Ben Lowry: Lagan Valley shows the challenges facing both unionism and Alliance

The much touted ‘Alliance surge’ is a very real political phenomenon and greatly exaggerated.

Saturday, 28th August 2021, 11:19 am
Updated Saturday, 28th August 2021, 12:57 pm
Will the former DUP leader Edwin Poots replace his successor Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, right, as Lagan Valley MP? Otherwise, there are set to be three high profile DUP candidates for Stormont in the constituency, which will be hard for them all to win

To see why both those statements are simultaneously true, you only need look at Lagan Valley constituency, which is in the news this week.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said that he intends to run for Stormont in the seat, which after all is a natural place for him to become MLA (and then, perhaps, first minister), because he has been MP there since 1997.

But Lagan Valley is also home to two of the highest profile DUP MLAs, Edwin Poots and Paul Givan.

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In fact, the likely DUP field in next year’s election could hardly be more eminent — two people who have led the party and one who is first minister of Northern Ireland.

Is this a plan with which all three are happy? That is not clear yet, although none of them is even hinting publicly at any discontent.

Such a contest would have been easy for the DUP only a few years ago.

There were then six MLAs in each constituency, and in Lagan Valley the party held four of them.

But then in 2016 the number of MLAs dropped to five per seat, and the DUP scraped three of the five in Lagan Valley.

Then in the unexpected 2017 Stormont election the party narrowly missed out on holding a third, and so it now has only two out of the five.

By contesting the 2022 race with three big hitters, the DUP thinks it can get three seats back — unless there is some other plan that means all three will not in fact run.

Such an alternative agenda might be related to the Westminster seat that Sir Jeffrey would have to vacate when he arrives in Stormont (requiring a by-election to replace him as MP, unless a change to the double jobbing rules allows him to keep both a House of Commons and an NI Assembly seat).

Edwin Poots this week expressed some interest in becoming an MP in London.

This is where things get tricky, and where the prospects of victory for the DUP become unclear.

For two decades, Lagan Valley has been a safe Westminster constituency for the DUP.

Suddenly in 2019, however, that security was thrown into doubt (see results panel below).

A majority of almost 20,000 for Sir Jeffrey in the 2017 general election, when he thrashed all of other candidates combined, was slashed to one of barely 6,000 over Alliance.

The swing of 17% was the largest DUP to Alliance swing in Northern Ireland, in an election in which there were large such swings from DUP to Alliance across almost all the constituencies.

But this is where the exaggeration of the Alliance surge comes in.

The scale of Sorcha Eastwood’s vote increase, from 5,000 for the Alliance candidate in 2017 to 13,000 two years later when she was Alliance nominee, has led to a couple of widely-held but dubious theories.

The first is that Alliance is a strong contender to win Lagan Valley. The second is that DUP voters are moving to Alliance in large numbers across the Province.

Alliance of course can win Lagan Valley, but it will be a very tall order.

The party would need the combined DUP-UUP vote (of 28,000 last time) to split almost evenly, and then it would also need to increase its vote by at least 1,000.

The latter of those two scenarios is quite plausible. The former is much more unlikely. But even the latter scenario is far from certain.

Alliance has had very great success in recent elections by its own past standards. In the three 2019 elections it averaged 16% of the overall Northern Ireland vote, having for most of its history had percentage results in the single digits.

But Alliance has had reverses as well as advances.

Naomi Long won the East Belfast Westminster seat in 2010 by 1,500 votes, almost held it in 2015 (falling 2,500 short of the DUP’s Gavin Robinson), but then fell massively behind Mr Robinson in 2017 (8,500 votes short) before almost catching him again in 2019, just 1,800 votes shy.

This shows that Alliance is subject to the turbulence that all the NI parties have experienced over the last decade. It is not guaranteed ever upward growth.

It is also clear from the results, as listed below, that about 2,200 of the 2019 Lagan Valley vote for Sorcha Eastwood came from 2017 nationalist or republican voters.

As in other constituencies, the movement towards Alliance came from nationalists, and not just from unionists. But both nationalist parties declined, whereas on the unionist side the Ulster Unionist vote went up in Lagan Valley by 1,100 votes, compared to 2017.

Thus the pattern of movement to Alliance was not replicated on both sides of the tribal divide.

On the nationalist/republican side it was a clear switch from both parties. On the unionist side, votes moved so that Alliance gained, but so too did UUP.

This suggests at least a degree of tactical voting on the nationalist side to rally against the DUP, but a degree of genuine realignment within unionism (given that almost no unionist voters thought the seat was at risk at all, and certainly not a risk to a nationalist candidate, and so had no reason to move to Alliance for tactical reasons).

That in itself is a problem for the DUP. The Ulster Unionists were gaining at their expense even before Doug Beattie took over, thus bolstering its support among people who want moderate unionism — and much of the new moderate vote in Lagan Valley is thought to be younger people who have moved into the constituency in recent years.

In any event, when Sir Jeffrey took on Lagan Valley from Jim Molyneaux in 1997, it was a safe UUP seat. His then vote of 24,560 votes dwarfed that of his DUP rival, who got a mere 6,005. And who was that rival? One Edwin Poots.

Northern Ireland-wide, there is a simpler problem for Alliance. It gets on a good day 16% of the vote. Unionism combined gets 41% on a bad day.

Movement from DUP to Alliance is a tiny share of that overall unionist vote, perhaps 3%. And it is talked up by, among others, nationalists who want the DUP to adopt Alliance (ie non unionist) policies.

In summary, Alliance is doing well electorally, but has a long way to go.

• Lagan Valley Westminster election results

General election 2017

DUP Jeffrey Donaldson 26,762

UUP Robbie Butler 7,533

Alliance Aaron McIntyre 4,996

SDLP Pat Catney 3,384

Sinn Féin Jacqui Russell 1,567

NI Conservatives Ian Nickels 462

Independent Jonny Orr 222

DUP Majority 19,229 Turnout 45,044 62.2%

General election 2019:

DUP Jeffrey Donaldson 19,586

Alliance Sorcha Eastwood 13,087

UUP Robbie Butler 8,606

SDLP Ally Haydock 1,758

Sinn Féin Gary McCleave 1,098

NI Conservatives Gary Hynds 955

UKIP Alan Love 315

DUP Majority 6,499 Turnout 45,405 60.0%

Ben Lowry (@Benlowry2) is News Letter acting editor

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Ben Lowry

Acting Editor