With speculation mounting that we may see a general election either by the end of the year, or early in 2020 now feels like an appropriate time to look at the results of the 2017 Westminster election to remind us of the current state of play.
Following a walking holiday in Wales at Easter 2017 Theresa May called a snap general election in order to give herself an increased, working majority in the Commons so that she could deliver Brexit by 31st March 2019. Things didn’t quite work out how she planned and in order to stay in power she needed to negotiate a confidence and supply deal with the DUP. Whilst calling the general election had consequences across the UK, in Ireland, and across Europe, it also changed the face of Northern Irish politics. When the dust had settled, Theresa May had handed the DUP a central role in Westminster, but more significantly the election brought about the total polarisation of local politics, with the DUP and Sinn Féín wiping out the SLDP and UUPs’ Westminster teams.
Five of Northern Ireland’s eighteen Westminster seats changed hands, with the SDLP losing all three of their seats (two to Sinn Féín and one to the DUP) and the UUP losing both of their seats (one to Sinn Féin and one to the DUP). Lady Sylvia Hermon in North Down survived the election as the only non-SF/DUP MP, but her majority was slashed from over 9,000 in 2015 to just over 1,000.
As the table shows, currently six of the eighteen constituencies could be defined as toss-ups (with a majority less than 5%); one could be defined as leaning DUP (a majority of between 5-10%); and the other eleven constituencies could be defined as being solid seats (with a majority of more than 10%).
Whilst past voting records are a good way of predicting future voting preferences, having some level of polling also helps to give a snapshot of voting intention. There is very rarely constituency specific polling carried out in Northern Ireland but LucidTalk will be releasing constituency specific polling soon and it may very well give an indication as to how some of these key races are trending.
Interestingly eight constituencies which voted Remain in 2016 have a Remain MP (Foyle, Fermanagh & South Tyrone, North Down, South Down, West Tyrone, Newry & Armagh, Mid Ulster and West Belfast), 7 constituencies which voted Leave in 2016 have a Leave MP (South Antrim, Upper Bann, East Belfast, East Antrim, Strangford, Lagan Valley and North Antrim) and there are three constituencies which voted Remain in 2016 which have a Leave MP (South Belfast, North Belfast and East Derry). There are no constituencies which voted Leave in 2016 which have a Remain MP. There will obviously be pressure applied to the parties in South Belfast, North Belfast and possibly even North Down to select a unity candidate to ensure a Remain MP is elected and there will probably also be attempts, as always, in Fermanagh & South Tyrone to get a unionist unity candidate to take on Michelle Gildernew and ensure that a Leave MP is elected.
It is also next to impossible to extrapolate the local government results onto Westminster boundaries due to the fact that council elections are carried out using the new 2014 wards but Westminster and Assembly elections are still conducted on the basis of the pre-2014 ward structure which make it too difficult to give an accurate comparison. That said we do know that in some of the key constituencies definite trends emerged which will shape the narrative, especially as conversations turn inevitably towards pacts.
The SDLP will also be fighting to win back the seats they lost in 2017, and following a strong showing in Derry in the council election will be hoping to win back Mark Durkan’s old seat, although candidate selection remains unclear. The race for the seat in South Belfast will also be fascinating as it is the closest thing to a three (or even four) way marginal, with the DUP and Alliance having had a good council election across a number of DEAs in the south of the city, and the historic strength of the SDLP meaning that this race will be too close to call, but as in Foyle candidate selection will be crucial. Sinn Féin and the Greens won’t be in a position to win the seat, but their decision to stand, or not, will have a real say on who does. Sinn Féin had a poor election in Fermanagh & Omagh Council in 2019, and if this were to be replicated in a Westminster election then Michelle Gildernew’s seat could be under serious threat from a sole unionist candidate. In North Belfast both the DUP and Sinn Féin had good elections, with Sinn Féin picking up seats in Glengormley Urban and Macedon, meaning the race for the seat currently held by the DUP’s Nigel Dodds could be extremely close.
When we look at each of the ‘big 5’ parties we can see that all of them will have closes races, whether they are defending seats won, fighting to reclaim lost seats or aiming to pick up seats which eluded them last time.
2017 was a good election for the DUP, picking up seats in South Belfast and Antrim. They came close to unseating Lady Sylvia in North Down and this will be their top target this time out, and it will be interesting to see what deal, if any, will be done around a unionist unity candidate in Fermanagh & South Tyrone. With speculation that David Simpson may not run again in Upper Bann the DUP will be keen that any sign of an Ulster Unionist resurgence is snuffed out so the DUP may need to spend more effort in this constituency than they had originally planned.
Like the DUP, Sinn Féin had a good election in 2017, winning additional seats in Foyle, South Down and Fermanagh & South Tyrone. At this point their opportunities for pickups will be limited, and after middling electoral performances already in 2019, Sinn Féín will be hoping to defend the seats they picked up in Foyle and Fermanagh & South Tyrone, and maybe add a few more votes to their total.
After losing the two Westminster seats they won in 2015, the UUP will be hoping to win these seats back. However, on the back of poor elections in 2019, especially the European election, their chances of picking up seats looks limited. They only won Fermanagh & South Tyrone in 2015 after the DUP agreed to stand aside, but even this was not enough for them to retain the seat in 2017, so it remains to be seen if this move will work again.
After losing all three of their Westminster seats in 2017 the SDLP will be pushing hard to win back South Belfast and Foyle. The party performed very well in the Derry side of the council election back in May and will be hopeful of winning back their most prized procession. The story in South Belfast will also be fascinating as it is shaping up to be the race to watch, as the SDLP, Sinn Féin and Alliance all seek to unseat Emma Little-Pengelly, but unless these parties come to some sort of arrangement they could all get in each others way and ensure the successful re-election of the DUP MP.
2019 has been a hugely successful year, in electoral terms, for the Alliance Party. Big gains in the council election at the start of May were surpassed by Naomi Long’s performance in the European election at the end of May. However, due to the nature of the first past the post electoral system, 2019 may well end slightly disappointingly for Alliance. It seems certain that they will add votes to what they polled in 2017, but their opportunities to winning Westminster seats may well be limited to South and East Belfast. If the UK leaves the EU on 31st October Naomi Long will no longer be an MEP, although she may be an MLA again, but will she be a Westminster candidate in East Belfast? Their only other opportunity to pick up a seat may be South Belfast, but as mentioned above, the road to victory in that constituency is fraught with challenges.
Whether the general election happens sometime before the end of the year, early 2020, or even after that, there is a fair possibility that a number of seats could change hands and that the results will not only reshape Northern Irish politics but also its relationship with Westminster and the rest of Ireland.
Niall Kelly is a former Belfast City Councillor who has worked on various political campaigns during the past 15 years. He has an interest in politics and data, and how they interact with each other. Follow at @nkbelfast