very different response.

Here are two statistics to look out for in terms of unionist share of the vote in next week’s MEP election: 44.2% and 47.1%.

The three unionist candidates combined will need to poll above at least the lower of those two figures, and ideally the higher figure.

The first stat is the 44.2% who voted for Brexit in Northern Ireland. Its converse, the 56% who voted Remain, has been cited by ever since, as proof of a clear majority of the Province against departure from the EU.

If Diane Dodds, Jim Allister and Danny Kennedy get a combined higher share than that then they can say that the 2016 result in no shape or form has diminished the overall support for unionism.

They can even argue that support for Brexit has gone up since 2016 (Danny Kennedy, like his predecessor as Ulster Unionist MEP candidate, Jim Nicholson, was pro Remain but he says that the will of the people, ie Brexit, must be implemented).

The second statistic, 47.1%, is the mid point between the 41.6% vote share that unionist candidates got in the council elections earlier this month, and the 52.6% vote unionists got in the 2014 MEP election.

The latter was a good outcome for unionists, the former a poor one (an exact unionist and nationalist vote is impossible to calculate in a council election, given that there are scores of independent candidates, whose position on the constitutional question is often unclear).

If unionists get 47.1%+ of the Northern Ireland valid votes cast this coming Thursday, they will know that they have had a good election (by post 2015 standards).

If they get 50% of the vote or more, it will be an outstanding result. They will be able to say that a majority of voters in Northern Ireland want to implement Brexit, minus the backstop.

I think it will be extraordinarily hard for unionists to reach that level for two reasons.

First the Alliance surge, which is unlikely to go away given that the party is fielding its high-profile leader. If Alliance gets the 11.5% it got in the council contests, a unionist 50% share is almost impossible, because the nationalist share has to be below 38.5%.

That is almost inconceivable for the second reason, above, which is the motivated mood among nationalists over Brexit and Stormont disputes.

The time when nationalist voters were not much motivated, around 2010, is a distant memory.

The third MEP seat is up for grabs between four candidates: Naomi Long (Alliance), Jim Allister (TUV), Danny Kennedy (UUP), Colum Eastwood (SDLP).

I suspect Mrs Long will struggle to get quite enough first preferences to take the seat.

And while I have a hunch that Mr Allister will do well, because he is much more popular than his party and because he is there nearest thing NI has to a Brexit Party candidate, and will perhaps increase his 12% vote share of 2014, he will struggle to get enough transfers.

• Best to vote far beyond 1, 2, 3

Voters who want to have maximum influence in any election that uses the single transferable vote (STV) system should vote far down the ballot.

Voters who only vote 1, 2 and 3 cease to have any say in a very close election. Many times over the decades have I seen a close STV election count in which a tranche of votes are lost in each round of counting because some of the ballots can no longer transfer.

Some unionists or nationalists might never vote after they have exhausted their preferences within their own community, but by doing so they are in effect conceding that all the other candidates are equally objectionable, which is patently absurd.

I always go far down the ballot paper, because even though there will be plenty of candidates with radically different views to my own, some such ideological opponents are always more agreeable than others.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor