In his contribution to our election supplement, election expert Nicholas Whyte examines how the reduction to 90 seats might affect the outcome:
I did not expect to be writing here again so soon.
After I wrote my last piece for the News Letter, before the May 2016 Assembly election, I reflected that it would be another three years before the elections scheduled in 2019 – the local government elections, and (as then seemed entirely possible) the European Parliament.
A lot has changed since then. The Brexit vote was not surprising to anyone who has followed British political discourse on Europe for the last 20 years, but was none the less shocking both for Remainers and for many Leavers. The election of Donald Trump, despite internal opposition from his own party and actually losing the popular vote, showed that nothing can be taken for granted any more in global politics.
So what impact does this change of mood on Northern Ireland?
In one sense the extraordinary thing about the RHI affair is that, as crisis issues go, it is rather ordinary by local standards. In the near-century of NI’s history, the only previous government forced out of office over a question of administrative competence was the obscure case of John Miller Andrews in 1943. (Craigavon died in office; Brookeborough, Paisley and Robinson chose their own times of departure; and O’Neill, Chichester-Clarke, Faulkner and Trimble were all brought down by the outworkings of the wider political divide.)
We also have an extraordinary election. The size of the local legislature has generally increased over time, from 52 (plus 26 in the Senate) in the old Stormont regime, to 78 in the Assemblies of the 1970s and 1980s, to 110 for the 1996 Forum, with a minor downtick to 108 for the Assemblies since then. (The composition of the Assembly, six seats per Westminster constituency, was literally the last thing agreed on Good Friday 1998.)
But now we are down to 90 MLAs for the next Assembly, a massive cut in numbers, which means that the parties’ performances will be graded not on how many seats they gain but how few they lose.
On the basis that one seat in six will be lost, you would expect the DUP to lose six of the 38 won in 2016, Sinn Fein to lose five out of 28, the UUP to lose three out of 16, the SDLP to lose two out of 12, Alliance to lose one of its eight and another to be trimmed from the six won by smaller parties in 2016.
Local factors in each constituency, however, suggest a more complex picture.
The Ulster Unionist Party and SDLP may be structurally disadvantaged – having won a number of seats narrowly in 2016, sitting down in them again becomes much more difficult when the music stops playing on March 2 and there is one less in each constituency.
The UUP has tough defences in Strangford, Upper Bann, East Belfast, South Down and Lagan Valley; the SDLP in West Belfast, Fermanagh-South Tyrone, East Londonderry, and North Belfast.
It remains to be seen if UUP leader Mike Nesbitt’s suggestion that UUP supporters transfer to the SDLP, if reciprocated, softens the impact.
Meanwhile oddly enough the smaller parties are not as badly affected by the new dispensation. If Alliance is able to maintain its previous vote level, most of its seats are fairly secure; up in the north-west, Claire Sugden and Eamonn McCann may have to sweat a bit but are certainly not doomed.
The DUP’s toughest defences are Strangford, South Antrim, North Antrim, South Belfast and maybe also East Antrim – they have already conceded the third seat in North Down by standing only two candidates.
A loss of six seats would likely be more than be acceptable. In fact, the party could lose a quarter of its previous total support to other unionist parties, and still be the largest single party in Stormont when the Assembly reassembles.
In 2016 the DUP had a 10 seat lead over Sinn Fein, who are also likely to lose five or six seats (Newry and Armagh, East Antrim, Mid Ulster, Foyle, West Tyrone and maybe West Belfast).
Sinn Fein do well on first preferences, but still have difficulty in attracting transfers from other parties, including the SDLP. This puts them too at a slight structural disadvantage.
If the DUP are able to persuade their core vote to stick with them, they should have little trouble in remaining the largest party. But a number of seats see their electorate finely balanced between nationalist and unionist forces.
If the overall nationalist vote share were to rise again even slightly – as it did consistently from about 1990 to 2010, since when it has fallen slightly at each election – we would see further unionist seats lost in East Londonderry, Fermanagh-South Tyrone, West Tyrone, and perhaps also North Belfast and Mid Ulster.
That still would not make Sinn Fein the largest party, nor would it bring the total number of nationalists ahead of unionists, but it would bring the unionist total down to less than half of the Assembly.
My gut feeling – and it is no more than that – is that we will see something in between status quo and unionist meltdown.
The DUP vote falling somewhat, but not benefiting anyone else in particular.
A more fractured Assembly where smaller groups are a little more powerful, and larger parties have internal accounts to settle after a bruising campaign which hardens positions on all sides.
The task of constructing a new government which will have the necessary level of confidence across the community will not be easy.
Finally, it’s interesting to reflect that when the DUP and Sinn Fein sit down to negotiate in March, for the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, both major parties will be led by women.
The first woman to lead a local political party was Anne Dickson, who helmed the UPNI between Brian Faulkner’s death and the party’s dissolution in the late 1970s.
Things have changed since then; and, let’s not forget, in many ways for the better.
• Nicholas Whyte is a Visiting Professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Ulster University, and senior director, Global Solutions in the Brussels office of APCO Worldwide