#AE16 East Londonderry: A very tight and complex fight for 5th and 6th seats

Candidates: [DUP] Maurice Bradley, Adrian McQuillan, George Robinson; [UUP] Aaron Callan, William McCandless; [Sinn Fein] Cathal Ó hOisín, Caoimhe Archibald; [SDLP] Gerry Mullan; [Independent Unionist] Claire Sugden; [Alliance] Yvonne Boyle; [Greens] Amber Hammill; [UKIP] Steven Parkhill; [TUV] Jordan Armstrong; [NI Conservatives] David Harding, Stuart Canning; [PUP] Russell Watton; [Independent] Tor Christie.

East Londonderry starts at Eglinton just outside Derry city, running up to the boundary with North Antrim on the coast. The hinterlands of Coleraine, Limavady, Dungiven and Garvagh all represent separate and distinct political territories.

Current religious balance is 53.27% Protestant, 41.70% Catholic and 4.35% none. It’s educationally high achieving with an 81.9% A*-C pass rate at GCSE (third highest in NI), although it slips to 11th when it comes to Higher Education.

There are two and possibly even three vulnerable seats here. As Nicholas Whyte points out the two more obvious vulnerabilities are Unionist Independent Claire Sugden and the third DUP seat.

But the relatively last minute decision of Kilrea based veteran John Dallat to retire has done his would be SDLP successor – the Limavady-based Gerry Mullan – no favours at all. Of which, more later.

The DUP’s embarrassment of riches from the 2011 election – when almost everything that could have gone right did go right – now becomes a heavier burden. Most vulnerable is the last man over then, former postman Adrian McQuillan.

He’ll be aided this time by the fact that with Gregory Campbell gone, neither of his party rivals are big names. The TUV was weaker than expected in 2011 and didn’t stand here in 2014, so he may expect transfers from there too.

Still the party’s stock has been falling steadily even with Gregory generating a steady drip of controversialist headlines. They needed 36.9% to get across in 2011 and took only 28% in the 2014 locals.

The Ulster Unionists split the year before, with the late David McClarty leaving the party to set up a one-stop independent shop. After his tragic death, Claire Sugden found herself nominated for the co-option.

It took her a couple of years to get going, but she’s begun to bring some focus to her political profile over the last two and is widely thought to be one of the more competent of East Londonderry’s representatives at Stormont.

It is likely too that she will take votes and (more importantly) transfers from all over the constituency, not least in large measure from Alliance’s veteran and all weather candidate Yvonne Boyle.

Sugden is inordinately dependent on how the votes stack up elsewhere as to what happens next. Untested at the ballot box, first in the line up must be her old boss’s former party, the UUP.

McClarty wiped the floor with his local Constituency Association after they bizarrely deselected him in 2011 in favour of the now Conservative candidate David Harding and Leslie Macauley.

This time with two candidates in the race last year’s Westminster candidate William McCandless is almost certain to take a seat.

It’s just a question of which one: Sugden’s or McQuillan’s? And, if Sugden goes out first, would her transfers bring the second UUP candidate Aaron Callan?

Now to the nationalist side of the race. I’m fairly sure that East Londonderry was on that leaked list of five vulnerable SDLP seats. Dallat’s hasty departure only exacerbates a problem which was already there.

Gerry Mullan is especially vulnerable to a peculiarly East Londonderry sub-brand of Sinn Fein. One political insider once referred to the Brolly powerhouse couple Francie and Ann as the Alliance wing of Sinn Fein.

Here, probably as nowhere else in Northern Ireland, the party is more respected than feared these days. Sitting MLA Cathal O’hOisin is now considered a shoo-in.

His running mate Caoimhe Archibald (daughter of the 2011 SF candidate Bernadette) is young attractive and smart and has a real chance of running through the middle to take the seat from the SDLP.

The SDLP has senior talent at council in Coleraine. But Dallat’s peerless ability to sniff a story and put himself in the centre of it over the years appears to have come at the expense of the party’s soft presence on the ground.

And there are some internal fears that the man himself has been doing very little work (a common refrain down the years inside the party) in order secure Mullan’s election. Or indeed, his own political legacy.

If Sinn Fein can hack out two quotas they’re home and hosed. Anything short of that, and Archibald will struggle to get the transfers she needs to get herself over the line. Failing that, the other threat may be Sugden (+ Alliance).

At least Mr Eastwood’s general forward defensive strategy of running just one candidate should ensure that the SDLP will avoid doing any of Mullan’s rivals unnecessarily profligate favours.

Sugden’s presence here makes East Londonderry almost impossible to call accurately, but I’m going to try to keep my (scaredy) predictive toes dry by being very small ‘c’ conservative this time…

Predictions: 3 DUP; 1 UUP; 1 SF; 1 SDLP.

RELATED: This morning’s #SluggerReport:

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

  • mjh

    Mick, don’t write off the TUV. They did contest the locals in 2014, getting two councillors elected and taking votes equivalent to 0.6 of a quota. That could put them in contention if the DUP vote does falter.

    You’re right, East Londonderry was on the list of five vulnerable seats identified in the leaked SDLP internal report. (Or at least according to whoever leaked it – which may be a different thing altogether.) There appeared to be no grounds for including it on that list. It would take a 4.0% swing since 2011 from SDLP to SF to deliver the seat to SF. True the SDLP vote share in 2014 and 2015 was down but this did not benefit SF, which also declined (at about half the rate).

    McClarty was elected well under quota last time – and it’s hard to see Claire Sugden, whatever her merits, getting as many first preference votes as he did. It’s by no means certain that she will achieve more than Alliance, which upped its share in 2015 to a level equivalent to a smidgen more than half a quota.

  • fralycis

    Personally, I think this constituency is all down to turnout. Like you, I think SDLP will be counting their blessings come 7th May running just the single candidate. Being very nit-picky, Alliance transfers certainly helped the SDLP in 2011. When Barney was eliminated, 631 (~31%) transfers went to the SDLP candidates, whilst a measly 57 (~3%) went to Sinn Fein. I see SF’s C Archibald doing much better this time around (very qualified too!), but just falling short with virtually no transfers coming from the pack this time (SDLP aren’t fielding a second candidate). If Mullan holds up his Westminster vote, he will (just) about come home dry.

    Noteworthy that UKIP, Conservatives and PUP didn’t stand in 2011, and the DUP #3/UUP #2/Sugden battle could easily become more interesting based on the smaller unionist party transfers. TUV might spice the transfer game up more (assuming they can stay in long enough). Alliance also transferred handsomely to McClarty last time around (601 = ~30%) and should do so similarly to Sugden (all depending on how Boyle does this time but could be very interesting if the Alliance vote comes out strong!) UUP’s McCandless should come home safe, I would (cautiously) predict that DUP loses its third seat. No Gregory might mean much better balancing, but there won’t be the same popular % share of the vote to pass around between them…

  • Ryan A

    On the nationalist side there will be no change. There are two clear Nationalists seats here and SF haven’t got the votes to get both of them, although I think they will balance better this time. If the SDLP could muster 12% last year in an election in which there was really nothing worth fighting for here they will be fine this year.

    The Unionist side is 3 guaranteed 2 DUP 1 UUP with an outside chance of Sugden… or Boyle. I think there will be a heavy transfer in either direction depending on who is eliminated first. It’s no secret Alliance are targeting this seat and if the Unionist vote splinters enough (South Belfast 2007 style) it might just be possible. Unlikely it will but stranger things have happened and it is their best opportunity to knock that Greater Belfast stereotype image they’ve been tagged with on the head.

  • banana man

    There was nothing really worth fighting for last year for Sinn Féin either yet they increased their vote

  • Gopher

    A bizarre decision for the SDLP to run one as Dallat got some 1700 transfers from his running mate and 500 from Alliance giving him a 300 vote cushion on the quota and the second SF chap yet to be eliminated. Whilst there is no second seat for the SDLP there was zero risk to a profile building exercise and giving the illusion of doing anything more than just hanging on. If you can’t trust your own voter to transfer one step it’s the sum of your fears. The only point of interest in East Londonderry is to where the SDLP surplus ends up and how much there actually is.

  • Ryan A

    Yeah more than likely to the expense of the SDLP but it’s not enough to tilt the seat. In any case SF are always second so more likely some Nats will switch to the best placed to oust Gregory, no matter how unlikely it is. I’d consider it for a moment too. Probably just a moment though.

  • Msiegnaro

    In Armstrong the TUV have selected someone young, good looking, talented and being an ex serviceman on the frontline of war zones he has experienced the problems of unemployment when returning to Northern Ireland. TUV are currently sitting on 0.6 of a quota from the council elections. Definitely a strong contender and no surprise that Allister has been wheeled out a few times in this contingency. I predict a TUV gain here.

  • Msiegnaro

    Couldn’t agree more -TUV gain!!

  • Johnny Magnum

    No big surprise here. Unionist transfers plus some Alliance to help the SDLP keep their one seat.

  • rejtély

    Love elections. Love the uncertainty of the candidates knocking the door and love the predictions. Have lived in town over 40 years. The word on the street is DUP 3, SF 2, Ind 1

  • rejtély

    Allister more a hinderance than a help for Armstrong, Mr. Angry not popular on North Coast. Sugden a more plausible option

  • rejtély

    Sugden hold seat in first electoral test, that’s a firm prediction 🙂

  • Backbencher

    Five of the six seats are reasonably clear cut, 2 DUP, 1 UUP, 1 SDLP, 1 SF. The final seat is probably between 3rd DUP and Ind, my call is 3rd DUP on TUV transfers