The TUV outside North Antrim

Most interest in the TUV has focused on their prospects in North Antrim. It is difficult to say how the campaign is going as Northern Ireland does not have the almost continuous opinion polling seen in the rest of the UK; not that people always tell the truth to opinion pollsters anyway (even less so here). However, as far as can be seen the election there is going to be a tightly fought battle. The TUV are of course also standing in 9 other seats throughout Northern Ireland. The TUV’s detractors have repeatedly suggested that they will loose in North Antrim (even the most optimistic DUPers have stopped saying that they will loose heavily) and that they will fail to gain anything even approaching an assembly election quota elsewhere.

That analysis is possible but it would require a large shift in the voting intentions of the unionist population. In the European election the TUV gained approximately a third of the unionist vote. Some of that may have been a personality vote for Jim Allister; some may have been a result of the double jobbing and expenses scandal; some of it may be that TUV voters are more prepared than DUP or UUP voters to turn out. All of those are possible though the converse: that people thought Allister had little chance; that they are now more annoyed by the more recent scandals; that they are now more prepared to vote TUV are equally possible. Unless all 66,000 of Allister’s votes are in North Antrim (statistically impossible) or almost all apart from the North Antrim vote have left the TUV the simple fact is that the TUV must have significant support throughout Northern Ireland. If (highly unlikely) TUV support is spread in a uniform geographic fashion throughout Northern Ireland’s unionists, then any constituency with three or more unionist MLAs at the moment is likely to produce a decent TUV turn out at this election and to return a TUV MLA at the next Stormont elections.

TUV support is, however, most unlikely to be a purely North Antrim or an evenly divided phenomenon across Northern Ireland. Rather TUV support is stronger in some areas than others. There are clearly some seats the TUV are not fighting where they might have done quite well (Upper Bann is the classic case in point). In others they have no realistic hope. I do not think Walter Millar in Mid Ulster or Ivor McConnell in South Down expect victory though their relative positions within the unionist vote will be interesting.

However, there are other seats where, although to be fair not the front runners, they look remarkably like the main challenger. Sammy Morrison seems to be making a major effort with considerable reward in East Antrim. Willie Ross will still have some personal vote in East Londonderry and it must be remembered that he only lost the seat narrowly in 2001. Some might think of this as a liberal seat but that is to look only at the prosperous middle class parts of Coleraine and the Triangle. The more working class vote there is far from liberal and the large rural areas of the constituency have not and never will be likely to vote for the likes of Lesley Macaulay in large numbers. In Lagan Valley it certainly looks as though Keith Harbinson is the major challenger to Jeffrey Donaldson and although Donaldson is clearly the favourite there is always the possibility of some sort of disastrous banana skin befalling him. In addition if CU voters want any prospect of stopping Donaldson, Harbinson is the only realistic chance they have.

There are some seats where the TUV do seem to be in third place: Mel Lucas seems to be up against a hard slog in South Antrim and in Strangford Terry Williams is probably less fancied than Jim Shannon or Mike Nesbitt. However, the shine seems to have begun to come off Nesbitt and his candidacy can have the look of a vanity campaign about it. If former DUP supporters do wish to register a protest against Iris Robinson’s venality, they might want to vote for a more ordinary citizen than the ex UTV presenter.

There are also the constituencies where all sorts of odd things could happen. In East Belfast depending on whom one listens to Peter Robinson is either as safe an investment as property or else in enough trouble that he would only be worth a £5 bet. If Robinson loses votes compared to last time, it is unclear where they will go. Naomi Long is a decent Alliance candidate but few would be likely to make a straight switch to her. Trevor Ringland is likewise a reasonable candidate but does not seem to have electrified the electorate. David Vance can be expected to pick up at least some of a Robinson protest. He is also said to be doing well in the more working class parts of the constituency where Ringland and Long are unlikely to make much headway. If some of the UUP support feel that Ringland cannot beat Robinson, as he almost certainly cannot; that vote may then move to David Vance. Vance could yet cause Robinson major problems.

Another difficult constituency is North Down. Sylvia Hermon is the favourite but again there are complexities. The DUP are not standing yet Hermon is far from a natural home for the 35% of the vote Peter Weir gained at the last Westminster election. In addition North Down did elect Robert McCartney who was far from liberal. Thinking that the have yachts are necessarily liberal may be a dangerous assumption.

The TUV could end this election with one seat and a series of surprisingly close runners up. Alternatively they could capture two or more seats: or they might end up heavily defeated everywhere. If the TUV do end up with good results in multiple constituencies, the effects of the Dromore byelection which helped end the chuckle brothers and Jim Allister’s European election result which so shook the DUP will look minor compared to the political earthquake which such a result would presage.