#AE16 East Belfast: DUP to come home with three courtesy of a splitting PUP base…

Candidates: [DUP] Joanne Bunting, Sammy Douglas, Robin Newton; [Alliance] Naomi Long, Chris Lyttle, Tim Morrow; [UUP] Andy Allen, Chris McGimpsey; [PUP] John Kyle; [TUV] Andrew Girvin; [UKIP] Jonny Lavery; [Greens] Ross Brown; [Sinn Fein] Niall Ó Donnghaile; [SDLP] Amy Doherty; [NI Conservatives] Neil Wilson; [Cross-Community Labour Alternative] Courtney Robinson; [NILRC] Erskine Holmes; [Independent] Maggie Hutton.

East Belfast has the fifth-lowest population of any constituency in Northern Ireland, and the most Protestant. It also has the lowest proportion of school leavers getting A*-C at GCSE, and a below the average unemployment rate for NI.

Since the 1979 election in which Peter Robinson squeezed ahead of Bill Craig and Oliver Napier most of the contests here have featured in often radically different proportions representatives of DUP, UUP and Alliance.

For a long time the party’s relied on a big poll toppers gravitational pull to get in a second MLA. Soberingly if you go right back to the first 1998 Assembly Peter Robinson pulled over a younger Sammy Wilson who garnered a mere 633 first preference votes.

18 years later and both the DUP’s and Alliance’s (though not quite yet the UUP) electoral effort has become a lot more sophisticated. Indeed, the overall proportions may come down to just who can best balance their vote.

If we look only at the 2014 locals then the DUP could have problems getting three back on just 33% of the vote. But what may stand them in good stead is the clear field given them last year when Gareth Robinson creamed 49.3% of the total vote.

Much of that will return to the UUP and PUP, but some of it may not. Added to the fact that with Robinson out of the way this time, balancing their ticket between three candidates (one a woman) will be much easier than before

Much further back a strongly trade unionised workforce had regularly returned members of the Northern Ireland Labour Party. But deindustrialisation and the polarisation effect of the Troubles have meant that has long since disappeared.

If there was any outcropping of that leftist sentiment it was probably briefly captured by the high profile and transfer friendly David Ervine of the PUP who was returned twice to the Assembly and his protege and successor Dawn Purvis.

The seat was lost in 2011 after Ms Purvis split from the party of the unresolved issue of UVF guns. But from Nicholas Whyte’s extrapolations from 2014 they registered 8% (up three points from 2011) of the vote, eight points behind the DUP. With the UUP running two on something just over a quota that could put them in contention.

In John Kyle they’ve made the right choice, but he faces two difficulties beyond his control. Firstly, the entrance of independent candidate Maggie Hutton: who is ‘gene pool’ PUP. Secondly, if the DUP successfully balance their ticket, he may need double figures.

As for Alliance, although they are running three candidates, on just 21% of the council vote in 2014 there seems to be just two seats here for them. Tim Morrow in Castlereagh East in 2014 came in at the bottom of the poll, where they’d run two candidates.

The Green Party’s Ross Brown’s steady progress will cause Alliance some turbulence and perhaps some concerns for the future. Despite her year out Naomi Long remains one of the party’s prize assets and alone with Chris Lyttle there should be no problem ensuring two seats.

Last, but no means least, is the UUP. In 2005 Reg Empey took 30.1% of the East Belfast Westminster vote. In 2010 Trevor Ringland took 21.2%. A year later two candidates took just 9.7%, effectively abandoning large areas of ‘outer East’ to the Alliance party.

However that 16% from two years ago should be good for the one seat they retained last time: although by running two it may be a lottery as to which of them comes through in the end. The hope is they’ll try to expand the vote catch for the future.

Prediction: 3 DUP; 2 Alliance; 1 UUP.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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