Sammy gives excellent background on the safest seat in Westminster, and the largest singe Catholic population in Northern Ireland. But the story of West Belfast very much lies on the Unionist side of the fence. Diane Dodds barely scrapped home ahead of a fifth Sinn Fein candidate, and may struggle to do the same. Not, as Sammy points out, because there is not enough people on the Loyalist side of the fence, but because traditionally the turnout is significantly lower. On the upside, Dodds was fighting in new territory for the DUP last time out. Last time out they took half the Unionist vote, and only the UUs stand against them.
There is no question that people on the Falls are better at getting out and voting than people on the Shankill. I’ve heard people on Slugger claim that the turnout in 2003 was 74% in Nationalist areas and only 59% in Unionist areas. That doesn’t quite fit the figures, but it’s certain that differential turnout is significant. For example, in the City Council elections in 2005, turnout in Lower Falls was 68%, in Upper Falls 68%, in Court only 57%. My own view is that this gap is closing as turnout falls across West Belfast (from 74% in the 1997 General Election to just 64% in the 2005 one). Still, a 10% differential might be less than the traditional handicap for Unionists here, but it’s hardly nothing either.
That meant that the combined vote for candidates from the Unionist tradition in 2003 was 4754 – just 60 more than the quota, or 14.4%. That’s just a bit too tight to be certain of a seat if there are a large number of Unionist candidates in the race. In 2003, Diane Dodds ran alongside UUP and PUP competitors as well as an Independent from the Highfield area. Transfers are never 100% perfect – some voters just like to buck the party line, others insist on voting for one candidate only, or three candidates only. At the crucial point in the count when both the UUP and PUP were eliminated together, only a miserable 70% of their votes transferred to Dodds. That was nearly enough to cost Unionists their seat.
Two factors will make things easier for Dodds this time. Firstly, only the UUP will run a candidate to challenge Dodds from the Unionist side. Moreover, the DUP have considerably bolstered their position within West Belfast unionism – in 2003 they took just over half of unionist votes in West Belfast. By the time the Westminster election in 2005 came, they were outpolling the UUP by a ratio of 9:2. The DUP are less dependent on UUP transfers, and more masters of their own fate than before, although they will still want to try and increase their dismal rate of transfers from the UUP.
And that’s where the second ameliorative factor comes in. I haven’t seen anyone else mention the significance of this, but Joe Hendron will not be on the ballot paper in West Belfast. It’s hardly a trade secret that in the 1992 and 1997 general elections, Hendron pulled a significant tactical vote from the Shankill, much to the annoyance of Sinn Féin. What is less remarked on is that a small section of that vote stayed loyal to Hendron right to the end.
In 2003, on the elimination of the UUP and PUP, 12% of their transfers, or 259 votes transferred to Hendron. When Hendron was himself eliminated, 112 of his 3000-odd votes transferred to the DUP, and it’s reasonable to assume at least a small portion of the 416 votes that didn’t transfer from him – even to Alex Attwood – were voters who transferred to the UUP and/or PUP and then stopped. With Hendron out and only two unionist candidates in the running, it is likely that more of these votes will end up on the DUP pile by the end of the count.
All of that makes the DUP position better than it was in 2003 – as long as they can get their voters out in the first place.
Turnout will be key. There is some circumstantial evidence that Sinn Fein’s impressive electoral machine is still very much intact in Belfast, and they are working hard to get people on the electoral register either by proxy or through postal vote. Ostensibly to get rid of Dodds, though some insider the SDLP suspect that Alex Attwood is the real target.
However, Sammy is doubtful that Sinn Fein can pull off that last seat:
Firstly, in recent years Adams in General Elections has tended to outpoll the SF team in Assembly elections.
Secondly, Adams will top the poll and some of his surplus will leak. Last time, roughly 15% of his surplus, or 167 votes were lost to the Shinners. And there is a limit to the extent they can afford to keep Adams’ vote down; would you like to be the Sinn Féin press officer who had to explain to the world how their party leader (and alleged demigod) lost his seat in a quixotic, and failed, attempt to squeeze an extra seat? No, I can’t see that happening either, so Adams will have to be allowed to poll 6000 or so votes, and SF will effectively lose about 150 of them.
Thirdly, Sinn Féin were significantly helped last time by having about 1600 votes transferred from the SDLP at various stages. With less SDLP votes in play, there will in turn be fewer votes transferred from the SDLP to SF. Indeed, SF will probably have very few transfers to come from other parties at all. That raises the bar for them further.
Finally, it is very hard to balance five candidates, even when one of them isn’t called Gerry Adams. Sinn Féin are as good as it gets at this sort of game, but there ain’t no such thing as perfection. Last time, Adams topped the poll with 6199 votes, the three middle candidates were very well balanced with between 3800 and 4100, while Sue Ramsey was left somewhat stranded on 2988. That’s pretty good shootin’, but had Ramsey not been quite so adrift on the first count, or got more than a measly proportion of Adams’ Stage 2 transfers, she probably would have been elected. They might do a little better this time, but there is a limit. And Dodds will probably be closer to a final stage quota this time than she was last time.
All of this means that I think Sinn Féin need to be very close to the 5 quota mark, say polling around 69-70%, before they can be confident of taking five seats. I don’t know they can do that this year. They are going to have to work to get their vote out, and while Republican Sinn Féin’s Geraldine Taylor will not get the vote that her colleagues in Fermanagh, Tyrone and Armagh will, the Republican base is so big here that she must be looking at a reasonable four figure vote – say around 1500-2000. Even if one previous SF voter in 20 stayed at home, and one in 40 voted for Taylor and failed to transfer, Sinn Féin would be 1600 votes down. They can’t afford that. Three months ago, I would have laid a big bet on 5 Shinners being elected here, but I just don’t see it quite happening this year.
All of which, Sammy believes should allow the SDLP to keep its seat, though he notes that with barely a quota they are playing with fire by running Margaret Walsh alongside Attwood.
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