For a full explanation of the various charts used in this piece please see the introduction in the first article in this series.
The decline in unionist vote share since last year’s Assembly election looks like another case of differential turnout. But it is not. This is because Alex Easton, the MLA who left the DUP in 2021, stood and was elected as an Independent in 2022. His transfers show that a quarter of his votes came from outside unionism. If we reallocated his votes in accordance with his transfers, we would get a graph that looks very similar to the council votes under the current constituency boundaries: Unionists 3.3 quotas, Nationalists 0.2 quotas and Others 2.4 quotas. 0.1 of a quota would be unaccounted for since not all of his voters transferred.
Looking at the votes cast for each party in the council election we get:
Once again the picture is clouded by Independent Unionists, of whom there were three in the council election. Two of these, who between them account for 77% of the Independent unionist vote, had backed Alex Easton in the 2022 Assembly election. One of them was elected and the other missed out by 89 votes. It would seem that North Down still likes its Independents, which is encouraging news for Easton come the next Assembly election.
If we assume Easton is re-elected, then the rest becomes clear. The DUP has enough votes to guarantee a seat, but not enough for two, even with transfers from the TUV. The UUP has done well here, holding all its council seats and substantially increasing its vote from last year. Its Assembly seat is also safe on these figures. Alliance also had a good election, increasing its total of councillors and vote share which points to its two seats now being safe.
The Resource Index shows how much more deeply Alliance has dug itself into this constituency in the last four years. It will need to maximise those resources in the coming Westminster election if the chatter about a united unionist candidate comes to anything.
With or without a united unionist candidate, it is reasonable to anticipate a high level of tactical voting here. Alliance cannot anticipate the withdrawal of the Greens and SDLP here once again. Whether those parties stand may largely be decided by their choices in North and South Belfast. If they pull out of those seats they may well also withdraw from North Down in order to appear consistent, but if they stand in those two Belfast seats they won’t want to appear to give Alliance an exclusive endorsement. The Greens, in particular, have nothing to gain by not standing, and there may well be some within the party who now view their decision to stand back in Belfast and North Down in 2019 as a mistake.
What are the chances of a common unionist candidate, and what would be his or her prospects?
The DUP would love to persuade the Conservatives and the UUP to give them a free run. I judge the chances of the Conservatives withdrawing as small. There will be a strong desire by the national party to have a candidate in every UK seat even if they accept some exceptions in Northern Ireland – if, for example, they have difficulty in getting 10 electors in some constituencies to sign their nomination papers. But North Down would not be one of those.
How the UUP will react is impossible to say. The current policy is not to do deals – but this did not withstand contact with a General Election in the past, with the notorious example of their withdrawal from North Belfast. It will be harder to pressurise the UUP to withdraw in a constituency where Sinn Féin is not the opposition. But, following the shock unionists received in the council election, the future policy of the UUP could be open to change.
The most discussed possibility is to put Alex Easton up as an Independent, with the DUP and UUP both agreeing to support him. As far as I know, Easton has neither killed nor encouraged this speculation, wisely deciding perhaps that he is better to remain silent unless or until the two parties make their positions clear.
Whether the proposition would be attractive to him might depend on his approach to risk taking.
As things stand, he can almost certainly expect to continue to be returned as an Independent MLA for as long as he wishes.
But if he stands for Parliament as a united unionist, and he loses, he could be putting his MLA seat at risk at the next election. 33% of his voters last year came from the DUP, as shown by his transfers. As time passes, especially in the current climate of unionist uncertainty, some of them may be tempted to return to the fold. Were that to happen Easton would need to keep the quarter of his voters who did not come from unionist parties. If a failed Westminster bid had transformed him from an Independent back into a more openly partisan unionist figure he might well lose those non-unionist voters.
Of course, if there is still no Assembly sitting come the Westminster election, Easton’s decision might be easier.
He, better than anyone, will be aware that parties cannot control their voters, and that while the DUP voters would almost certainly all get behind a common unionist candidate, some sections of the UUP vote would probably have reservations. Moreover, a common unionist candidate would make the task of Alliance in squeezing the votes of non-unionist parties and liberal UUP voters that much easier.
The great unknown in all of this speculation is what the voters of North Down think of Stephen Farry as their MP. In North Down the party label, while still important, is less potent than in most constituencies. Will there prove to be a Farry vote in addition to the party vote, just as there was for Hermon and Kilfedder? Only time will tell.
This looks like another case of differential turnout. Note, this is the first time that the total vote for unionist candidates has fallen below 50% in this constituency. It looks like unionists will receive a small boost from the new proposed constituency boundaries, but that would still leave their third Assembly seat in the danger zone if their turnout does not bounce back completely.
A small note of caution regarding these figures. I have allocated the votes for the Ballyclare Independent Stewart to the Other column, but the evidence is very thin. His votes did not transfer, so I have had to go purely (and unusually) on the pattern of transfers to him from other candidates. If his votes were included with the unionists, it would reduce Others by 0.1 of a quota and increase Unionists by the same amount. This would still leave unionists below 50% of the total votes, and the third unionist seat under some threat.
As well as Independents the Other ‘others’ includes Greens, plus a few PBPA, in the Assembly figures.
On these figures an Assembly election would award the first four seats as follows: 1 DUP, 1 UUP, 1 SF and 1 Alliance, leaving the second DUP and a second Sinn Féin in contention for the final seat. The result would be decided as much on non-transfers as on transfers. This could give the edge to the DUP who could expect good transfer discipline from the TUV. Of course, just the prospect of a Sinn Féin gain might well encourage more unionists to the polls.
The only changes in the Resource Index in the last four years took place at the recent election, with the UUP losing ground and the SDLP almost vanishing from the constituency.
At the last Westminster election the real battle was for second place, with both the UUP and Alliance vying to be seen as the principal challenger to the DUP and therefore the best recipient of tactical votes. The UUP won that battle. But the votes in the council elections will put the next election into a totally different context.
Last time there was no serious suggestion that the UUP candidate risked splitting the vote and letting a nationalist be elected. At the coming election DUP supporters will point to the 25% vote for Sinn Féin last month to put pressure on the UUP not to stand. But if the UUP withdraws Westminster candidates from constituencies where it currently holds an Assembly seat, will that not further weaken the party?
The UUP will face some hard decisions within the next eighteen months, it needs to prepare to handle them with coherence. If it ends up saying and doing different things in different constituencies, it will get the worst of both worlds.
The eagle-eyed will spot that there is a grey bar which has not appeared on previous charts. That represents the votes of Independent councillor Jarleth Tinnelley. The evidence for where to assign those votes is not solid. While there is transfer information from 2011 which suggested that he had very few unionist voters, almost half his votes failed to transfer to the remaining SDLP or SF candidates. Those of his voters who transferred to nationalists went 2 to SDLP for every 1 to Sinn Féin. His vote this time was nearly 369 down on the previous election, in a District Electoral Area where Sinn Féin gained 2,566 and Alliance 177. So, it is natural to speculate that some of his previous SF support has peeled off and that his vote now leans even more strongly towards SDLP, Others and personal voters who only turn out to vote for him. But that is only speculation.
On these figures the DUP seat is safe, as is the single SDLP and 2 Sinn Féin.
Last time just over half of the transfers that got Alliance elected came from Sinn Féin. This time they can be expected to run three candidates in an effort to take the Alliance seat.
Alliance has one thing in its favour, as will be seen when we look at the Resource Index, it has significantly increased its elected representation in the constituency over the last four years, which gives it new opportunities to build its vote share. On the other hand, and more to the point, these vote figures show that it has lost share since the Assembly election.
Towards the end of the count three candidates would be left Alliance, SF and the UUP. The UUP would be eliminated. Alliance can only expect to receive about half of the UUP votes with the rest not transferring. That would leave Alliance sitting on, or a bit above, 0.8 of a quota while the third Sinn Féin candidate could be somewhere between 0.8 and a bit below 0.9.
Too close to call.
Now you can see why we spent so much time examining Jarleth Tinnelly’s votes – because that can make the difference between who wins and who loses the final seat in the Assembly election.
No need to read the runes on Independent votes for the Westminster election. On these figures Sinn Féin would be heading for an increased majority, despite the tactical votes that the SDLP can expect to receive.
Here are the links to the second, third and fourth articles in the series.
Michael Hehir is a retired sales and marketing manager. He studied in Northern Ireland but now lives between England and Italy.