It’s been a funny election. Judging by its front page the News Letter was convinced it was going to be a low turnout affair, because pretty much no one was watching what passes for politics on the television.
To be fair it might be in some places.
My own home place in North Down has only elected a new MP three times since 1970, so they’re never in a hurry to change their mind once it’s been made up and rarely in a rush to get to the polls.
There are nine other constituencies where incumbency is likely to be uncontested tonight. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be big efforts to get the vote out. The controversial proxy figures are high in Mid Ulster, where SF are clearly preparing to keep it higher if there is an actual fall in voter turn out
Proxies are highest in the tribal war zone of Fermanagh South where some 5000 people will either go postal or have someone else vote on their behalf. I’ve not spoken to anyone who thinks that the incumbent Ulster Unionist Tom Elliott can withstand such an onslaught.
East Belfast polling stations were hitting 20% by noon this morning, suggesting that both Naomi Long’s bid to take that seat and the DUP’s bid to stop here is finding a willing audience.
All Belfast seats should come in relatively early tonight, so news from there and much tighter South Belfast should be between 1 and 2. That said, this is an FPTP election, so indications should hit Twitter much earlier as tallies give a clear indication of who’s in contention who’s not, if not an actual winner.
If there’s a shock in store in Belfast it could come in North Belfast. As Nicholas Whyte said in his piece for the News Letter yesterday, even if you add March’s figures for SF and the SDLP Michael Finucane is still shy of Dodds’ total. If he gets within a thousand, that will be big job done for SF.
South Down is another biggie. When Sinead Ennis came from nowhere in March to take 20% of the first preference votes, the incumbent SDLP MP was shocked and went out the next day to try and figure what had gone wrong. She’s put in a fierce ground war of her own, but tonight will tell if it’s been enough.
But in making herself invisible, she’s sacrificed public mind share to a younger gene pool SDLPer, who’s put in the conversion to SF a lot of his local peers have already taken on with him. Whatever value incumbency has may save her, but it may only be in counted in terms of hundreds of votes.
The second UUP gain from 2015 Danny Kinihan is under pressure from the DUP candidate in South Antrim. There will be no Willie McCrea effect this time, in which Kinihan was able to pull in Catholics to help him unseat the DUP man. If he loses tonight he may blame that bonfire picture from last summer.
The underlying battle of wills starts on Monday with the re-engagement over negotiations to re-establish the Assembly. Sinn Fein will be looking to harvest enough votes to maintain or even close the gap with the DUP and the DUP in turn will be looking for evidence to that they can open it up again.
That should sure that constituencies where there is no ostensible gain to be had to experience a rise in turnout from the levels of two years ago. I’m not so certain it will maintain the levels of March 2nd.
Whatever happens, even if he drops his two seats, Robin Swann will be secure as leader of the UUP. None of this was his doing, and he’s played a calm, conservative game since taking over. It’s not entirely beyond possibility that Upper Bann might not show as a gain.
Where Colum Eastwood to drop one or two, his position is probably also secure. But questions would likely be raised regarding the party’s future trajectory.
The DUP and Sinn Fein have made this an epic contest about the future of Northern Ireland, and almost everyone else is being treated as so much long flimsy grass at an elephant. With the ball now being withheld by the DUP and SF, they ever get the chance to recover?
No live blog tonight but David will be commentating on Radio Ulster overnight, and I’m in studio in RTE Television with Allison Morris of the Irish News, Gary Murphy of DCU and RTE’s David McCullagh from just after 11 till late (though probably not late enough to get FST and South Down).
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