Last night’s announcement that Strangford MLA Jonathan Bell will be the DUP parliamentary candidate for South Belfast means that it is now looking likely that all of the “big five” parties in Northern Ireland will be running candidates in all constituencies in Belfast. Sinn Féin have been breathing down the necks of the DUP in North Belfast for some time. However, Sinn Féin’s selection of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, the Lord Mayor of Belfast from 2013-14, has led some to wonder if Sinn Féin could pull off the formerly unthinkable and win three of the four Belfast Westminster seats. West Belfast is, of course, in the bag for Sinn Féin, having the fourth largest majority by share of the vote at the 2010 General Election.
It will be very, very hard. The bookies make Sinn Féin a 6/1 longshot in North Belfast, and they aren’t currently even listed as a contender in South Belfast. In terms of religious demographics, both seats are similar. Both North and South Belfast had a larger Protestant community than a Catholic community in 2001, and both had a larger Catholic community than a Protestant community at the 2011 census. With regard to the Catholic community, they are both very close to being a microcosm of Northern Ireland as a whole (NI: 45.14% Catholic, South Belfast: 44.01%, North Belfast: 46.94%). Economically, South Belfast has a more middle class population, with 37% of working age adults engaged in professional or managerial occupations, against 22% in North Belfast. Accordingly, Sinn Féin have long been the largest Nationalist party in North Belfast, and the SDLP the largest in the South.
This chart, showing the share of the vote by party in South Belfast since 1997, shows the enormous challenge facing Sinn Féin in South Belfast.
Excluding the 2010 General Election, where they did not stand to give the SDLP a clear run at the seat, the SF vote in South Belfast has been broadly stable since the turn of the millennium. At the 2011 Assembly election they were the fifth largest party. In order to win the seat in May, they will have to jump four places up the table, a tricky ask. Although the highly fragmented nature of politics in South Belfast also highlights an opportunity; given the fact that the seat is, uniquely in the UK, a five-way marginal, this means that it can be won with a very low share of the vote. In 2010, the lowest winning share of the vote was the 29.1% won by Liberal Democrat Simon Wright in Norwich South. It is very possible that the winner of South Belfast could do so with the lowest share of the vote in the UK. All five parties will think that they have a shot at the seat.
If you aggregate all of the Unionist, Nationalist, and Others votes in the constituency, then a picture emerges of both demographic change from unionist to nationalist, and an increase in the fortunes of the non-aligned parties, the Alliance Party and the Green Party. It is worth noting that, bar for a handful of votes in 2010, the unionist bloc has always been larger than the nationalist bloc, although they are now essentially tied.
So, what needs to happen for Máirtín Ó Muilleoir to become elected as MP? Well, of course, he needs to win the most votes. However, since Sinn Féin currently lie fifth in the constituency, this means that he needs to beat four separate opponents. Firstly, he needs the higher of the two unionist parties to be as low as possible. This, of course, assumes that there will be no unionist unity candidate. If one emerges, then it will essentially boil down to a straight fight between the SDLP and the unionist candidate, and it will both raise the winning post far higher than the current level of SF support in the constituency, and will encourage some of his natural support to vote tactically for the SDLP. Secondly, he will need to get more votes than Paula Bradshaw, the Alliance candidate, who have gained votes in South Belfast in every election since 2003. Finally, and most difficult of all, he will need to convince a significant number of Alasdair McDonnell’s voters from 2010 to back him instead, in addition to picking up some 2010 non-voters. It is a daunting task.
The long-term trend in South Belfast has been the implosion of the once-dominant UUP. From a nationalist point of view in 2015, the collapse of the UUP vote is turned from being a blessing into a curse. The DUP have well and truly taken over as the largest unionist party. The DUP usually receive a bump of between 1,500 and 2,500 votes in Westminster elections from their result at Assembly elections. The DUP received 7,845 first-preference votes in 2011. If they receive their traditional Westminster bump, and they polled strongly at the 2014 elections, then this means that they should be in line to receive close to 10,000 votes. This number will probably be the finishing line, barring any miraculous recovery in the UUP vote.
Mr Ó Muilleoir will be hoping for a nascent recovery in the UUP’s fortunes, as this would lower the number of votes needed to beat the unionist candidate. The UUP have almost no chance of winning themselves. A UUP recovery would also have the convenient side effect of taking votes from Paula Bradshaw, the Alliance candidate. A strong performance by Clare Bailey, the Green Party candidate, would also be convenient for ensuring that the Alliance Party don’t sneak through the field and capture the seat. Say a stronger than expected UUP performance keeps the DUP to around 9,000 votes. What would have to happen between the SDLP and Sinn Féin vote for SF to win?
A key problem is the bounce that Mr McDonnell receives at every Westminster election over the SDLP Assembly vote. This is not merely due to Sinn Féin voters voting tactically; there appeared to be roughly 1,000 of these voters, based on the results of the 2005 election. There appear to be around 1,500 voters that only show up at Westminster elections, and who cast their vote for the SDLP. He needs these voters to either vote for Sinn Féin, or stay at home. He will then need to convince all of those who tend to vote tactically for the SDLP at Westminster elections not to do so. If, having succeeded at all of these, he then managed to win 2,000 votes from the SDLP, and then found 2,000 new voters or non-voters to back his candidacy, he would then find himself with around 8,000 votes.
Despite being a near threefold increase in the Sinn Féin vote from the last time they stood in a Westminster election, it would almost certainly not be enough to outpoll the DUP.
It is very difficult to imagine a path to Sinn Féin winning South Belfast. Essentially they are hoping for a Lazarus-like recovery of the UUP, and complete collapse of support for a sitting SDLP MP. What he could achieve, certainly, is to do well enough to hand the seat to the DUP. It is doubtful that too many tears would be shed at the decapitation of their electoral opponents, and it tempting to surmise that this the real reason behind running one of their most popular candidates in the constituency.
North Belfast is a completely different story. Where South Belfast could, at least theoretically, be won by any of five candidates, North Belfast is a two horse race between Deputy DUP Leader Nigel Dodds and Gerry Kelly of Sinn Féin. The following chart shows how their relative fortunes have changed since 1997, when the seat was won easily by Cecil Walker of the UUP.
The DUP lead over Sinn Féin has been broadly stable since 2007. The DUP lead can be mostly attributed to the fact that SDLP support has been higher than UUP support; when the nationalist and unionist votes are aggregated together, the unionist lead is very small.
Similar to South Belfast, the route to a Sinn Féin victory runs through a weakening of the SDLP support, a strengthening of the UUP vote, and a monumental get out the vote effort. The task is orders of magnitude more straightforward, however. Unlike in South Belfast, where the situation is less clear cut, a unionist unity candidate would definitely win North Belfast, unless there was a nationalist unity candidate, in which case we would be in much the same place as we are now.
So could Sinn Féin win three seats in Belfast? Almost certainly not. A Sinn Féin win in South Belfast would be in the running for the biggest British or Irish political shock of all time. A win in North Belfast, whilst vastly more likely, looks to be a bridge too far for the present political cycle. However, some constituency polling in both constituencies might provide some fascinating clues about how the 7th of May might go. More of this, please!