Predicting the nationalist contest

With the Westminster election campaign due to be officially launched later today, I thought I’d steal in with a post predicting what I believe will be the key outcomes of the intra-nationalist contest.
Sinn Fein will safely coast to victory in four of its five seats, with Fermanagh South Tyrone providing the only real challenge- and expect the pressure within nationalism to mount if, as expected, unionism fields single candidates in Fermanagh South Tyrone and/ or South Belfast. The focus for republicans- and the SDLP- in these constituencies will be on how the electoral performance next month sets up the respective parties for the forthcoming Assembly election.

South Belfast apart, the SDLP should hold its seats in South Down and Foyle, though Sinn Fein should close the gap on the 2005 Westminster figures. For South Down, the 2005 SDLP majority of 9,000 shrank to just 300 votes in the 2007 Assembly election. I don’t expect the Ritchie-Ruane battle to be close due to a number of factors, tactical unionist voting and the on-going transfer debacle amongst them. At this stage I’d suggest that a deficit of 3,000-4,000 would keep both sides happy, ensuring the Assembly balance remains unaffected.

In Foyle Sinn Fein will target matching the 2007 Assembly election performance, which saw the party pull within some 2,500 votes of the SDLP in the latter’s heartland. Again, unionist tactical voting could widen that gap but I don’t envisage Durkan pushing the gap back out to the 6,000 vote mark achieved in 2005.

The most interesting aspect of the remaining battles, apart from seeing how close Sinn Fein come in North Belfast to closing the gap on Nigel Dodds, will be on how the boundary changes leave both parties in specific target constituencies. In particular, the changes to the majority unionist constituencies of Strangford and East Antrim should mean that a nationalist MLA will be elected to both constituencies soon, and both parties will want to establish themselves in pole position to claim the favoured tag ahead of the next Assembly electoral outing. Given that Sinn Fein have no real tradition of mounting serious electoral challenges in either constituency (barring the Glens section of the new East Antrim) the SDLP would start in both of these areas as favourites, a crucial two seat head start for Ritchie in the next Assembly election when she will be aiming to bring the party back over the 20 seat mark and into a position to mount a more serious challenge to Sinn Fein’s supremacism in the subsequent electoral cycle.

And so to the two potential pact seats. With unionism shaping up for a unity candidate (my prediction would be that the DUPers will blink and withdraw ‘for the greater good of unionism….’), Sinn Fein will rely on the grassroots pressure locally to force the SDLP’s hand and withdraw their new celebrity candidate from the field. It’ll be interesting to see how Ritchie plays it, but McKinney’s move appears to have been badly timed at best. Contest the seat and he’ll be blamed if unionism reclaims it due to splitting the vote. Fail to do so and his big decision to jump into politics will have ended with an embarrassing withdrawal. Worse still, if he does run against Gildernew and a unity unionist candidate then he’ll be guaranteed an abysmal electoral turnout as the story focuses on the unionist push to unseat the republican incumbent.

Which brings us to South Belfast. Always a steal in its own right, the SDLP will need the cards to fall again to hold this seat, but a unity unionist candidate would surely have it in the bag.

Finally, Sinn Fein should comfortably top the poll again, making history as the first nationalist party in the state to do so in a Westminster contest. The DUP’s decision to not contest North Down will immediately shave more than 10,000 votes off their total, which could be further reduced with talk of unity candidates and pacts- not to mention the anticipated vote slippage to the TUV.

Let the games begin….