For some the 2015 Westminster campaign in Northern Ireland was a vision of normalisation, with non-sectarian issues such as homophobia, women’s reproductive rights and austerity at the heart of many political argument. Yet the old us-versus-them crept in late in the day with the use of religious affiliation census data to encourage voters, and anonymous letters being posted. The traditional intra-unionism and intra-nationalism skirmishes were weakened by the four-seat unionist pact and the near complete absence of Alasdair McDonnell from the popular media.
Tom Elliott pulled off a coup in Fermanagh & South Tyrone where most commentators had reckoned Sinn Féin would be more capable of getting their vote out. Instead, the SDLP vote dropped by 842 votes, Sinn Féin added 1774 and the joint unionist candidates pact candidate boosted by 2308 votes to claim the seat while Alliance upped their performance and the Greens took 788 votes. If the DUP were not to agree to a pact in 2020, Sinn Féin would immediately regain Fermanagh & South Tyrone.
With overall turnout jumping to 72.96%, Fermanagh & South Tyrone is the only constituency in NI where the number of votes cast for the winning candidate is larger than the number of people on the electoral register who did not come out to vote.
The UUP win in South Antrim had long been a possibility with Willie McCrea’s slim majority of 1183 only requiring a modest shift to the UUP or a measure of stay at home complacency. While McCrea lost 553 votes, the UUP added 1589 votes on their 2010 tally, while Alliance rose by 969 (rather than lending votes to Danny Kinahan).
While Danny Kinahan and Tom Elliott’s victories are welcome good news for UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, the departure of the two MLAs for the House of Commons leaves the party with a big hole at the Assembly and the DUP are sure to challenge hard in May 2016 to capitalise on lesser-known candidates on the ballot papers.
The Jim Wells incidents did not particularly harm his vote in South Down, though UUP’s Harold McKee leapfrogged ahead of him into third place with an increased vote over UCUNF’s 2010 effort with John McCallister.
The story in Belfast East is one of higher turnout and only two candidates retaining their deposit. Naomi Long’s extra 4000 votes could not compete with the Gavin Robinson’s 19575 votes for the DUP. Though that’s only 229 votes up on 2010 DUP + 2010 TUV + 2010 UCUNF – 2015 Conservative. From the figures, it looks like Belfast East is safe in the hands of the DUP as long as the UUP do not field a candidate (and as long as Alliance have a strong candidate and can maintain around 13,000 votes). Unionist pacts will be necessary in the future if unionism wants to repeat the 2015 results.
People Before Profit’s Gerry Carroll beat Alex Attwood into third place in Belfast West. “Trandy politics” has been replaced with youth-favoured trendy revolutionary politics, particularly when éirígí and IRSP have no candidates running. Will Gerry Carroll repeat this performance and enter the NI Assembly in May 2016? The distribution of seats across the Belfast West Assembly candidates in 2016 will be hard to predict.
While their party leader Nigel Farage failed to win a seat, UKIP outpolled the longer-established TUV in East Antrim, Lagan Valley, North Down and Strangford. Should the DUP be looking over their shoulder at UKIP rather than the TUV? Particularly in the run up to an EU referendum?
The Conservative party came last in 10 out of the 16 seats they contested, and only kept their deposits in one seat (Strangford). Even former Euro-candidate Mark Brotherston failed to get over the 5% hurdle. The madcap notion of flying in GB candidates to stand in two thirds of the seats clearly failed to whet the appetite of the electorate. Tory candidates averaged 566 votes per constituency. Whether the ambition of using the candidates to boost the capacity of constituency groups worked will be seen in future elections.
Party leader Alasdair McDonnell haemorrhaged 4466 votes in South Belfast (though UKIP’s Bob Stoker 1900 votes ruined Jonathan Bell’s chances of taking the seat), while former party leader Margaret Ritchie lost 2571 in South Down due to apathy rather than voters switching parties.
Belfast South – as noted in the News Letter – was won by Alasdair McDonnell with 24.5% of the vote, the lowest vote share ever for a Westminster election.
Even with 60% turnout, with so many ‘strong’ candidates, only 14.7% of the constituency’s registered voters cast a ballot in favour of their returned MP!
The UUP will be disappointed to have come in fifth place, behind SDLP, DUP, Alliance and Sinn Féin. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir’s vote will be a disappointment to Sinn Féin. In such a busy field of candidates, the high profile friendly face of republicanism couldn’t attract votes from non-traditional Sinn Féin voters.
Turnout was up in Belfast South, but it was non-nationalist/non-unionist voters who contributed to the increase in ballots: across Alliance, Greens and Workers Party, votes were up 34%.
The Green Party should be very pleased with Clare Bailey’s performance in Belfast South, more than doubling their votes and nearly doubling their vote share in the busy constituency. It is still nowhere near the 4,600 Assembly quota for the constituency (quota varies with number of valid votes cast) and the reduction to 5 Assembly members per constituency in the election after May 2016 will make it a real struggle to break through.
Green Party leader Steven Agnew and deputy leader Clare Bailey both kept their deposits, while the other three candidates lost their deposits.
Post-election, there’s a lot of discussion of the variance between vote share and seats won by parties in Great Britain. In particular, the contrast between SNP’s massive haul of seats and UKIP’s single win. In Northern Ireland, the DUP’s seat-to-vote ratio is impressive, while Sinn Féin come second too often. The UUP overall polled better than the SDLP but won one less seat.
Of the five independent candidates, three came last in the constituencies. Jonny Orr (with the stuffed penguin) beat the Conservative candidate in Lagan Valley. It is likely Jonny’s success was largely down to support from Green Party voters.
There was a 9.5% increase in spoilt ballots. After leaving the ballot paper blank, the next most common method of spoiling the ballot (that I observed at the Belfast count) was voters writing NONE across the paper. Some people managed very sophisticated – and time-consuming – artwork on their ballots.
Based on the constituency results posted on EONI’s website this morning, I calculate that 35 ballot papers went missing between the validation (which may have been incorrect) and the candidate count. Additionally 3 extra ballot papers seemed to have been found in North Down in-between the verification and the count.
Given the lack of sleep and accuracy of 2010 and 2015 result sources, it’s conceivable that there are errors in the charts. Drop me a comment or an email and I’ll check out any queries.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about, reports from, live-tweets and live-streams civic, academic and political events and conferences. He delivers social media training/coaching; produces podcasts and radio programmes; is a FactCheckNI director; a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland; and a member of the Corrymeela Community.