Next Westminster Election in NI – Early Preview

The mid-1990s review of boundaries raised political temperatures to boiling point, with SDLP claims of gerrymandering and human rights abuses. The last review, in the 2000s, was a relatively tame affair, helped by it only tinkering around the edges, and the soon-to-be-abandoned review was also carried out with a notable lack of histrionics. Is it perhaps because Westminster politics is becoming less relevant to a Northern Ireland where devolution seems firmly established?

In any case, I have not seen a comprehensive review of prospects in the now continuing 18 seats anywhere so I thought I would knock one up and hopefully kickstart a bit of discussion. My own thoughts are very much of the finger in the wind school of political journalism.

Let’s start by knocking the easy ones off. West Belfast, Mid Ulster, West Tyrone and Newry and Armagh are safe for Sinn Féin in all eventualities, as are East Londonderry, North Antrim, East Antrim, Lagan Valley and Strangford for the DUP and South Down for the SDLP.

For Sinn Féin to take Foyle from the SDLP would require a Stoop collapse on a scale difficult to envisage in just three years. The SDLP still poll healthy votes in Derry NIHE estates, a surprise to someone from Belfast used to 90%+ SF votes in socially identical areas, and Mark Durkan always puts the work in to get the thousands of Unionist votes he does.

North Belfast – Nigel Dodds is arguably the biggest loser of the boundary review’s collapse. The addition of the three remaining Greater Shankill wards into the constituency would have made him safe for the foreseeable future. As it stands, he must defend a shrinking DUP majority of 2,224 over Gerry Kelly. The 2010 and 2011 elections probably indicate that the DUP have a few more years as the largest party in North Belfast and Unionism overall has a few more years getting more votes than Nationalists here. How many more years is anyone’s guess. Although demographic change in most of the constituency has slowed considerably, it remains rapid in parts of Glengormley, and both Republican and Loyalist areas of the inner city have seen their electorate growing again in recent years after decades of decline. The DUP will doubtless attempt to put a heavy squeeze on the UUP, as SF will on the SDLP, but that already happened in 2005 and 2010, so it’s hard to tell how much more hay there is to be made for the big two from that. How well each of the DUP and Sinn Féin can mobilise their bases will be the deciding factor here in my view, and I think the DUP will probably hold on. But not by a lot.

East Belfast – Naomi Long is another loser from the review’s collapse. The proposals had recommended removing Dundonald, Robinson’s strongest area in 2010, and adding the Ormeau Road and Stranmillis, where DUP votes are relatively thin on the ground, and potential tactical voters for Alliance plentiful. The unique circumstances of 2010 will hardly repeat themselves but Long is now the incumbent and Alliance has about three times the staffing resources available than it had two years ago. If Alliance has any wit, it will once again throw the kitchen sink at East Belfast and encourage activists in other constituencies to spend most of their General Election effort here, a luxury not available to the DUP. The DUP really want this one back, though, and Gavin Robinson, sitting Lord Mayor of Belfast, is clearly being groomed for the nomination and is a savvy and articulate political performer. He would do well to stay away from identity politics – it is hard to see any credible grounds for a Unionist scare campaign in East Belfast these days. This is a coin-flip at this stage but the 2014 elections may well make its destiny clearer.

South Belfast – Alasdair McDonnell just about outpolled both warring Unionist candidates combined in 2010 and now seems safe here in any circumstances where he is the SDLP candidate. When he eventually retires, Assembly and Council voting preferences show a much more fragmented political scene in South Belfast and the DUP might fancy its chances as might Alliance if it can manage Anna Lo’s succession well. But I don’t expect Alasdair to retire at the next election and he will win comfortably even if Sinn Féin puts up against him.

Fermanagh-South Tyrone – if all parties contest FST, Michelle Gildernew is as safe as houses. But will there be pressure for another Unionist pact here? Rodney Connor failed as a joint Unionist candidate by only four votes, the closest result in the UK in 2010, but that election saw the lowest numerical Unionist vote here since the current boundaries came into force in 1996. Could a better joint Unionist candidate have overturned Michelle? In the Assembly elections, the total Unionist vote was almost 3,000 ahead of the Sinn Féin vote, but we also learned from 2010 that Unionist pacts encourage SDLP voters in FST to lend their votes to Gildernew. If there is a Unionist pact, this will be another coin-toss in 2015 but Sinn Féin are probably the favourites by the tiniest tip of their noses.

North Down – Sylvia Hermon obliterated all comers in 2010 and can remain MP for as long as she wants. When she retires, the DUP currently look clear favourites to take the seat. It is hard to see who can reunite the fragmented splinters of non-DUP Unionism on behalf of the Ulster Unionists.

South Antrim – this was UCUNF’s top target in 2010 and had its avoided the nomination fiasco, and confirmed Reg Empey’s candidature in reasonable time, one tends to think that it could have overturned Willie McCrea. As things stand, McCrea’s Westminster majority of 1,183 looks vulnerable on paper, but the DUP vote trended back up into the high 30s% in both 2011 elections, and that looks a bridge too far even if the UUP can continue to squeeze Alliance and the SDLP in Westminster elections, as it has in these parts since the 2000 by-election. The UUP will talk up its chances, though, and must regard this as one of only two real targets. With there being no candidate of commanding presence available to them or likely to emerge, their core party vote must start to return for them to compete, and so far it hasn’t. In the long-term, the DUP have a reasonably deep bench and any of their three sitting South Antrim MLAs could be a credible Westminster candidate when McCrea retires.

Upper Bann – Another much talked about UUP prospect last time that flattered to deceive. Although the DUP’s majority at 3,361 looks healthy enough, the Ulster Unionist vote at council and Assembly level has not collapsed to the extent it has elsewhere and the party was barely over 1,000 votes shy of the DUP in the Assembly election. Sinn Féin actually outpolled each of the Unionist parties in the Assembly poll, and Upper Bann is starting to move into genuine three-way marginal territory. For Sinn Féin to be competitive, it’ll need to get its vote from the record 27.2% it polled in the Assembly elections up into the thirties. For the Ulster Unionists to be competitive, they’ll need to start to learn what a proper modern ground campaign looks like. The DUP seem favourites from here but this could be one to watch.