Sammy Morse on, South Antrim…

Sammy does a panoramic analysis of this heterogeneous, largely suburban constituency, which last time out gave rise to a three way game of electoral musical chairs for the last two places of the ballot. On that occasion Sinn Fein was the loser. This time however, he reckons the scramble for seats could include a difficult rearguard battle for the UUP in defending its second seat against a surging DUP.

Last time, both the Ulster Unionists and DUP had two clear quotas each. However, in 2005, the DUP outpolled the UUP by 38.2% to 29.1% in the general election and by 37.3% to 24.1% in the locals. In contrast to many other places, the local elections were not better for the UUP here. In fact, they demonstrated that the UUP’s vote is softer than the DUP’s.

Although the general election indicated the DUP are inching towards three quotas, they aren’t quite there yet. There has been considerable change in their ticket from last time with none of the three 2003 candidates standing again. Willie McCrea is moving over from Mid Ulster, which is no problem given the strong base he has built up here in recent years. However, both sitting MLAs, Wilson Clyde and Paul Girvan, were deselected to be replaced by Antrim Councillors Mel Lucas and Trevor Clarke. While Clyde is probably not a fatal loss, as he was narrowly outpolled by Clarke in the Randalstown area in the last local elections, Girvan was a formidable votegetter who polled over 50% individually in Ballyclare in the last council elections, and was building up a formidable personal vote.

Neither Lucas nor Clarke have personal bases of anything like that size, and both are Free Presbyterians based in Antrim Borough. This means the DUP lose a personal vote and narrow their geographical and social base. There has been speculation that McCrea preferred Lucas and Clarke to Girvan because he perceived the latter as a threat. In any case, the net result is that the DUP’s long-range shot at a third seat here will almost certainly go begging, unless the Ulster Unionist vote really collapses.

That should be enough to see the Ulster Unionists return two candidates. David Burnside will once again head the UUP poll, and probably be elected on the first count.

Jim Wilson is standing down this time and with him the UUP will lose his strong Ballyclare base, but they have sensibly selected Templepatrick-based Danny Kinahan, from roughly the same geographical area. Kinahan is the sort of Ulster Unionist most of us thought had died out, a former army officer who lives in a castle. Whatever his background, he polled well for a first timer in difficult political circumstances in the last council elections in Antrim South East and beefs up the moderate end of the ticket in a constituency where Alliance are competitive.

In the three way fight between Sinn Fein, the SDLP and David Ford, leader of the Alliance Party, things may have subtly changed since last time out. This is almost certainly a seat that pre 2005 SF would have taken comfortably given their rising vote from 1998 to 2003. However, there have been some internal organisational problems (The Irish Times noted some absence on the ground here) that and the annus horribilus of that year means they have struggled to break out of the 11% zone. What Mitchel McLaughlin lacks in local roots (he is joined by those other ‘blow ins’: Bob McCartney and Willie McCrea) may be compensated for by a high media profile. It could be a gamble, but others now look more vulnerable, not least Ford:

…almost any increase in the Sinn Féin vote here would give them a seat. McLaughlin and his big profile must be able to pull off another few hundred votes from the SDLP, and with no dissident Republican candidate here, that would make him favourite to take a seat, although it can’t be guaranteed.

Does that mean Alliance leader David Ford is doomed? I don’t think so. The total nationalist vote here is still less than two quotas, and Ford showed last time that he has an unrivalled capacity to pull in transfers, gaining almost 1600 votes during the 2003 count while Meehan picked up less than 500. Additionally, South Antrim was the only constituency where Alliance increased its share of the vote in 2003, in what was an absolutely horrible election for them. If the NI-wide Alliance vote can even come up part of the way to its 2005 level, he will be safe. And Alliance are throwing the kitchen sink at this one.

One factor running against Ford this time is that the UUP are unlikely to have much, if any, surplus to pass on. He will be dependent on DUP transfers which are likely to be much less favourable.

Could it be the SDLP who are vulnerable then? It could well be. There has been bad blood between sitting SDLP MLA Thomas Burns and his predecessor, Donovan McClelland, since a controversial selection meeting in 1998. This time, Donovan McClelland’s wife, Noreen, is the other SDLP candidate, and the bad blood has become very public. There have been other issues within the local SDLP, and six term Antrim Councillor Oran Keenan has left the party to sit as an Independent.

Running two candidates when you have a bare quota is an insane strategy. Last time, overnomination and poor internal transferring meant that the SDLP came within 200 votes of losing their seat despite starting with over a quota. Only 70% of Donovan McClelland’s transfers passed on to Thomas Burns, despite the fact the bad feeling between them was largely a private matter at that point. Last week’s front page headline of the Antrim Guardian was ‘SDLP At War’. In those circumstances, that already poor level could drop further. And then the SDLP, who may not even secure a quota this time, would be in real trouble.

It will come down to transfers, Sammy notes:

And transfers will be crucial here. My own suspicion is that none of Ford, Burns or McLaughlin will have a quota in the later stages of the count. If every voter voted down the ballot paper here, McLaughlin would probably be the loser. But many voters don’t, and this seat remains on a knife-edge.