GE ’24: North Belfast Constituency Profile…

This was the fourth most marginal Westminster constituency in Northern Ireland in 2019 when John Finucane (Sinn Féin) took the seat from the DUP’s Nigel Dodds with a majority of 1,943. Dodds had held the seat for 18 years. Before Dodds all MP’s had been unionist since the constituency was first created in 1885 – apart that is from a few months between 1973 and 1974 after the sitting Unionist MP, Stratton Mills, defected to the Alliance party.

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The changes made to the constituency boundaries last November were not substantial, although they are expected to make the constituency less marginal.

Candidates

Phillip Brett, DUP

David Clarke, TUV

Fiona Ferguson, People Before Profit

John Finucane, Sinn Féin

Nuala McAllister, Alliance

Mal O’Hara, Green

Carl Whyte, SDLP

UUP is not standing

Candidates’ Electoral History

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Vote shares by designation

There were no changes to the boundaries between 2010 and 2023.

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Please note that some Local Government electoral areas cross constituency boundaries which means that the LG figures have been estimated.

It is clear why this has been one of the two most contested constituencies at successive elections, with unionists and nationalists within a whisker of each other over most of the period. Although both have shown dips and recoveries, the overall trend has been for nationalists to hold steady, while unionists have experienced a marked decline in the last five years. Both designations peak in Westminster elections, where the narrow difference between them has always squeezed the Other vote.

The unionist vote fell below 40% for the first time last year in the Council elections, although it is possible that this may have been exacerbated by an element of differential turnout.

Over the period the unionist trendline has dropped 8% points and the Others has risen by the same amount.

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This is not a high turnout constituency, but participation has increased in Westminster and Assembly elections.

Vote share by party in Assembly and Local Government Elections

In the majority of constituencies there is an element of tactical voting in Westminster elections. Changes in the underlying strength of the principal parties within a constituency can best be understood by looking at their performance in other elections.

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In addition to these parties, the PUP contested most Assembly and Council elections, achieving a high point of 7% in 2014 and declining to 1% last year. The Greens and PBPA each won a council seat in 2019 but lost them again last year, PBPA with 3% and the Greens with 4%. A wide variety of smaller parties and Independents sporadically compete. In Council elections these in total can account for 4%, 5% and even 6% of the total vote.

Over the period the DUP trend line has shown a drop of 10% points and the UUP of 2%. The TUV is up by 2% when it stands.

The SDLP has fallen 6% points, almost all of that since 2019, to the obvious advantage of Sinn Féin which is up by 5%.

Alliance is up 3% points.

Vote share in Westminster elections

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When it comes to Westminster designations normally become more important than individual parties, and that is particularly so in North Belfast. The UUP have not even contested the last three Westminster elections, leaving the DUP as the sole unionist candidate. The SDLP stood down in 2019 leaving SF as the only nationalist. To complete the trio, Alliance was the only Other.

The boundary changes

Calculating the effects of changes to constituency boundaries is not straightforward since there is no record of precisely how past votes for each party were distributed geographically. Necessarily this involves estimates and assumptions, and these may differ. For many years the UK media have all used the calculations provided by two academics, Rallings and Thrasher, to provide a notional result of how each constituency would have voted at the previous general election if the latest boundaries had been in force. For Northern Ireland their inputs are provided by Nicholas Whyte. These will be the base from which the media will report voting swings when constituency results are declared.

I used different assumptions for my own calculations of the notional vote which resulted in slightly different outcomes. In the following chart the Actual result in 2019 is compared with my estimate and the R&T estimate.

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As can be seen the principal difference is that R&T assumes that if voters are moved into a constituency there would have been a candidate to vote for, whereas I assume the candidate choice remains as it was.

This gives different notional majorities for 2019.

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Both estimates agree that the new boundaries should advantage Sinn Féin.

Resources

In addition to money, the other key resource for an election campaign is the level of constituency work running up to the campaign, and the manpower available in the campaign itself. When it comes to constituency work MP’s and MLA’s have the advantage of an allowance for constituency offices and for a staffing. The amount of staffing money is specified, but MP’s and MLA’s can choose to allocate it to fewer higher-paid staff or a greater number of lower-paid staff.

When it comes to manpower for canvassing and leafleting a party’s elected representatives normally form the core of the group available. Party’s may also choose to bring in helpers from neighbouring constituencies which they have no hope of winning.

The Index Total for each party gives some idea of the relative strength of each party locally.

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There has been a lot of change in party resources since the last election. Then the DUP enjoyed a large advantage with the benefit of incumbency and one more councillor than Sinn Féin. This time their standings have been reversed.

The SDLP gave Sinn Féin a free run in 2019, but although they have put up a candidate this time, their reduction to a single elected representative means that there is likely to be very little contest on the ground for the nationalist vote. SF will simply have to concentrate on maximising nationalist turnout, while the DUP canvassers will be obliged to spend time shoring up their support against the TUV challenge as well as chasing turnout.

In addition, SF can import all their activists from South Belfast, where they are not standing, and many from West Belfast where their seat is safe. The DUP’s ability to do the same will be more limited by the need to supplement their forces in East Belfast, South Antrim and Lagan Valley.

Factors possibly assisting Sinn Féin

4.0% points ahead of DUP at the last election.

Boundary changes may add between 2% and 4% points to that lead.

Their MP has enjoyed the advantage of paid staffing for constituency case work which may blunt the effect of SDLP intervention.

The TUV could take 7% share points off the DUP if it achieves the same level of support as it did in the 2022 Assembly election. At the time of writing the latest polling figure from LucidTalk showed the TUV on 5% in early June across the 16 constituencies they are contesting in this election. That compares with the 6% they achieved in the same constituencies in the Assembly election. In other words, the TUV support had barely moved.

Factors possibly assisting the DUP

Lack of local TUV resources could limit its ability to take votes from the DUP.

Given the constituency’s tradition of unionist unity in Westminster elections, some TUV supporters may vote tactically for the DUP.

Conclusion

The balance of possibilities suggest that Sinn Féin should win with an increased majority.


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