Key races to watch in Northern Ireland

Now that the starting gun has been fired by the PM, what are some of the key races to pay attention to locally.

There are quite a few and as this is Northern Ireland the health warning comes with the importance of the right candidates being selected to stand in the right constituencies.

North Belfast

Currently held by DUP Deputy Leader, Nigel Dodds

Majority; 5,326 (Note this was with UUP and other Unionist parties out of the race).

Dodds has held this seat with a divided Unionist field before (2010 & 2005) though by much closer margins. Even with an increase in the Nationalist vote at the last Assembly Election, the fact that there are two strong Nationalist candidates (Gerry Kelly and Nichola Mallon) will make it difficult even in a crowded field to oust Dodds.

This will be one to watch, but even without a pact, Dodds would still have the edge in this constituency.

East Belfast

Currently held by the DUP’s Gavin Robinson

Majority; 2,597 (Note with was in a pact environment with UUP out of the race).

Gavin won this seat from the Alliance Party’s Naomi Long in what was the DUP’s No,1 target seat. Since 2015, the DUP has consistently out polled the Alliance Party in this constituency in both Assembly Elections. However, the key question is whether Naomi Long will stand as the party’s candidate again, it is incredibly difficult to see who could mount a serious challenge to the Robinson in this constituency aside from her.

South Belfast

Currently held by former SDLP Leader, Alasdair McDonnell

Majority; 906

McDonnell won his third term with the lowest winning share of the vote in the UK and this constituency has four parties polling within 10% of each other. The SDLP face problems on a few fronts, namely the rise of the Alliance Party and Sinn Fein in the constituency is eating into their vote and the growing dominance of the DUP within the Unionist fold in the area.

With just a 900 vote margin, the SDLP have little room for error & if the other parties get their candidates selections right this seat could fall with the DUP as the likely beneficiaries of vote splits on the centre left.

The other issue is that a Unionist pact could happen in this seat. There was a potential for this in 2015 but an agreement could not be reached between the DUP and UUP.

Fermanagh/South Tyrone

Currently held by former UUP Leader, Tom Elliott

Majority; 530 (Note this was with a pact amongst various Unionist parties)

Elliott won this seat from Sinn Fein’s, Michelle Gildernew and told the tale of the strong election that Unionism was having in 2015. The main problem Elliott faces now is that Nationalism is surging in his constituency, in particular Sinn Fein was the party that made gains in the constituency in March. Should this momentum continue for the party, that 500 vote margin will be overturned, but for Sinn Fein the only likely real candidate who could do this for them is Michelle Gildernew.

Elliott will need a pact with the DUP to hold this seat and that could have consequences for other constituencies.

South Antrim

Currently held by UUP’s Danny Kinahan

Majority; 949

Kinahan scored a surprise victory of Willie McCrea in 2015 which secured the UUP’s first victory at Westminster in a decade. This constituency has a mix of commuter belt and rural areas with Kinahan coming across as moderate Unionist & well liked across the community. However, depending on who the DUP run in this constituency, this will be a real battle within Unionism. Somebody like Diane Dodds, who has strong name recognition could give Kinahan a run for his money.

Or the wild card could be the DUP standing aside here for a clear run at South Belfast.

Upper Bann

Currently held by the DUP’s David Simpson

Majority; 2,264

Probably the most hotly contested race within Unionism. In 2015, Simpson saw off a challenge from the UUP’s Jo-Anne Dobson who actually increased the party’s share of the vote in the constituency. In 2017, it is difficult to see who the UUP will run, Dobson could stand again or the party’s sitting MLA, Doug Beattie could take up the campaign for the party.  The DUP have always known that there are vulnerabilities in this area and they will fight very hard to keep this seat in their column.

Another interesting development here could be whether the DUP/UUP agree a pact here to see off a possible challenge from Sinn Fein.

David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs