Unionism is facing a huge electoral challenge. Unionist political ineptitude since 2016 has been honed to a fine art: RHI, crocodiles, rejection of Teresa May’s backstop, and cosying up to Boris have all got them nowhere fast. The result has been to convert many pro-union voters to anti-unionist-party voters, as witnessed by the rise of Alliance. And DUP politicians have essentially ignored Peter Robinson’s 2012 exhortation that unionism must reach out to Catholic voters.
Demographic decline makes such a genuine outreach ever more urgent for them. But perhaps it is too late for any such strategic thinking? Since 2012 the unionist vote share has dropped by about ten percent. And failing to transcend their psephological base means that things are unlikely to get any better for unionists. In 17 years-time, their share of MLAs will be dwindling, and probably closer to the rising middle-ground bloc than to the nationalist bloc.
What might happen in Assembly elections in 2030? In 2040? A coarse-grained analysis would take the overall party and bloc figures and extrapolate to the required future point. However, this doesn’t take into account the actual electoral battles, i.e. constituency-by-constituency. If this is done, the following might happen:
- By 2030, unionism is on course to lose four MLAs: two UUP, one DUP and Claire Sugden, with a single gain each for SF, SDLP, Alliance and Greens. This would give, in 2030, a unionist bloc of 33 MLAs, with 38 for the nationalist bloc, and 19 for the others.
- By 2040, unionists could well have lost another five (three DUP and two UUP) MLAs to the Green Party (two), SF, SDLP and AP (one each). In 2040, these bloc MLA numbers might well be U-28, N-40, Oth-22.
|Identity Bloc||2022 Assembly Election||2030 Projection||2040 Projection|
|Unionist||37||33 (-4)||28 (-5)|
|Nationalist||36||38 (+2)||40 (+2)|
|Others||17||19 (+2)||22 (+3)|
Before you dismiss these forecasts out of hand, consider the change between 2004 and 2022, another 18-year span. There was no Assembly election in 2004, so I have interpolated possible bloc MLAs based on quarter-way through the 2003-2007 election cycle. I then normalised these figures down to 90, because both of those Assembly elections returned 108 MLAs (six seats per constituency). This gave a notional bloc number of MLAs – had there been an election in 2004 – as U-48, N-36, Oth-6.
Between 2004 and 2022, unionists lost 11 MLAs, nationalists gained none, and others gained 11. My MLA projections to 2040 suggest the following bloc changes: U loss of nine; N gain of four; Others gain five. This suggests a slight slowing in the rate of unionist MLA loss over the next 18 years, with that loss being more-or-less evenly gained by SF, SDLP, AP and Greens (Greens gain three and the other three parties gaining two each). Nationalist parties have not gained any seats between 2004 and 2022, but this will not be true for the next 18 years.
|Party||2022 Assembly Election||2030 Projection||2040 Projection|
|SF||27||28 (+1)||29 (+1)|
|DUP||25||24 (-1)||21 (-3)|
|Alliance||17||18 (+1)||19 (+1)|
|UUP||9||7 (-2)||5 (-2)|
|SDLP||8||9 (+1)||10 (+1)|
|Greens||0||1 (+1)||3 (+2)|
|Other Unionists||3 – TUV; Alex Easton; Claire Sugden||2 (-1) – TUV; Alex Easton||2 – TUV; Alex Easton|
|Other Nationalists||1 – PBP||1 – PBP||1 – PBP|
Note that the combined projected unionist bloc in 2040 is still smaller than the number of SF MLAs. This suggests that a single unionist party will not, long-term, stave off the loss of the FM role. One could imagine that a single unionist party would galvanise a sizeable number of SDLP voters to give their first preference to SF, making a unionist overhaul of the SF MLA number even more difficult.
Then, again, by 2040, the SDLP might well have twice as many seats as the UUP, which may have lost two leaders (also Mike Nesbitt).
The combined nationalist bloc is projected to be back up to 40 in 2040, the same as 2017. Alliance and Greens, not SF/SDLP, have been the big winners of the increasing Catholic share of the electorate in the past 20 years, and look likely to continue these gains to some extent.
The two most likely unionist losses in the short-term are Upper Bann (Doug Beattie to SF) and South Antrim (DUP to SDLP). These losses will probably happen at the next Assembly election. That election would then see a nationalist plurality of both votes and MLAs. That will be a body blow to unionism, especially to the UUP which might well have lost its leader. It will be hard for remaining UUP MLAs (most of whom would probably have been former party leaders) to ignore the call for a single unionist party. Such a move might well re-secure the role of First Minister for unionism in the succeeding election, for a short time.
The nine likely-change constituencies detailed below lie in a triangle from Magilligan to Bangor to Kilkeel, excluding West Belfast and Lagan Valley. None of them have a land border with the South.
So where are the seat changes likely to occur? They are discussed in order of likelihood, with the most likely change first. Watch the 50% threshold: when a bloc’s vote drops below it, a seat loss is likely. No attempt was made to analyse possible seat changes within blocs (TUV ⇌ DUP ⇌ UUP or SF ⇌ SDLP).
#1: 2030 possibility: The unionist bloc vote has fallen perilously close to the danger 50% mark. The SDLP lost a seat in 2022, and it looks like they have no chance of regaining that. The likely beneficiaries of the unionist bloc slide is SF. In 2022, Liam Mackle was 1,447 votes behind Doug Beattie in stage 7 of the count. The DUP MLAs look safer than Doug Beattie’s seat. An increase of 2.6% in the nationalist bloc vote could take the UUP leader’s seat for SF, even though this bloc vote has been essentially static since 1998. The nationalist bloc is already above the 33.3% 2-seat threshold. Eoin Tennyson, newly-elected in 2022, may well hold on as Alliance seem to be keeping their momentum.
#2: 2030 possibility: The unionist bloc vote dropped to 53.5% in 2022. Further slippage, while the nationalist bloc continues to rise, makes the second DUP seat vulnerable. Trevor Clarke was 1,878 votes ahead of the SDLP’s Roisín Lynch in 2022. However, the SDLP’s vote dropped in 2022 compared to 2017, so a SF two-candidate strategy could pay off with a second seat. An Alliance second seat seems unlikely.
#3: 2030 possibility: The unionist bloc vote seems likely to drop below 50% by 2030. This puts the third unionist MLA (Claire Sugden) under pressure. Both Alliance and the nationalist bloc are increasing (though Aontú took the nationalist increase, while SF and SDLP stayed static), so an Alliance gain seems on the cards, though that would need an increase of about 5% in their vote share. Tactical voting by some nationalists for Alliance could cause the loss of a unionist seat.
#4: 2030 possibility: Once again, we see the unionist bloc vote hurtling downwards to the 50% third-seat threshold by 2030. Alliance already have two seats, and are farther away from an extra quota than the Greens are, so an extra non-unionist seat is more likely for them. However, this would require a 9% increase in their vote and a similar unionist drop. Andy Allen’s UUP seat seems more vulnerable than the two DUP seats.
#5: 2040 possibility: Although the SDLP’s Nicola Mallon lost her seat last year, continuing unionist demographic shrinkage is likely to enable SDLP recovery of this seat. SF are well off the pace in terms of gaining a third seat, and Alliance have just won their first seat. A nationalist gain will happen if the unionist bloc vote falls by 6%. Nicola Mallon was just under half a quota behind the DUP’s Brian Kingston in the last count. However, a strong third SF candidate attractive to SDLP voters could take a third nationalist seat.
#6: 2040 possibility: In 1973, unionists won five seats here (4 UUP and 1 DUP), Alliance one, and none for nationalists. However, the unionist vote is on a relentless downward trajectory here. The middle-ground vote is rising most rapidly of the three blocs here. As Alliance has just two quotas and unionist just half a quota to spare, the Greens might be the best placed to take the only remaining unionist seat (Edwin Poots) in South Belfast.
#7: 2040 possibility: This is a bit of a longshot, but a continued reduction of 9% in the unionist bloc vote by 2040 cannot be ruled out. The Greater Belfast area has had huge demographic churn in the past 25 years and this is likely to continue. In 2022 the Green Party’s Rachel Woods was half a quota behind the UUP’s Alan Chambers. Given the drop in the unionist bloc vote from 75% to 60% in the past twenty years, a similar drop may happen again, especially as North Down has an older age profile than NI as a whole.
#8: 2040 possibility: In 1998, SF gained 15% of the vote. Last year, they gained 44%. They only ran two candidates, both of whom were elected on the first count. The nationalist bloc is 3% short of four quotas, assuming seamless SF-SDLP vote transfers. The unionist bloc vote was 7% above a quota last year. In 2007 their vote was 7% more than last year. It is quite possible their vote will dip below 16.7% by 2040, when SF could take the only remaining unionist (DUP) seat in a constituency that used to have Enoch Powell as MP for the UUP. However, the nationalist bloc vote seems static. If the rise of Alliance continues, it is possible that South Down could end up 3 SF and 2 Alliance MLAs in the long term.
#9: 2040 possibility: The unionist bloc vote has dropped 13% in the 6 years between 2016 and 2022. Will such a huge drop continue? This seems to be more of a unionist to middle-ground shift; the nationalist vote has barely changed since 1998. It’s hard to imagine the unionist vote freefall continuing at such a rate, so a third Alliance seat may not happen by 2040. If it does, it is likely to be at the expense of the UUP.
The nine seats where change is unlikely before 2040:
Speculation is hubristic perhaps, but if even half of the above changes occur, the nationalist bloc will still be five MLAs ahead of the unionist bloc. The jurisdiction created to guarantee eternal unionist domination will have taken another body-blow.
Philip McGuinness teaches at Dundalk Institute of Technology, and loves to walk around and over the wee perfect hills of the Ring Of Gullion.