If the on-again off-again Assembly Election were held tomorrow, the results would look almost the same as they did last May, according to Lucid Talk’s new poll in the Belfast Telegraph. But it points to significant changes at the Council elections in May.
Sinn Féin 31% (+2 from last election)
DUP 25% (+4)
Alliance 15% (+1)
UUP 10% (-1)
SDLP 7% (-2)
TUV 7% (-1)
Aontú 2% (+1)
PBPA 1% (No change)
Green 1% (-1)
Before we look as the implications for each of the parties there are three caveats:
- Margin of error.
- This poll asked about voting intentions in an Assembly election. Some people vote for different parties in Council elections. Personal votes can also play a bigger role. We must avoid over-interpreting the poll implications for the Council elections.
- NI-wide polls cannot tell us anything about the prospects for individual independent candidates. Last year Independents and candidates for parties not covered by the poll took 3.9% of the vote. In 2019, as they usually do in Council elections, they took even more – 8.1%.
Sinn Féin would retain the position of largest party – most likely with an extra seat or two, taking it to 28 or 29.
It would also expect to make notable gains in the Council elections, emerging as the largest party of local government.
One point worth noting is that SF’s Assembly vote was higher in the Assembly election than in the last poll prior to the election from both polling companies. In each of those polls PBPA, SDLP and the Greens stood slightly higher than their eventual result. It is possible that SF successfully squeezed those parties in the last two weeks on the issue of who would be First Minister. In Council elections tactical voting may not play much of a role.
The DUP might also gain 1 or 2 but would just as likely remain on its current 25. To access the DUP’s position properly we need also to consider the TUV.
The TUV challenge had the DUP running scared in the year before the Assembly election. In the early months of 2022, the DUP successfully chipped away at its rival’s support, reducing it just below the tipping point of about 8 or 9%, at which DUP seats would start to fall. Since then, it appeared that the dragon was weakened and that strong chains now bound it fast. But smoke has appeared at its nostrils again and the chains no longer seem so reliable. Sir Jeffrey horse, Protocol, has become skittish as Jim snatches at the reins from one direction, and Rishi threatens to make a grab from the other. In situation’s of peril the DUP tactic of adopting the TUV position has always worked for them. So far it is still doing so. But the party has no room at all for manoeuvre just when some fancy footwork may be required.
So far the dragon is contained. The TUV rating is not high enough to promise a second seat, and the DUP can count on the majority of TUV transfers.
A glance at the combined DUP and TUV poll figures might suggest that the party is competitive with SF.
However, there are three factors which subvert the strength of these figures from a DUP viewpoint.
The most obvious is that one of the seats will not go to the DUP but to Jim Allister.
Secondly, the 1% which the poll leaves for Independents and minor party candidates is almost certainly an underestimate. There are no grounds for believing that Alex Easton will lose his Independent Unionist seat in North Down – and that is a seat that the DUP would otherwise expect to gain on these figures.
Thirdly, not all the TUV transfers will go to the DUP, based on the last election, about a third of them will go elsewhere (mainly to UUP).
In the Council elections the TUV look poised to make some gains largely at the DUP’s expense. It is unlikely to be as many as their poll share suggests since their support is likely to be too thinly spread.
Alliance’s position appears comfortable, and largely that is the case. It does, however, have two particularly marginal seats, North Antrim, which will be targeted by the DUP and Upper Bann by SF. With all three parties up on their Assembly election shares the outcome is hard to predict.
On the other hand, it too has targets for gains, particularly East Londonderry, and a longer shot West Tyrone.
It can also expect to make significant gains at Council level in May.
The UUP might struggle to avoid dropping one of its 9 seats. Apart from Strangford and Upper Bann, its other seats all appear safe. It would be surprising, although not impossible, that the party leader would lose his seat with the extra exposure he would receive during a campaign.
The party is facing the threat of significant losses at the Council elections. However they may limit these more than the polling figures suggest. In recent years the UUP has tended to perform best at Council elections.
That row of 7’s must really worry the SDLP leadership. The bad weather seems to be set in.
On these figures only 4 of their seats appear safe. East Londonderry is highly marginal, with Mid Ulster, South Down and West Tyrone all under appreciable levels of threat.
They would almost certainly drop 1, or even 2, of their 8 seats.
The party is staring at the prospect of major losses of Council seats. Popular local councillors may withstand the tide, and it is not impossible that the party as a whole will perform better than these polling figures suggest in Council local elections, especially if their current doldrums at Assembly polling level are partly the result of the battle for primacy between the DUP and SF.
With less than half a quota last May, Gerry Carroll was very lucky to hold onto his West Belfast seat. His share of quota has been steadily declining since 2016. He survives because of the highly fractured spread of votes between the other parties once SF’s 4 full quotas are accounted for. If he can hold his 2022 vote the poll suggest he would make it back again.
Some of the 5 Council seats it took in 2019 could be vulnerable, particularly to a stronger SF.
The party won one Council seat in 2019. They might hope to pick up one or two more.
The poll holds no promise of a return to the Assembly.
Also around half the 8 seats they won at the last Council elections could be vulnerable. Again strong’ popular local Councillors may well outperform their party.
Independents and Other Parties
Lucid Talk has not yet published a breakdown as it did for its two previous polls. However, it gives the total figure as 1%. As noted above this type of poll cannot capture individual Independents.
In the Assembly I would expect Alex Easton to be safe. He had almost 1.4 of a quota last May and there is no reason why he should have lost half his vote since then. Claire Sugden was only just over half a quota in East Londonderry. She could be vulnerable.
At the Council elections I would expect most Independents seeking re-election to succeed. It is very hard to get elected as an Independent, and the strengths that enabled them to overcome the odds in the first place usually serve to keep them there.
There has not been time to make a detailed projection incorporating the latest polling figures. But for reference here are the numbers of seats won by each party last time. You will notice three sets of Independents: 8 of whom draw the main share of their votes from the unionist pool, 13 from the nationalist pool and 3 from the Others.
For the sake of interest here are the Council seats shared out in proportion to the Lucid Talk poll.
And here are those figures roughly adjusted to take account of potential transfers together with an estimate assuming that Independent numbers only drop very slightly.
It should be stressed that the above is very much a back of fag packet guestimate made without the normal District by District analysis. Please treat the numbers as a mid-range only. And apply any of the possible adjustments I have mentioned in the text that you wish.
Michael Hehir is a retired sales and marketing manager. He studied in Northern Ireland but now lives between England and Italy.