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.
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.
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
• Ben Lowry Aug 21: Unionists are more vulnerable to the fall of Stormont than republicans
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• Ben Lowry July 31: The last NI housing boom was disaster, and we need to beware a repeat
• Ben Lowry July 24: Hot weather ought to be welcome in NI but this is extreme
• Ben Lowry July 17: UK has tipped into an amnesty after a long approach to IRA that lacked bite
• Ben Lowry July 15: We should be honest as to how we have arrived at a Troubles amnesty
• Ben Lowry July 10: We will find soon if UK is for once going to criticise Ireland
• Ben Lowry July 10: I once always wanted England to lose, now I want them to win
• Ben Lowry July 3: The mild DUP response to the protocol will cause Boris little concern
• Ben Lowry June 26: Neither Dublin nor IRA have been put under any pressure on legacy
• Ben Lowry June 26: A slight sense of sadness as the days again begin to shorten
• Ben Lowry June 19: Somehow the appeasement of Sinn Fein got worse
• Ben Lowry May 22: Instead of ‘moving on’ from IRA funeral, we still need proper answers
• Ben Lowry May 22: If Joel Keys, 19, wants to help unionism he should get a law degree
• Ben Lowry May 15: Edwin Poots and Doug Beattie will offer two distinct shades of unionism
• Ben Lowry May 8: Formal UK ideas for an amnesty are almost exactly 20 years old
• Ben Lowry May 8: Let us hope that the brilliant Eoghan Harris keeps on writing
• Ben Lowry May 1: Unionism can’t just be about managing long-term defeat
• Ben Lowry April 17: DUP still has to choose between managing this disaster or total rejection of it
• Ben Lowry April 10: His enduring marriage to the Queen was key to our understanding of Prince Philip
• Ben Lowry Mar 20: We have made it through the worst of the dark, dreaded winter lockdown
• Ben Lowry Mar 20: MLAs lost control of abortion by rejecting modest law reform
• Ben Lowry Mar 13: Scotland tunnel isn’t fantasy, but something kids of today might see
• Ben Lowry Mar 6: The cost of victims’ pension has ballooned without explanation as to why
• Ben Lowry Feb 20: We still lack answers as to why IRA funeral got special treatment at Roselawn
• Ben Lowry Feb 13: Peter Robinson has long experience of what is and is not politically feasible
• Ben Lowry Jan 30: At last, clear reason for UK and unionists to stop being weak towards Ireland/EU
• Ben Lowry Jan 16: The Irish Sea border was imposed because UK knew unionists would take it
• Ben Lowry in 2020: Last night unionists celebrated a move towards Irish unity
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