Fear not, for we’re going to do this year’s constituency tour as a sprint rather than last year’s marathon. Links to last year’s constituency profiles will be provided; all we’re going to do in this brief series is to try and make some tentative guesses about who’s going to win what where. Benchmarking, if you will. So, here we go.
2007 Stormont results: DUP 37.6%, 3 seats; UUP 22.0%, 1 seat; Alliance 18.8%, 1 seat; PUP 10.3%, 1 seat; SF 3.6%; SDLP 2.8%; Green 2.2%; Cons 1.4%; Socialist Party 0.8%; WP 0.4%; Rainbow George 0.2%.
2010 Westminster results: Long (Alliance) 37.2%; Robinson (DUP) 32.8%; Ringland (UUP/UCUNF) 21.2%; Vance (TUV) 5.4%; Ó Donnghaile (SF) 2.4%; Muldoon (SDLP) 1.1%.
2011 Stormont candidates: Tommy Black (Socialist Party); Judith Cochrane (Alliance); Ann Cooper (BNP); Michael Copeland (UUP); Sammy Douglas (DUP); Brian Ervine (PUP); Martin Gregg (Green); Chris Lyttle (Alliance); Kevin McNally (WP); Robin Newton (DUP); Niall Ó Donnghaile (SF); Dawn Purvis (Ind); Peter Robinson (DUP); Philip Robinson [no relation] (UUP); Stephen Stewart (Ind); Harry Toan (TUV); Magdalena Wolska (SDLP).
An extremely long ballot paper in East Belfast. This is of course where we had the sole upset of last year – but what an upset! – as Naomi Long dethroned Peter Robinson from the seat he had held since 1979. It’s important for the DUP to re-establish themselves as the biggest party in the East, and they probably will. The first four seats will likely be Peter Robinson, Robin Newton, Michael Copeland and one of the Alliance candidates.
Now, this is where it gets interesting. For one thing, the DUP were short of a third quota in 2007 and the last seat was won by Robin Newton with a 517-vote gap over Michael Copeland simply because the DUP was much better at balancing its vote than the UUP. That’s likely to still be the case, though if the DUP share sinks below 35% three seats will still be a stretch.
Further, on the back of Naomi’s success, Alliance are convinced they can take a second seat. Even given that there was massive tactical voting last year, Alliance wouldn’t need to get much more than 20% for that to be a realistic possibility. They soak up transfers on the later counts, and there will be at least a couple of thousand votes from eliminated nationalist, socialist and Green candidates that’ll transfer Alliance if they transfer at all.
The joker in the pack is Dawn Purvis, who surprised a lot of people including myself by holding the late David Ervine’s seat last time out. This time Dawn has of course parted company with the PUP and is running as an independent. It would be foolish to underestimate her – she’s locally popular, transfer-friendly and may be even more transfer-friendly now she doesn’t have the burly men in ill-fitting suits to live down. However, there will be pressure on first preferences from the PUP’s new leader Brian Ervine, brother of David. Moreover, the DUP has sought to overcome its weakness in inner East Belfast by replacing the retiring Wallace Browne with Sammy Douglas, a community worker and former UDA man who may have been specifically chosen to appeal to the burly-men-in-ill-fitting-suits demographic. Be interesting to see how that plays out.
There will also be some council races worth watching in the area. Alliance are hoping to score big in Victoria. Meanwhile, there are several features of interest in Pottinger: Sinn Féin will be pushing hard to regain the seat they lost in 2005; the PUP’s Dr John Kyle may be vulnerable; and Sammy Wilson’s departure from local government leaves the DUP a bit naked in the area.
2007 Stormont results: DUP 34.1%, 2 seats; UUP 23.7%, 2 seats; Alliance 10.2%, 1 seat; Green 9.2%, 1 seat; UKUP 5.9%; Brian Rowan 3.9%; Alan Chambers 3.7%; SDLP 3.6%; Cons 2.8%; SF 1.3%; PUP 1.2%; Chris Carter 0.4%.
2010 Westminster results: Hermon (Ind) 63.3%; Parsley (Cons/UCUNF) 20.4%; Farry (Alliance) 5.6%; Agnew (Green) 3.1%; Logan (SDLP) 2.0%; Parker (SF) 0.8%.
2011 Stormont candidates: Steve Agnew (Green); Colin Breen (UUP); Alan Chambers (Ind); Leslie Cree (UUP); Gordon Dunne (DUP); Alex Easton (DUP); Stephen Farry (Alliance); Conor Keenan (SF); Liam Logan (SDLP); Alan McFarland (Ind); Fred McGlade (UKIP); Peter Weir (DUP); Anne Wilson (Alliance).
And now we move to the constituency nobody wants to predict. North Down’s eccentricity is proverbial, and the extraordinary conditions of last year’s Westminster election make it useless for extrapolation. I’ll stick my neck out and say that the first four seats will go two DUP, one UUP and one Alliance. Beyond that is anybody’s guess.
One interesting feature is that one of the sitting UUP MLAs, Alan McFarland, departed the party along with local MP, the wildly popular Lady Sylvia Hermon, and is running as an independent. As the nearest thing in the race to an ersatz Sylvia, I quite fancy his chances. Watch out too for perennial independent councillor Alan Chambers.
I also think Steve Agnew is going to have a tough time of it retaining Brian Wilson’s seat for the Greens. He should do respectably, but… Brian was a long-serving councillor, first for Alliance and then as an independent, before joining the Greens, and a huge amount of his vote would have been personal. I don’t even think Brian is an actual member of the Green Party any more, making it even harder for Steve to hold onto his vote. In which case, the second Alliance candidate, veteran councillor Anne Wilson (ex-wife of Brian; yes, North Down is like that) is worth keeping an eye on.
2007 Stormont results: DUP 50.1%, 4 seats; UUP 18.1%, 1 seat; Alliance 11.3%, 1 seat; SDLP 8.5%; SF 3.0%; UKUP 2.4%; Green 2.4%; Martin Gregg 1.8%; Cons 1.4%; Cedric Wilson 0.8%.
2010 Westminster results: Shannon (DUP) 45.9%; Nesbitt (UUP/UCUNF) 27.8%; Girvan (Alliance) 8.7%; Hanna (SDLP) 6.7%; Williams (TUV) 5.6%; Coogan (SF) 3.6%; Haig (Green) 1.7%.
2011 Stormont candidates: Cecil Andrews (UKIP); Jonathan Bell (DUP); Joe Boyle (SDLP); Mickey Coogan (SF); Simon Hamilton (DUP); Kieran McCarthy (Alliance); Michelle McIlveen (DUP); David McNarry (UUP); TV’s Mike Nesbitt (UUP); Billy Walker (DUP); Terry Williams (TUV).
Strangford is DUP country, solidly so, but we can easily predict a loss for the party here. In 2007 this area had the closest result anywhere as Michelle McIlveen took the last seat with a 31-vote lead over the SDLP’s Joe Boyle. If you factor in boundary changes bringing in around a thousand nationalist voters in the Ballynahinch area, I think there’s a very good chance of Joe making it this time.
And that’s even without considering the scandals surrounding the constituency’s former MP, which haven’t helped the local DUP, or that this will be the first election in a very long time without either Iris Robinson or Jim Shannon on a Strangford ballot paper. Nonetheless, the core DUP vote in Strangford is sufficiently massive that I can’t very well see them dropping below what they need to hold three seats, unless something goes incredibly wrong with their balancing.
So let’s say three seats for the DUP, one SDLP and there’ll certainly be one for the UUP. The sixth, then, comes down to the UUP or Alliance. The Alliance seat in Strangford has never been entirely secure, and it’s conceivable that DUP and TUV transfers could push a second UUP candidate over the line. And yet… it’s hard to imagine Kieran McCarthy, who’s been around since the Cretaceous era, actually losing his seat. I think he’ll do well enough on first preferences to be hard to catch.
As for the UUP, last year’s result, though rendered unclear by tactical voting, indicates that there’s a second seat for them if they’re disciplined, dynamic and balance their vote. But come on, this is the UUP we’re talking about. The nearest thing they’ve got to a strategy is splitting their ticket between McNarry, who appeals to that element of the traditional Loyal Orders vote that isn’t already voting DUP, and Nesbitt, who appeals to that element of liberal unionism that isn’t already voting Alliance. Which sums up the UUP’s problem in a nutshell, even given that they’re awful at balancing and not a few members of the UUP leadership would be really quite relaxed about McNarry being defeated.
Note also the TUV vote as a barometer of that party’s appeal. This is a constituency with a bit of a history of voting for dissident unionism, and in former Ards mayor Terry Williams the party has a candidate who ticks many unionist boxes, as well as being a thoroughly decent human being. If they have difficulty breaking through in Strangford they will just about everywhere else, though as elsewhere their transfers could be decisive.
Finally, there’s an odd little drama at council level, as the Ards Peninsula DUP have deselected both their sitting councillors, who are running as independents. Nobody seems to know why and neither side is telling, but there have been fearsome imprecations hurled in the pages of the Newtownards Chronicle.