May’s #AE16 could be a precursor to a more open and competitive contest in 2020…

Apart from in West Belfast, there’s not currently much in the ‘big politics’ column for the elections in May. The Lucid Talk figures are remarkably stable (it’s a relatively stable methodology), which doesn’t suggest there’s any kind of democratic tumult.

In unionism, there’s speculation about who’ll get Basil McCrea’s seat, his former partner, John McCallister looks set to be squeezed out in a tough three-way battle for two Unionist quotas in South Down, and in East Londonderry Claire Sugden faces a tough battle too.

In Foyle, Martin McGuinness comes home [to retire? – Ed], but despite Raymond McCartney’s “goal of returning three MLAs” without a political wind there, there’s not the numbers. Upper Bann looks a better bet for covering their predicted loss in FST.

As for the efforts to create something from not a lot Mark Devenport notes how on the political indolenceof the last term, is being concluded with a rush to get a lot of announcements out:

you could argue that the urgent spate of law making and decision taking is just the natural consequence of a power-sharing administration which, for much of last year, found itself in a logjam.

It took the Fresh Start agreement in November to get the machinery moving, so this spring was always going to look this way.

The more world-weary, however, will note that now ministers are no longer doing the Hokey Cokey, their efforts to reconnect with the public involve taking the executive out and about to, coincidentally, the two constituencies where the first and deputy first ministers happen to be standing for election.

From the end of the month when the veil of what is known in the jargon as “purdah” (pre-election period) is drawn down, Stormont ministers will remain in office.

However, as the advice to civil servants puts it, it is “customary for ministers to exercise discretion during the election period in initiating any new action of a continuing or long-term character”.

In addition, departments are told not to compete with the candidates for publicity, so we can soon expect a pause in the high-profile announcements.

Since this largely concerns Ministers just doing their jobs (rather than political matters per se), it’s very hard to see these announcements having more than a marginal effect on the outcome of the election.

But if the SDLP, the Ulster Unionists and others can raise interest in policy areas neglected by the Executive heretofore through their campaigns, we might allow for some drama when it comes to the setting a Programme for Government. And a place called Opposition?

Given the lack of time between now and the election, that’s a tall order. Not least because the media in Northern Ireland have not been inclined (and in some cases not been resourced) to take policy seriously as it ought.

With the UUP leadership settling into a steady growth curve, and a young (untested) SDLP leader who makes his rivals in (northern) Sinn Fein look just that little bit older May could be a precursor to a more open and competitive contest in 2020.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • Jag

    Oh, come on Mick, South Belfast is just riveting, with a titanic clash between Snow White and the Queen of the Oompah Lumpahs. It’s hilarious watching Emma turn up to the opening of an envelope and then memorialising the occasion through Twitter and Facebook. “Look at me, I’ve only just been co-opted but look at all the stuff I’m attending [and remember I’m Passionate]”.

    And not to be outdone, there’s Ruth with her principles, somehow finding the time to issue a statement after a PSNI officer was snapped apparently holding his foot at the base of a ladder atop which was a pub employee erecting a tricolour on a bar on the Falls Road (to hell with health and safety, the outrage!) over the Easter weekend. It’s the thin end of the wedge!

    Who will triumph in the hard unionist constituency – the principled bruiser or the passionate diplomat. Grab the popcorn!

  • Cavehill

    And of course there is the battle for the second SDLP seat amongst Alliance, Greens and the SDLP which makes South Belfast fascinating.

    Other constituencies I’ll enjoy watching are North Belfast (for the SDLP’s seat and the DUP third), East Derry, South Down and FST.

    Lucid Talk have SDLP on 14 but it could be 10 or max 16. Alliance are on 8 but that could be as low as 6 or as high as 12 in a good election. Greens on 1 could be 2 if SB is picked up. PBP on 1 could be 2 if WB and Foyle are successful. Overall I think the pattern here is that Lucid Talk are playing it safe, and so whilst they’re saying it is stable I’d expect a few more plus seats and minus seats in the election that they say.

  • chrisjones2

    …and have we reached peak SF?

  • the rich get richer

    That Policeman may have been trying to crush the ground beneath that ladder !

    Lets not be jumping to conclusions here !

  • On the fence!

    No I don’t think so,

    …………..but only because the SDLP haven’t hit the bottom yet!

  • James Martin

    Will North Down not be interesting with Brian Wilson entering the race? I would think that Alliance running two there may not look like a good move with him in the race- also makes it a harder run for the Greens to hold on to their seat as well…

  • aor26

    Would anybody bet against this being the lowest turnout by far for an assembly election since ’98?

  • Ernekid

    If it tops a 55% turnout I’ll be surprised. Low turnout could lead to big upsets for Alliance and the SDLP.

  • chrisjones2

    Isn’t it odd that with an election pending the DUP have been very quiet on today’s revelations. Are they all away marching? Or abroad?

    So would Gerry like to enlighten us as to why it was held back and why the people of Ireland North and South were lied to about decommissioning?

    And what else wasn’t handed over and where is it all now?

  • Ulick

    “could be a precursor to a more open and competitive contest in 2020.”

    Sinn Fein have more chance of three seats in Derry than the SDLP have of actually existing in 2020 never mind being able to present a challenge.

  • Acrobat_747

    SDLP haven’t gone away you know!

  • chrisjones2

    It depends…not just alliance and the SDLP ….the DUP and SF may also feel the cold.,I think voters are slowly wakening up to the fact that they are being short changed politically on all sides.

    ‘I am agin it’ no longer cuts the mustard

  • chrisjones2

    Sorry but no

  • Cavehill

    That reads like you expect Alliance and SDLP to do well off poor turnout, whereas I’d expect the opposite.

  • Zig70

    Did you even read the story you linked? First line “The PSNI say Eastern European gangs are rearming republicans”. This is why decommissioning demands would have created a travesty if the peace was allowed to fail over it. The affect of rhetoric is amazing.

  • eamoncorbett

    Didn’t think he’d leave the Beach Boys for politics.

  • fralycis

    I agree that the estimates could be viewed conservative, but I very much doubt Alliance will come back with anything less than 8.
    For SDLP to plummet that badly to 10, something disastrous would need to happen. i.e being obliterated across Belfast ( losing North Belfast, South Belfast seat #2 and West Belfast) – Alliance gaining 2 and PBP gaining 1. Plus one of Upper Bann or Foyle seat #3.
    All in all, personally believe that LucidTalk have it quite accurate here.

  • Cavehill

    I think the Alliance seat in Strangford is wobbly, and North Down could go pear shaped on a bad day with both candidates losing out.

    SDLP are fighting to retain lots of their seats against an array of opponents – they’re not just fending off Sinn Fein in seats like Upper Bann, Foyle and South Down, but also Alliance in North Belfast, Alliance and Greens in South Belfast, and trying to scrape the sixth in West Belfast after SF and PBP have won seats. I also think that the number of vulnerable SDLP seats means they’re unlikely to gain any given that resources will be ploughed into retaining the seats they already have. Why canvass in North Antrim in the hope you get a seat when those members could be in North Belfast for example.

  • fralycis

    Yeah, I agree with you that if one of the current 8 Alliance seats were to fall, it would be Strangford, but purely because McCarthy had a strong following over the last decade and replacements are tougher to push through.
    But Farry is an almost dead cert in North Down. I think people underestimate his increased profile now, and has done a decent job in the executive (add that to their solid council representation). If he was just short of the quota, Muir will easily push him over the line.

    And yeah, good points about SDLP. They certainly need to keep pushing in North Belfast. However SF conversely face a struggle to keep their 5th MLA in West Belfast.

  • Gopher

    Peak SF was hit a while ago, The SDLP vote will decline around the 8% to 10% range from the previous assembly election., I imagine it has more to do with natural attrition than switching their first preference to SF. New voters seem more likely to vote for PBP, Greens, Alliance, than the SDLP. The SDLP always polls better in Westminister elections than Assembly ones and I see no reason why they will buck the trend in this election.

  • Ernekid

    The people likely to turn out are the hard core DUP and Sinn Fein supporters. The Apathetic people were the people who used to support the AP and the SDLP but now they simply can’t be arsed

  • Ryan A

    I wouldn’t be too worried about Strangford. Kellie Armstrong polled 13% on her first outing there in 2015. She may slip a bit but it would need to be a seismic shift to hand the seat to Joe Boyle – and SF will not be helping their rivals out with a high profile campaign like they did in East Antrim last year.

  • Ryan A

    Yep. And I often wonder how much of that SDLP Westminister vote is Unionists (or Alliance voters in the case of South Belfast) going for the tactical option…

  • Ryan A

    If anything I think the TUV are much more likely to benefit from hard core votes – SF are establishment up here now anyway, and the drop in their heartland votes last year showed it.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Too much faith is being put in an opposition to change things, or a system change to change things when it comes down to voters voting and parties giving these people something to vote for.

  • chrisjones2

    Yes…but the Semtex is PIRA. The issue is that we were lied to. Why? They kept back a few guns for self defence? Bad but perhaps understandable. They held onto a half tonne of Semtex? Why?

  • Gingray

    More likely that former PIRA quartermaster Michael McKevitt turning dissident had more to do with non decommissioned Semtex being in the hands of dissidents, than a plot by the PIRA.
    The obsession over what has and has not be decommissioned is a red herring given how easy it is to get guns and explosives from a variety of criminal sources.

  • Gingray

    What about the Green candidate in Belfast East? Unlikely, but they have been out and about canvassing hard.

  • Gingray

    Belfast North could be interesting, they need what, 14% to reach quota? They have a decent candidate too, and she seems to be quite active on the ground in the Oldpark/Ardoyne area at the minute. Would be a surprise if they got above the 12% last time, but could happen if people turn away from SF.

  • Cavehill

    Alban’s vote slipped in AE11 (4025) on his WM10 (4544) vote, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the AE16 SDLP vote was less than their WM15 total (3338). The SDLP may be banking on lost voters returning this year after they may have tactically voted for Gerry Kelly in WM15 (merely speculation). The question is whether Alliance can reach or overtake them and stay ahead on transfers.

    No doubt Alliance have grown in the area (1,809 in WM10, 2,096 in AE11, 2,941 in WM15) but the growth isn’t incredible, it’s moderate. It would take an increase of at least a couple hundred votes to put them in with a chance, which isn’t guaranteed.

  • Granni Trixie

    If you ever saw Kellie in action you would not think her situation was “wobbly” in the least.
    Though the incumbent Kieran McCarthy has persnal following, so has Kellie.

  • Granni Trixie

    Plus the SB Unionist vote will be further shred by Conservatves and UKIP.

  • Seamus

    “Upper Bann looks a better bet for covering their predicted loss in FST.”
    Who is predicting a Sinn Féin loss in FST?
    In last years Westminster election SF were sitting on 3.15 quotas.
    In the last Assembly elections in 2011 they were sitting on 2.8 quotas.
    Admittedly, the three selection conventions were a mess in the constituency, but running four candidates is not actually a bad outcome.
    With a good campaign and smart vote management I think Sinn Féin should be ok here.

  • Cavehill

    Inter-unionist transfers are very strong though, so whilst the DUP first pref vote may be lower than say Alliance or the Greens, there is a bigger pool of candidates to win transfers from. Alliance have a comparatively smaller pool of transfers to benefit from which is what kicks the party at Council elections for example in councils like ABC and Causeway Coast and Glens.

  • Granni Trixie

    Would you not agree though that the “extremes” tend to be less transfer friendly than those perceived as being “moderates”. I would argue for instance that DUP have blown an opportunity with new leader to broaden DUP appeal – Arlene could have done so but Wells, Poots etc comes across with same old,same old. Not least this faction undermines sentiments in their PB (of today) not to mention attitudes coming through in policies with a moral component.