In the first of a series of analysis pieces for Stratagem, Nicholas Whyte looks at an issue which is only obtusely refered to in public but which may be responsible for the only substantial voter churn in this election: who gets to be First Minister:
The St Andrews Agreement is perfectly clear: the nominating officer of the largest political party after the election gets to nominate the new First Minister of Northern Ireland; the largest political party of the other designation shall nominate the new Deputy First Minister.
But despite the multiplication of stories on this subject at the beginning of the campaign, Nicholas thinks it’s a non starter:
The DUP had an exceptionally good election in 2007, winning 36 Assembly seats on 30.1% of the vote – the best result in percentage terms for any party in a regional election since 1973 (unless one tallies together the various divided factions of the UUP in that year). That is unlikely to be repeated. But they were almost four percentage points of vote share, and eight seats, ahead of SF in the 2007 election, and I would be astonished if they lost even half of that margin this year. The DUP are likely to remain the largest single party.
If you are looking for a bit of drama, Nicholas reckons you might get it in the basement:
More interesting, perhaps, is the competition for third place between the SDLP and UUP. The SDLP, like SF, have delivered consistent results in the last few elections, in the 15%-17% range. They actually won more votes than the UUP/Conservative alliance in 2010 (where the UUP vote is perhaps depressed by the Rodney Connor and Sylvia Hermon factors, but was also enhanced by the DUP’s travails). Alban Maginnis was a hair behind Jim Nicholson in first preference votes in the 2009 European election. But the SDLP was also – just – ahead of the UUP in the 2007 Assembly election, with 105,164 first preferences to the UUP’s 103,145.
Those 2,000 extra votes actually delivered two fewer seats for the SDLP, and one less minister in the Executive. Their own disorganisation lost a seat that they should have won in West Tyrone, and the UUP benefitted from other parties’ disarray in Upper Bann to win a second seat that they should not have won. Under the Single Transferable Vote, that can sometimes be the breaks. But if I were looking for interesting bets in this election, I think that the margin in both seats and votes between the third and fourth placed parties might repay scrutiny more than the margin between the winners and the runners-up.