It’s Groundhog Day! Looking ahead to a potential second 2017 Assembly Election

The clock is ticking. Following the seismic results of last Thursday’s Northern Ireland Assembly elections, the rules state that the local parties have three weeks to form a government before the people of Northern Ireland are asked to go to the polls for the fourth time in a year.

Previously, I had discussed the forecast model that I had created for the election, based on the results from 2016 and polling published by Lucid Talk. Overall, the accuracy of the model was not bad, albeit it didn’t quite foresee the surge in Nationalist turnout that brought Sinn Féin to within one seat of becoming the joint largest party, and the SDLP replacing the UUP as the third largest party. Italics denote a gain.

Although they failed to win a single seat in any seat more difficult to win than their seat in Foyle, the DUP’s “red wall” held firm. However, the wall is now looking far from solid; for example, they only held their third seat in Strangford by 225 votes ahead of the SDLP.

Sinn Féin won all of the seats that they were favoured to win except for the seat in Upper Bann lost to the SDLP’s Dolores Kelly. They easily won three in Mid Ulster and Newry and Armagh that might have been expected to be close contests, and received 6,650 more votes than the SDLP in their former heartland of South Down, who were forced into a battle with the Alliance Party for their second seat.

The UUP were the worst performers with regard to the model’s expectations, and the five seats that they lost where the model put them as favoured to win were all lost to nationalist parties (Sinn Féin won four in addition to the SDLP’s surprise win in Lagan Valley).

The problem for the UUP with regards to a potential second election is that none of these contests were particularly close; they trailed Sinn Féin by 760 votes in West Tyrone, 1079 in Newry and Armagh, 1189 in Mid Ulster, and didn’t make it to the last count in Lagan Valley and South Down. However, they appear secure in the ten seats that they currently hold, so there would appear to be little downside risk for them.

Ultimately, the DUP are the party most likely to decide that a second election is in their interests. Strangford aside, their remaining seats look fairly safe, although their seat in Foyle could be a slight risk. The following table shows how they fared in seats that were lost in this election, but could be a target in a potential rerun.

South Belfast immediately jumps out here; Emma Little Pengelly was eliminated on the eighth count a mere 25 votes behind running mate Christopher Stalford, and only 58 votes behind Michael Henderson of the UUP. Had the UUP have been eliminated at this point, it is probable that UUP transfers to the DUP would have seen both DUP candidates elected ahead of the Green Party’s Clare Bailey. Update: Ian Parsley has correctly pointed out in the comments that this isn’t the case, and the DUP were nowhere near getting a second seat in South Belfast.

Elsewhere, a rerun of the election could potentially see the DUP take a seat off Sinn Féin in Fermanagh & South Tyrone and win back a seat in Lagan Valley from the SDLP. However, they would be putting their potentially vulnerable seats in Foyle and Strangford at risk. In the absence of a significant fall in Nationalist turnout, it is difficult to see a tactical advantage for the DUP in asking Northern Ireland to return to the polls immediately.

Will the electoral groundhog emerge from his burrow with a plan for a functioning Executive? Or will he see his own shadow, condemning us all to an extended winter in Punxsutawney? We should know in three weeks. In the meantime, here’s a Sonny and Cher song you may enjoy.

A qualified accountant and data analyst, interested in politics, economics and data. Twitter: @peterdonaghy