Election 2015: Nicholas Whyte

Cartoon by Brian John Spencer
Cartoon by Brian John Spencer

For most of the Troubles, Westminster seats were the prizes that could get you courted by a weak prime minister looking for votes, or at the very least get you on television with the letters MP appearing after your name.

Things are different now.

Nicholas Whyte

Nicholas Whyte

The Assembly has become the priority.

In the 2001 Westminster election, Northern Ireland constituencies had the four highest voter turnouts in the UK.

In 2005, it still had three of the top six.

In 2010, Fermanagh and South Tyrone’s 68.9 per cent turnout ranked 179th of the 650 Westminster seats; no other Northern Ireland constituency was in the top 400. Our attention has turned elsewhere.

Even so, I’m going to make some rash predictions.

My first is that the DUP will get the most votes as well as the most seats.

Sinn Fein topped the overall poll in 2010, as they did in the 2009 and 2014 European elections, and the 2014 local elections too.

But Alex Easton is now contesting North Down against Lady Hermon; and their surrender of a few thousand votes to the UUP in Newry and Armagh will likely be offset by gains in North and East Belfast.

Having said that, Sinn Fein’s vote has held steady since 2010, and they comfortably retained two seats in by-elections.

This year, they can surely expect to pick up at least 4,000 votes in South Belfast.

There will be also a tactical squeeze on the SDLP in Upper Bann, North Belfast and Newry and Armagh.

But even if 2015 turns out to be a good year for Sinn Fein, it is unlikely to be as awful for the DUP as 2010 was.

It will be very tight, though. The margin between the parties last time was 3,726, a statistical hair’s breadth out of 670,000.

My second rash prediction is that the UUP will overtake the SDLP for third place, in terms of total votes, despite winning no seats.

In 2010, the vote of both Unionist parties was depressed by the 21,000 votes gained by Rodney Connor in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

If Fermanagh and South Tyrone go this time to the Ulster Unionist Tom Elliott (incidentally the UUP’s best hope of gaining a seat), they are more than twice the number needed to make up his party’s gap with the SDLP.

It will still be a close call – the UUP are not contesting in three constituencies where they or the Conservatives had candidates last time, and those losses won’t be completely offset by gains from elsewhere.

On the other hand, the SDLP are not surging. They had a rotten election last year.

Their 2014 local government vote share was their lowest since 1973; their 2014 European election vote share was their lowest ever.

The last time their vote improved at a Westminster election was 1997. Retaining their three seats, with a modest uptick in vote share, is probably their best expectation.

For the Alliance Party, the only result that matters is East Belfast.

Naomi Long’s shock victory last time confounded the pundits, including me. The unionist electoral pact has made a difficult defence much tougher.

There is also some speculation about South Belfast, though it’s a bit of a leap from third place. (Of course, so was East Belfast last time.)

Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice had two good elections in 2014.

This year will be a dry run for next year’s Assembly elections, and we should look at East Antrim and Strangford as well as North Antrim for pointers to potential future success.

But outside the big five parties, the only candidate likely to win is Lady Sylvia Hermon.

Like both her local predecessors, she has left the UUP to go it alone – the last North Down MP who did not do so was George Currie, who retired in 1970. Sometimes there is no need to change a successful formula.

• Nicholas Whyte is Visiting Professor in the Faculty of Social Sciences at Ulster University. He has run a popular website focusing on Northern Ireland election results