Election 2022 analysis: Unionist transfers to SDLP and Alliance would cost Sinn Fein seats

The exact details of opinion polls for this Assembly election conflict, but all show the same broad trends, which tally with the conversations this observer is having.

By Gerry Lynch
Wednesday, 4th May 2022, 6:03 am
Updated Wednesday, 4th May 2022, 6:34 am
Your vote will may well make a difference to the outcome, and so will your transfers, a factor not appreciated by many voters
Your vote will may well make a difference to the outcome, and so will your transfers, a factor not appreciated by many voters

Alliance and the TUV are likely to see substantial increases in their share of the vote, the DUP are likely to see a significant drop, with the Ulster Unionist Party, SDLP, and Sinn Fein more or less where they were in 2017.

Small variations in support can make a significant difference to the final outcome – and be in no doubt that most constituencies will see the final seat decided by a few hundred votes at most, and in some cases by lower preference transfers.

Final polls, for example, show the TUV polling between 5% and 9% — at the former level, the party will probably have some agonising near misses, especially in Co Antrim, but still come out with only Jim Allister at Stormont; at the latter level it will comfortably return half a dozen MLAs.

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Formerly Alliance’s Executive Director and a long-standing NI election expert, after converting from Catholicism the Rev Gerry Lynch is now an Anglican clergyman in Wiltshire

Similarly for Alliance, polling 14%, an Assembly record for them, might still only result in three or four gains with many near misses; at 18% it starts winning second seats in much of Greater Belfast as well as single seats in rural constituencies where it has rarely even elected councillors, and might even threaten the DUP for second place.

This review assumes the mid-point of these scenarios.

Few will doubt that the surge in Alliance support which began with the 2019 council elections is a sustained phenomenon; there is more scepticism among pundits about the possibility of a TUV breakthrough, given that apart from Mr Allister, their candidates are relatively unknown political neophytes.

I remember the UKUP breakthrough in 1998, however, with similarly low-profile candidates being returned partly thanks to Bob McCartney’s high profile, but more significantly as there was a segment of the unionist electorate otherwise unrepresented – secular suburban voters who were worried about IRA arms, worried David Trimble had given too much away, but also put off by the DUP’s trenchant evangelicalism.

Now it is staunchly unionist evangelicals who may find themselves seeking a new political home, having lost confidence in a DUP that not only failed to prevent the protocol, but also same-sex marriage and legal abortion.

More generally, the pandemic revealed just how threadbare public services now are in Northern Ireland and how spotty the quality of public administration is. There is a mood for radical political change brewing among the electorate, and the question is whether it has boiled over in time for this election.

With Sinn Féin and the DUP having been the dominant parties for 20 years now, they will inevitably be the main losers if voters decide to shake the system up. My sense is there is a difference between the mood between each of the big two parties’ supporters.

Traditional Sinn Fein voters are disappointed and unimpressed by the party’s performance, but not yet angry, although willing to defect to well-organised alternatives with strong candidates, such as the SDLP in Londonderry and Alliance in Greater Belfast.

Some previous DUP voters, in contrast, have clearly given up entirely, with rural evangelicals moving to the TUV and pro-business pragmatists considering the UUP or Alliance. Nonetheless, Sinn Fein have a few difficult defences of seats narrowly won in 2017, since when elections have shown a small but sustained fall in the republican party’s support. Which of them will be the largest party overall will come down to very tight margins.

The UUP’s centrist rebranding has been many years in the making, is probably necessary for both the party’s and the Union’s long-term survival, but I don’t expect it to produce results overnight especially in the face of a resurgent Alliance.

The SDLP now feels stabilised from the days of a decade or so ago when it seemed to be in permanent collapse; it now has a secure, loyal, voter base, and its excellent Westminster results showed it has considerable growth potential, but will probably have to wait for the political mood to shift further to see this realised, much as Alliance had to wait in the 2000s and early 2010s.

I suspect the Green Party will also gain votes from the general pro-change mood, and in East Belfast are clearly targeting a third MLA.

Your vote will may well make a difference to the outcome, and so will your transfers, a factor not appreciated by many voters. For example, Sinn Fein would lose seats in many rural southern and western constituencies if unionist voters transferred to Alliance and SDLP candidates in significant numbers, but relatively few do.

Much attention in this historic election will focus on whether NI elects its first ever nationalist head of government. But perhaps more significantly, its results will underscore how both defenders of the Union and promoters of Irish unity will have to woo an electorate which increasingly refuses to give automatic support to either camp.

Final seat predictions:

Sinn Fein 24 (-3), DUP 22 (-6), Alliance 16 (+8), SDLP 10 (-2), UUP 9 (-1), TUV 5 (+4), Green 2 (no change), PBP 1 (no change), Ind U 1 (no change).

Formerly Alliance’s Executive Director and a long-standing NI election expert, after converting from Catholicism the Rev Gerry Lynch is now an Anglican clergyman in Wiltshire

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