Big Heid Coont ’11: why the UUP is banjaxed

They aren’t the only ones in this situation, of course. We may begin by noting, parenthetically, that the TUV is also banjaxed.

Yes, Jim Allister and his merry band continue to disappoint. From Jim’s 66,000 votes at the Euro election two years ago, to the 26,000 the TUV polled in last year’s Westminster election, to the 16,000 polled for Stormont last week, this looks very much like diminishing returns having set in. True, Jim is in the Assembly (returned under quota on the last count in North Antrim), but with an Assembly party of one, plus a mere six councillors to back him up… well, one gets a profound sense of Bob McCartney redux. No wonder Walter Millar was moved to publicly speculate on whether the TUV even had a future; and we suspect Sunny Jim will shortly be having a painful interview with the boys who fund the TUV, and who will at some point be expecting some bang for their buck.

More on this from Turgon, but we may note in the meantime that there is in fact quite a large constituency of hardline unionists out there, particularly west of the Bann. But they aren’t supporting the TUV, so who might they be supporting?

An’ sae Ah gie yis Tractor Tam:

We have in the past noticed that border unionism is a very different beast indeed from its greater Belfast counterpart, and nowhere more so than in Fermanagh, which is like a whole wee country by itself. Certainly, about this time some urban UUP types will be scratching their heads at a party leader who resembles nothing so much as Harry West stepping out of a time-travelling DeLorean.

But first, let us consider just what a shocker this election has been for what was our ruling party for fifty years. Taking the Assembly first, a decline from eighteen seats to sixteen doesn’t look great, especially as that will probably cost the party one of its two ministries. But that scoreline is deceptively flattering in a couple of ways. One is the two gains the party largely fluked, with a very narrow win for Big Ross Hussey in West Tyrone, and a second seat in Strangford achieved by boundary changes that disadvantaged the DUP coupled with the continued underperformance of Strangford’s nationalist vote. But set that against the party’s losses: chief whip Fred Cobain gone in North Belfast, the party’s second seat gone in what should be the heartland of North Down, a seat lost to Sinn Féin in East Antrim, and then the horrible self-inflicted wound in East Derry, where the constituency association deselected popular sitting MLA David McClarty, who then went on to win the seat as an independent, polling more votes than the two official UUP candidates combined.

Moreover, there’s little comfort in the detail. Only three candidates (leader Tom Elliott, minister Danny Kennedy and wannabe leader Basil McCrea) elected on the first count. A whole wheen of candidates scraping in on very late counts, including people like Roy Beggs, health minister Michael McGimpsey, David McNarry and Leslie Cree who should not by any stretch of the imagination be vulnerable. Two seats out of 24 in Belfast, and both of those were a stretch. Only two constituencies (Strangford and Upper Bann, and those two only barely) where the party could take a second seat. And nowhere – literally no constituency – where the UUP beat the DUP on first preferences. Below 10% in East Belfast; only just above it in North Down. This is a party with no margin for further slippage.

There’s a political point here and a sociological-geographical point. Firstly, it’s important to get rid of the preconception that the UUP is the moderate party and the DUP the hardline party. That may have been true a decade ago; today, in terms at least of the dominant factions in both parties, it’s the other way round. And in fact border unionism has never been remotely liberal – just ask yourself who exactly was voting for Harry West, Willie Ross and Enoch Powell all those years. During the election coverage, Jeffrey Donaldson (who knows a thing or two about the UUP) suggested that Tom had positioned his party as TUV Lite; Brian Feeney rather more acidly commented that the main difference between Elliott and Allister was that Sunny Jim was a much more urbane and sophisticated politician. Ouch.

There’s a certain cosmic inevitability to all this, and volumes could be written about the decline and fall of the once mighty UUP. (Or, if a publisher is reading this, at least a comic novel in Colin Bateman stylee.) There is certainly a story to be told about Bob McCartney, from his initial Westminster campaign backed by a motley coalition of unreconstructed Stalinists, loyalist paramilitaries and gay rights activists, right up to his entire breakaway party falling out with him and his quixotic attempt to simultaneously win Assembly seats in six constituencies so that he, Bob, could then wield six votes without having to bother with inconvenient party colleagues.

There’s a story to be told about the Baby Barristers, and how they conspired to bring down Jim Molyneaux and place David Trimble in the leadership, only to very quickly become completely browned off with Trimble, conspire at great length against him, then decamp en masse to the DUP. There’s a story to be told about Jeffrey Donaldson’s whole series of abortive putsches, where he made Trimble’s life impossible but failed to muster enough support to take over himself. And there’s a story to be told about Reg Empey’s harebrained schemes, culminating in the UCUNF debacle.

But to cut a long story short, the departure of the ex-Vanguard leadership around Trimble and Empey exposes the cultural gap between the UUP’s different sectors, mainly along the rural versus urban/suburban axis. Michael has some thoughts on this, but I think Professor Billy sums it up well:

They hiv nat so much fallen betwain’ twa stools as walked in a pair o’ them an’ then tread them all o’er the carpet. On the yin hawn, ye hiv lovely Basil wi’ his hair an’ his wee friends, scootin’ aroun’ the metrapolis like a wee smart car wi’ jazz oan the Aye Pod. On the o’er ye hiv Tam settin’ the muck spreader til full blast oan the back o’ his Massey, an’ slippin’ “The Best of Corbet Accordian Band” intil his 8 track. Ye cannae be the TUV, DUP, Alliance an’ Conservatives all at the same time, Ah think, in fact it is a miracle anybudy votes fur yis at all.

I couldn’t put it better myself. The basic point is that, since it lost its dominant position in unionism a decade ago, the UUP collectively has not known what to be at. And so it’s devolved into its constituent parts. You see, the UUP of old was not so much a big tent as an entire campsite, and the only thing that could keep disparate figures such as John Carson, Willie Ross, Harold McCusker and Enoch Powell (not to mention such prodigal figures as Bill Craig and Jim Kilfedder) in the same party was the very fact of it being a big party that could accommodate such a tangle of contradictions.

But this scattered nature has meant the UUP has been extremely vulnerable to having bits of its base cannibalised. Over the past decade, much of its traditional Middle Ulster electorate, and a large proportion of its actual cadre, has defected to the DUP. The fur coat brigade has gone over almost in its entirety to Alliance. It’s still shaking loose bits and pieces. In last week’s elections there was a very large vote in Kilkeel for UKIP councillor Henry Reilly, who used to be in the UUP and has taken his voters with him almost wholesale. And it’s said that David McClarty had a team of forty volunteers canvassing Coleraine, which is damn impressive when you consider that many UUP councillors canvass single-handed, and some don’t appear to know what a canvass is.

The UUP electorate these days boils down to three elements: rural Orangemen who like the cut of Tom Elliott’s jib; councillors who for whatever reason won’t join the DUP or Alliance (and who have personal followings based on them being useful public representatives); and elderly folk who think they’re still voting for Lord Brookeborough. The party still has a large membership, and some semblance of organisation in most areas, but this isn’t a great foundation to be building on.[1]

And here we come to realise that the Tom Elliott issue is not merely an issue of Tom’s leadership qualities. Tom actually ticks many UUP boxes – service in the UDR, past County Grand Master of the Orange Order in Fermanagh, member of the Royal Black Preceptory – and that goes down mighty well with Tom’s own voters in the Dreary Steeples. But here’s the thing. The big votes last week for Tom or indeed Danny Kennedy availed them little, as neither of them were in a position to bring in a running mate in their border constituencies. Much as the culchies may resent this, greater Belfast is where most unionist voters are, and there needs to be some appeal to the urbanites. Basil McCrea at least grasps the problem, even if he doesn’t have a convincing solution.

The road block is the nature of the UUP itself. A very large proportion of its membership – those people who made Tom leader – resides in Tyrone or Fermanagh. So do many of its councillors, which has been confirmed by the local government elections. Of the party’s current 99 councillors, a full 27 are based in the three western counties, with the border districts of Armagh and Newry & Mourne accounting for a further six and three respectively. In only three of the 26 districts did the UUP outpoll the DUP – Fermanagh, Armagh and Banbridge. The centre of gravity is firmly shifting to the border.

Then look at those results in the metropolis. As late as 2001 the UUP was the biggest party in Belfast City Hall. It is now down to from seven to three councillors out of 51. This puts it equal in representation with the PUP and UPRG, the loyalist micro-parties which represent the interests of Uncle Andy and Big Mervyn. It came in fifth place in the popular vote with 8.6%. Radiating out, the party is now down to three seats in Castlereagh and three in North Down. Not only is it continuing to leak support to the DUP, but a resurgent Alliance Party has been mauling it in what remains of the liberal unionist electorate. There’s very little of an urban base to rebuild from.

And the cluelessness continues with the decision to form a mini-UUUC on Castlereagh council, a decision rightly lambasted in today’s News Letter by Alex Kane and Basil McCrea, on the not unreasonable grounds that it a) gets the backs up of those voters who’ve been drifting from the UUP to Alliance, and b) turns the UUP locally into an appendage of the DUP, which is great for the DUP but not so great for those punters in Castlereagh who specifically chose to vote UUP.

Is it possible to reverse this trend towards an ultra-conservative Border Unionist Party with no discernible appeal to anyone living east of Lough Neagh ? I really can’t see it, and I’m not even sure that Tom even comprehends the issue. And I tell you what, if I were leading the Alliance Party I’d want to keep the phone lines open to people like Basil McCrea or Mike Nesbitt, just in case.

Oh, and the SDLP is also banjaxed, but we’ll deal with them later.

[1] This may be apocryphal, but some estimates have the UUP having a larger paid-up membership than the DUP. Obviously that doesn’t equate to either activists on the ground or electoral success, as with Fianna Fáil in the south, which in some ways is reminiscent of the UUP post its 2005 wipeout.

An’ jist a wee bit mair fae Big Heid Coont ’11 #ae11

Just by way of an afterthought, a few links of interest. Above you’ll see the hyperlocal Sinn Féin broadcast for North Antrim candidate Daithí McKay, complete with groovy Monty Python animations.

This wee blog is not the only place that’s been doing previews. FitzjamesHorse has been doing top work along these lines. Go and have a look.

From the lower-profile end of the election, the Workers Party has an election blog; West Belfast socialist candidate Brian Pelan has a blog; and Alan in Belfast, who’s always worth following on the local political scene, has gone off the beaten track with a series of interviews with the smaller parties.

And finally, Professor Billy is instructing our community of monoglot Ulster-Scots speakers who fur til be votin’ fur.

Constituency whistle-stop, part the final: Gotham City #ae11

And so for the last of our bite-sized mini-meals we arrive back at the metropolis.

North Belfast

2007 Stormont results: DUP 37.4%, 2 seats; SF 30.6%, 2 seats; SDLP 13.7%, 1 seat; UUP 8.4%, 1 seat; Raymond McCord 4.4%; Green 2.0; Alliance 1.6%; UKUP 1.2%; WP 0.5%; Rainbow George 0.1%.

2010 Westminster results: Dodds (DUP) 40.0%; Kelly (SF) 34.0%; Maginness (SDLP) 12.3%; Cobain (UUP/UCUNF) 7.7%; Webb (Alliance) 4.9%; McAuley (Ind).

2011 Stormont candidates: Paula Bradley (DUP); Fred Cobain (UUP); William Humphrey (DUP); Gerry Kelly (SF); John Lavery (WP); JJ Magee (SF); Alban Maginness (SDLP); Nelson McCausland (DUP); Raymond McCord (Ind); Carál Ní Chuilín (SF); Billy Webb (Alliance).

Multiple features of interest in the north of the city. Actually the least of these is the extensive boundary change, since the mass exodus of Ardoyne residents to Glengormley is making the suburbs look more and more like the Inner North in demographic terms. Note also that the combined nationalist vote share is in the mid-forties, and the unionist share barely scraping half, in what used to be a safe unionist seat.

The nationalist side is straightforward enough. Sinn Féin have two quotas plus change, and will easily retain their two seats, with the third candidate being there as a marker rather than a current prospect. The SDLP, whose core vote in the area is quite resilient, will turn in the guts of a quota, and Allbran won’t have any trouble being re-elected.

It’s on the unionist side where we have an injection of colour. One dash comes from victims’ campaigner Raymond McCord (very much a good egg) who has done sterling work in exposing a whole network of corruption linked to his son’s murder in 1997 by a UVF unit that turned out to be so riddled with police informers as effectively to be an unofficial arm of the state. This, unfortunately, is the sort of murky thing that happened on multiple occasions during the Troubles, in north Belfast more than anywhere. Mr McCord, incidentally, received bog all support from local unionist politicians, and doesn’t mind saying so in very trenchant terms. And he strikes a chord with those working-class Protestants who don’t like their estates being run by burly men in ill-fitting suits.

There’s also perennial UUP man Fred Cobain, who surreally was the Conservative and Unionist candidate here last year despite being a self-described socialist who’d really rather be in the Labour Party. Fred’s working-class credentials are so solid that he once left a UUP conference halfway through so as to attend a Crusaders match. Over the years, I’ve sort of warmed to Fred as a sort of relict of a kind of local politico you don’t get any more.

And, if you want a dash of colour, a whole paint pot is provided by culture minister Nelson McCausland, and never was a man better qualified for a ministerial post. Not only is Nelson a fluent speaker of Ulster Scots, he has a slightly alarming habit of whipping out his accordion and playing folksy ballads without prior warning. For many years Nelson was heid-yin of the Lord’s Day Observance Society, a rather old-school organisation that likes to go around chaining up swings in children’s play areas. He’s also, believe it or not, a British Israelite; and, in a perhaps not unconnected twist, has been rather keen in his ministerial role to encourage our museums to give a fair crack of the whip to Young Earth Creationism. Except for a few odd places in the west of Scotland, it’s hard to think of anywhere else where you’d get a politician quite like Nelson McCausland.

Right now, what are those electoral calculations? Well, it’s safe to assume two seats for the DUP. In fact, the DUP’s first preference tally last time around should have snaffled it three seats and a monopoly of unionist representation, but this did not come to pass thanks to some egregiously egotistical quota-squatting from Nigel Dodds, an anachronism in a DUP that these days aspires to manage its vote with pinpoint accuracy. The resulting transfer leakage allowed Fred Cobain to cling on despite being nowhere near a quota on the first count (and even some way off on the final count).

The question, then, will be whether the DUP can exert enough discipline to secure that elusive third, or whether Fred will frustrate them yet again. Raymond McCord’s transfers could come into play here; and last time out, Fred was helped along by some friendly transfers from the SDLP.

Finally, Fordy has named North Belfast as an Alliance target, to which I can only reply that our justice minister must have been having a senior moment.

West Belfast

2007 Stormont results: SF 69.9%, 5 seats; SDLP 12.2%, 1 seat; DUP 10.8%, PBP 2.3%; UUP 1.7%; WP 1.3%; RSF 1.3%; Alliance 0.4%; Rainbow George 0.2%.

2010 Westminster results: Adams (SF) 71.1%; Attwood (SDLP) 16.4%; Humphrey (DUP) 7.6%; Manwaring (UUP/UCUNF) 3.1%; Hendron (Alliance) 1.9%.

2011 Stormont candidates: Alex Attwood (SDLP); Gerry Carroll (PBP); Colin Keenan (SDLP); Brian Kingston (DUP); Pat Lawlor (Socialist Party); John Lowry (WP); Bill Manwaring (UUP); Paul Maskey
(SF); Fra McCann (SF); Jennifer McCann (SF); Dan McGuinness (Alliance); Brian Pelan (SD); Sue Ramsey (SF); Pat Sheehan (SF).

Next we turn to the north’s nearest approximation of a one-party state. Last time out, Sinn Féin did something quite incredible in a PR election by taking five seats out of six. They did this by first, taking 4.89 quotas on first preferences; secondly by balancing their candidates very well, not the easiest thing to do with Gerry Adams on the ballot; thirdly by keeping their transfers very tight indeed. Worth noting, too, that in the last local government elections the party took five seats out of five in the Lower Falls electoral area with an 85.2% vote share, and four out of five in Upper Falls with 75.2%. Even with the incursion of non-SF republicans into the local government race, you wouldn’t bet against them repeating the trick.

Arguably, Gerry’s departure for Louth weakens the ticket. But it will be worth watching to see whether the most efficient political machine in the north can pull off the five-seat trick again.

If they do, then who takes the sixth? In 2007, the SDLP only had 0.85% of a quota between their two candidates, with Alex Attwood being elected beneath quota on the last count. There is a school of thought in Sinn Féin that wouldn’t mind the DUP regaining their West Belfast seat – of which more in a sec – provided this was at Attwood’s expense. And it’s risky on the SDLP’s part to run two candidates when they can’t be certain of even getting one quota. I do, however, think they will hang on this time, though they may be reliant on small-party transfers. There is enough of a core SDLP vote in, say, the nicer bits of Andersonstown to get them close enough to a quota for it not to be much of a stretch, and to retain that lone council seat in Upper Falls. The longer-term problem for the SDLP, here more evident than elsewhere, is that their vote is quite elderly, the more prosperous elements of it have migrated to South Belfast, they have no organisation worth talking about, and the West Belfast SDLP voter is incredibly demoralised after years of having their ass whipped by Gerry. As a paradigm of the problem, young people here may not vote in great numbers, but those who do vote monolithically for Sinn Féin.

Now, what about that unionist seat? There should, theoretically, be the chance of one; indeed, the DUP’s Diane Dodds did win a seat here in 2003. But it’s always been touch and go. Last time out the two unionist candidates had a combined 0.87 of a quota, but with nobody to get transfers from but each other, Diane Dodds was left in seventh place, 500 votes short. There just aren’t enough unionist voters left in West Belfast to make that seat a certainty, and those that are there don’t turn out in enough numbers to elect an MLA. Although again, perhaps Gerry’s appeal to working-class Protestants to turn out and vote was not a sign of cross-community socialism, but rather an attempt to cut Attwood off at the knees.

Finally, West Belfast voters are spoiled by having no less than four varieties of the further left pitching for their number 1. Sigh. I know the differences between the groups are significant to the groups, but they don’t appear terribly significant to the average punter, and the leftist alphabet soup struggling to avoid the wooden spoon and, inevitably, some group crowing about the historic significance of it getting a handful more votes than the others – well, it makes the left look silly. Especially as the Socialist Party and People Before Profit are in an actual electoral alliance south of the border.

South Belfast

2007 Stormont results: SDLP 26.8%, 2 seats; DUP 22.4%, 1 seat; UUP 18.4%, 1 seat; SF 13.2%, 1 seat; Alliance 12.6%, 1 seat; Green 2.4%; PUP 1.4%; UKUP 1.0%; Socialist Party 0.8%; WP 0.4%; Cons 0.4%; Rainbow George 0.2%; Procapitalism 0.1%; Geoffrey Wilson 0.03%.

2010 Westminster results: McDonnell (SDLP) 41.0%; Spratt (DUP) 23.7%; Bradshaw (UUP/UCUNF) 17.3%; Lo (Alliance) 15.0%; McGibbon (Green) 3.0%.

2011 Stormont candidates: Clare Bailey (Green); Brian Faloon (PBP); Mark Finlay (UUP); Anna Lo (Alliance); Paddy Lynn (WP); Alex Maskey (SF); Conall McDevitt (SDLP); Big Al McDonnell (SDLP); Michael McGimpsey (UUP); Paddy Meehan (Socialist Party); Ruth Patterson (DUP); Charles Smyth (Procapitalism); Jimmy Spratt (DUP); Nico Torregrosa (UKIP).

We conclude our tour with a constituency where, again, the best bet is for no change, with all six incumbents being returned. Not a foregone conclusion, though, and South Belfast is synonymous with tight races.

The SDLP, helped by Westminster incumbency, are likely to retain their two seats. While it’s true that the boundary change makes South Belfast nominally a little less nationalist, this is probably the constituency with the most rapid demographic shift, and the SDLP will be close enough to two quotas to hang on. Arguably, that’s the least interesting thing in one of the few constituencies where the SDLP has a semblance of organisation, as its two branches (Ormeau/Stranmillis and Malone/Finaghy) have been in a state of undeclared tribal warfare for as long as anyone can remember. Carmel Hanna’s retirement has not ended this as her replacement, strategy whizzkid Conall McDevitt, is closely identified with the Margaret Ritchie leadership and therefore not the pin-up boy of the more enthusiastic McDonnell tribesmen. That’s a soap that will run and run, as evidenced by the McDonnell posters on the Ormeau that say “McDevitt 2” in microscopic print.

The UUP, which had two seats in the constituency not so long ago, will have enough votes to re-elect Gimpo, but isn’t doing too well in South Belfast. Its South Belfast candidate of last year, Paula Bradshaw, has defected to Alliance, while the DUP is squatting its more traditional vote in places like Sandy Row. Anna Lo, on the other hand, did very well last year, and should cruise home with the support, not merely of traditional Alliance types plus the Chinese community, but also the good will of those many liberal-minded people in South Belfast who approve in principle of having Anna Lo in the Assembly.

Jimmy Spratt is also odds on, which only leaves Alex Maskey. Last time around, that last seat was quite close. Despite having 0.92 of a quota on first preferences, Maskey proved incredibly transfer-repellent, only picking up 170 transfers over the course of ten counts, and coming in some 900 votes ahead of the runner-up, the DUP’s Chris Stalford. Any slippage whatsoever in Maskey’s first preferences would leave him vulnerable; on the other hand, his withdrawal last year in McDonnell’s favour won’t have done his chances of receiving SDLP voters’ number 3 any harm. I would tend to think he’s close enough to be very difficult indeed to catch.

Sin é, and phew. Thank God I wasn’t doing previews of the 26 district councils.

Constituency whistle-stop, part 5: the orange crescent #ae11

On the home straight now, we head back northwards and eastwards.

Lagan Valley

2007 Stormont results: DUP 48.1%, 3 seats; UUP 18.6%, 1 seat; SF 12.2%, 1 seat; Alliance 9.0%, 1 seat; SDLP 6.8%; Green 2.2%; UKUP 2.0%; Cons 0.9%; WP 0.2%.

2010 Westminster results: Donaldson (DUP) 49.8%; Trimble (UUP/UCUNF) 21.1%; Lunn (Alliance) 11.4%; Harbinson (TUV) 8.6%; Heading (SDLP) 5.0%; Butler (SF) 4.0%.

2011 Stormont candidates: Pat Catney (SDLP); Jonathan Craig (DUP); Paul Givan (DUP); Brenda Hale (DUP); Mark Hill (UUP); Trevor Lunn (Alliance); Basil McCrea (UUP); Edwin Poots (DUP); Conor Quinn (Green); Mary-Kate Quinn (SF); Lyle Rea (TUV).

In a generally boring election, we can be certain of changes in the Kingdom of Jeffrey. For one thing, Jeffrey Donaldson himself is not standing, having opted for the grander stage of Westminster. He’s been out campaigning for sure, but the huge personal vote accruing to Jeffrey, and its absence this time around, will change the calculations somewhat. Jeffrey always provides a massive boost to whichever party he’s in at any particular time, but in the nature of personal votes there’s always been significant transfer leakage. So, apart from the question of whether Jeffrey’s absence from the ballot paper depresses the DUP vote, there’s going to be a test of the DUP’s discipline when it comes to balancing.

That said, for the last couple of elections the DUP have been running at about three and a half quotas, and the UUP at one and a half. So we can allocate three to the former and one to the latter as a baseline. Moreover, the very stable Alliance vote of around 10% should see Trevor Lunn home. That leaves one to allocate.

This is due to the last boundary change which has cut the combined nationalist vote in the constituency from around 20% to more like 10%, not enough to elect an MLA unless an extremely unlikely sequence of events takes place. I can see that figure creeping back up towards a quota in the medium term thanks to outmigration from west Belfast to the Lisburn suburbs, but it ain’t there this time. At least sitting Sinn Féin MLA Paul Butler, who’s thrown in the towel, thinks so.

That should mean an extra unionist seat, but we’re now back in coin-tossing territory. The Westminster results suggest half a quota spare for the DUP, half a quota for the UUP, and a little over half a quota for the TUV. Actually the TUV candidate, former UUP chief executive Lyle Rea, will be worth watching. Last year, this constituency provided the TUV’s strongest result outside North Antrim, and if Jim’s boys are to make a breakthrough anywhere else, Lagan Valley seems the logical place.

South Antrim

2007 Stormont results: DUP 34.5%, 2 seats; UUP 20.5%, 1 seat; SF 16.5%, 1 seat; Alliance 13.1%, 1 seat; SDLP 11.1%, 1 seat; UKUP 2.3%; Green 1.3%; Cons 0.3%; WP 0.2%.

2010 Westminster results: McCrea (DUP) 33.9%; Empey (UUP/UCUNF) 30.4%; McLaughlin (SF) 13.9%; Byrne (SDLP) 8.7%; Lawther (Alliance) 7.7%; Lucas (TUV) 5.4%.

2011 Stormont candidates: Tommy Burns (SDLP); Trevor Clarke (DUP); Adrian Cochrane-Watson (UUP); David Ford (Alliance); Paul Girvan (DUP); Danny Kinahan (UUP); Pam Lewis (DUP); Mel Lucas (TUV); Mitchel McLaughlin (SF); Stephen Parkes (BNP).

It was a close-run thing in South Antrim last year, as Reg Empey met his Waterloo in failing to depose Rev Willie McCrea, who even in the days of DUP landslides was never universally popular in the constituency, due not least to the difficulty of digging Willie out of Magherafelt. Effectively, that means there was a big whack of tactical voting last year that will shake itself out under STV.

Do not, therefore, take that flattering UUP vote from last year as being representative. Those Alliance and SDLP voters who opted for Reg in an attempt to oust Singing Willie will return home. Therefore, even without factoring in David Ford’s enhanced profile as justice minister, his seat would appear fairly safe.

Looking elsewhere, a DUP vote in the high thirties six or seven years back has dropped down to the lower thirties thanks to the hiving off of a section of the DUP base to the TUV. That should equate to the DUP holding their two seats, and I also think Mitchel McLaughlin will be safe – if he doesn’t surpass the quota on the first count, he’s likely to be very close to it.

The interest here is whether the UUP can make a rare gain at the SDLP’s expense. Frankly, the UUP should really have taken two seats in 2007, but with typical UUP competence they were let down by the small incidental factors that a) they ran three candidates where only two seats were available, and b) their balancing was crap even by UUP standards. This allowed the SDLP’s Tommy Burns in by around a thousand votes. The boundary revision handing Glengormley to North Belfast should narrow that somewhat. Mind you, for the UUP to make a gain would require the UUP to, y’know, get something right, and how often does that happen?

East Antrim

2007 Stormont results: DUP 45.5%, 3 seats; UUP 21.9%, 2 seats; Alliance 15.8%, 1 seat; SDLP 5.9%; SF 3.9%; UKUP 2.4%; Green 2.0%; John Anderson 1.3%; Cons 1.3%.

2010 Westminster results: Wilson (DUP) 45.9%; McCune (UUP/UCUNF) 23.7%; Lynch (Alliance) 11.1%; McMullan (SF) 6.8%; McCamphill (SDLP) 6.6%; Morrison (TUV) 6.0%.

2011 Stormont candidates: Roy Beggs jnr (UUP); Stewart Dickson (Alliance); Daniel Donnelly (Green); David Hilditch (DUP); Gordon Lyons (DUP); Justin McCamphill (SDLP); Rodney McCune (UUP); Oliver McMullan (SF); Steven Moore (BNP); Gerardine Mulvenna (Alliance); Alastair Ross (DUP); Ruth Wilson (TUV); Sammy Wilson (DUP).

It’s relatively easy to predict that the DUP is going to streak to yet another victory in East Antrim, having won every election in the constituency since 2003, and with finance minister Sammy Wilson having comprehensively given his opponents the bum’s rush last year. With a vote share in the high forties, three seats are a given, though adding a fourth candidate looks a little optimistic.

There’s certainly one seat here for the UUP, and even in Seán Neeson’s absence there should be an Alliance seat, unless they get something very wrong indeed.

Where the interest is here is in the latest boundary change, shifting part of the solidly nationalist Glens into East Antrim, which should just about create a nationalist quota, that nationalist seat (if it happens) probably coming at the expense of the UUP. I say if it happens, because there are certain complicated calculations involved. The SDLP should take the seat if they clearly beat Sinn Féin on first preferences (which on last year’s evidence they’ll struggle to do). They can win the seat if they creep ahead of SF in the counts, then McMullan is eliminated with the SDLP and one unionist still in the frame. I assume that SF voters are very likely to give the SDLP their second preference, but transfers tend to be a good deal weaker in the other direction, so McMullan would need to be a good deal ahead of the SDLP (and not too far off a quota) to make it.

As is, there was a near dead heat last year, with SF a mere 45 votes ahead of the SDLP. In that situation, the two nationalist candidates could well just cancel each other out and the UUP could escape with its second seat in hand. It’ll take a lot of counts to work that out, but such are the vagaries of STV.

Constituency whistle-stop, part 4: where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea #ae11

And now we head down to the south-east for another trio of constituencies.

Newry and Armagh

2007 Stormont results: SF 42.1%, 3 seats; SDLP 19.8%, 1 seat; UUP 13.1%, 1 seat; DUP 12.9%, 1 seat; Paul Berry 4.7%; Davy Hyland 4.4%; Willie Frazer 1.2%; Green 1.2%; Alliance 0.6%.

2010 Westminster results: Murphy (SF) 42.0%; Bradley (SDLP) 23.4%; Kennedy (UUP/UCUNF) 19.1%; Irwin (DUP) 12.8%; Frazer (Ind U) 1.5%; Muir (Alliance) 1.2%.

2011 Stormont candidates: Cathal Boylan (SF); Dominic Bradley (SDLP); Mickey “The Stickie” Brady (SF); Barrie Halliday (TUV); William Irwin (DUP); Danny Kennedy (UUP); James Malone (Ind); Conor Murphy (SF); David Murphy (Alliance); Thomas O’Hanlon (SDLP); Robert Woods (UKIP).

This may be the most predictable constituency of all. Since Conor Murphy took the Westminster seat from Séamus Mallon in 2005, the votes here have been very stable, with only minor variances thanks to the 2007 independent candidacies of deselected MLAs Paul Berry (DUP) and Davy Hyland (SF).

The Sinn Féin vote since then has been virtually dead on three quotas, and with halfway competent balancing they should see all three of their candidates home, even assuming they don’t raise the vote share. There are two unionist quotas, with the UUP’s Danny Kennedy being ahead on recent form, but there will easily be enough transfers to secure the DUP seat even if they come in below quota.

That leaves the SDLP marooned with about a quota and a half. So, a return for Dominic Bradley, which is fine – he’s one of those people in the SDLP who I rate – but the running mate left stranded in seventh place. No change is the smart move – indeed, with all six incumbents running for re-election, not even a change in the personnel.

South Down

2007 Stormont results: SDLP 31.4%, 2 seats; SF 30.7%, 2 seats; DUP 17.7%, 1 seat; UUP 9.6%, 1 seat; Green 3.5%; UKIP 2.7%; Alliance 1.5%; Martin Cunningham 0.9%; UKUP 0.9%; Cons 0.8%; Lab 0.3%.

2010 Westminster results: Ritchie (SDLP) 48.5%; Ruane (SF) 28.7%; Wells (DUP) 8.6%; McCallister (UUP/UCUNF) 7.3%; McConnell (TUV) 3.5%; Enright (Green) 2.1%; Griffin (Alliance) 1.3%.

2011 Westminster candidates: Naomi Bailie (SF); Willie Clarke (SF); Cadogan Enright (Green); David Griffin (Alliance); John McCallister (UUP); Karen McKevitt (SDLP); Eamonn O’Neill (SDLP); Henry Reilly (UKIP); Margaret Ritchie (SDLP); Caitríona Ruane (SF); Jim Wells (DUP).

Again, the safest projection in South Down is for no change. It’s hard to extrapolate from last year’s Westminster election thanks to the very large unionist tactical vote for Margaret Ritchie to keep out Caitríona Ruane. Such won’t be the case in an STV election.

Nonetheless, the first five seats will go two SDLP, two SF and the DUP’s Jim Wells. Sinn Féin, one feels, are putting up three candidates for the sake of form rather than a realistic prospect, since for some mind-boggling reason they haven’t backed up incumbents Caitríona Ruane (based across the border at Carlingford, but I suppose Warrenpoint counts as her base) and Willie Clarke (based in Newcastle) with a Downpatrick-based candidate, but rather with the Ards Peninsula-based Naomi Bailie who, I suggest, might have been better employed building the SF base in Strangford. It looks like they haven’t really put much thought into this. (Then again, I thought they should have moved O’Dowd over from Upper Bann for the Westminsters, so what do I know?)

The one seat under pressure is the UUP seat, and those boundary changes around Ballynahinch do make things tighter for John McCallister. The question is whether either nationalist party (realistically on recent form, the SDLP) can pick up enough momentum to pinch the seat. But still, McCallister was nearly 4000 votes ahead of the SDLP’s Michael Carr on the final count in 2007, and if we take the boundary change as taking out some 2000 unionist voters and 1000 nationalist voters, McCallister should still have enough of a cushion to see him home. I find it difficult to see the SDLP pulling off a third under its own steam.

Watch out, though, for the Greens’ Cadogan Enright. Can’t see him winning a seat, but this is the area where the Greens have been trying to lay down long-term roots.

Upper Bann

2007 Stormont results: DUP 31.4%, 2 seats; SF 25.3%, 1 seat; UUP 21.3%, 2 seats; SDLP 12.7%, 1 seat; David Calvert 3.1%; Green 2.7%; Alliance 1.9%; RSF 0.9%; Cons 0.6%; Suzanne Peeples 0.2%.

2010 Westminster results: Simpson (DUP) 33.8%; Flash Harry (UUP/UCUNF) 25.7%; O’Dowd (SF) 24.7%; Kelly (SDLP) 12.7%; Heading (Alliance) 3.0%.

2011 Stormont candidates:  Sydney Anderson (DUP); Jo-Anne Dobson (UUP); Sam Gardiner (UUP); Flash Harry (Alliance); Dolores Kelly (SDLP); Colin McCusker (UUP); Johnny McGibbon (SF); Sheila McQuaid (Alliance); Stephen Moutray (DUP); John O’Dowd (SF); Barbara Trotter (UKIP); David Vance (TUV).

All right, I admit it. I really really want to see David Vance in the Assembly. Not because I agree with him, but to add to the gaiety of the nation, and also bring a bit of critical intelligence to the desperately low-level debates.

Leaving that aside, what can we say about the prospects in Upper Bann? Well, I think certain parties are stretching. The DUP, who should have two quotas, have been sensible in putting up two candidates. The UUP, who on recent form will not have two quotas, have in their infinite wisdom put up three candidates, thus lessening the likelihood of them taking that second seat they were lucky to have last time round.

The SDLP, who should have most of a quota but not a whole one, have been sensible in not saddling Dolores Kelly with a running mate (though Dolores may yet struggle, if the nationalist vote in the constituency continues to drift SF’s way). On the other hand, Sinn Féin are tantalised by that second seat they nearly got last time. They’ve been weakened by the departure of Dessie Ward in the Banbridge half of the constituency, and there aren’t quite three nationalist quotas in Upper Bann. However – remember South Belfast in 2003? – it’s not impossible if there’s severe vote-shredding on the unionist side.

My best guess is for a rerun of last time – the first five going two DUP and one each SF, UUP and SDLP, with the last between a second SF and a second UUP. But what do you know, David Vance could well end up playing a fascinating part in the counts.

Rud eile: you’ll have noticed that last year’s UUP candidate is this year’s Alliance candidate, namely our leading Freddie Mercury impersonator Flash Harry. The core Alliance vote in Upper Bann is so small he’s hardly going to be in contention, but spirited renditions of “Don’t Stop Me Now” can’t hurt the image of Ulster liberalism.

Constituency whistle-stop, part 3: the wild west #ae11

All right, let’s head down into deepest culchieland for our next trio.

Mid Ulster

2007 Stormont results: SF 47.6%, 3 seats; DUP 19.5%, 1 seat; SDLP 17.5%, 1 seat; UUP 10.8%, 1 seat; UKUP 2.7%; RSF 1.0%; Alliance 0.5%; Harry Hutchinson 0.4%.

2010 Westminster results: McGuinness (SF) 52.0%; McCrea (DUP) 14.4%; Quinn (SDLP) 14.3%; Overend (UUP/UCUNF) 11.0%; Millar (TUV) 7.3%; Butler (Alliance) 1.0%.

2011 Stormont candidates: Harry Hutchinson (PBP); Austin Kelly (SDLP); Gary McCann (Ind); Hugh McCloy (Ind); Ian McCrea (DUP); Michael McDonald (Alliance); Patsy McGlone (SDLP); Martin McGuinness (SF); Walter Millar (TUV); Ian Milne (SF); Francie Molloy (SF); Michelle O’Neill (SF); Sandra Overend (UUP).

The smart money in Mid Ulster is on no change at all. SF’s sitting trio of Martin McGuinness, Francie Molloy and Michelle O’Neill should be re-elected at a stroll, and expect too to see Ian McCrea in on the first count.

SF have been pushing for a fourth seat, but even on last year’s Westminster figures they’re quite some way off, and it would require quite an unlikely combination of circumstances to put Ian Milne over the line. Specifically, it would require the local SDLP to make a complete balls of their transfers and/or the unionist candidates not to transfer to each other. Neither is impossible, though neither is likely either.

I’ve always said the SDLP seat in Mid Ulster will be secure as long as Patsy McGlone is on the ballot, and it would be a massive shock were he to go down. Equally, the UUP seat doesn’t look totally secure, and at one point the DUP might have hoped to squeeze a second here, but I think Sandra Overend will make it across the line, though she’ll need DUP and TUV transfers to do it.

West Tyrone

2007 Stormont results: SF 44.5%, 3 seats; DUP 21.4%, 2 seats; SDLP 14.5%; Kieran Deeney 9.1%, 1 seat; UUP 8.9%; RSF 1.1%; Alliance 0.5%.

2010 Westminster results: Doherty (SF) 48.4%; Buchanan (DUP) 19.8%; Hussey (UUP/UCUNF) 14.2%; Byrne (SDLP) 14.0%; Bower (Alliance) 2.3%; McClean (Ind) 1.4%.

2011 Stormont candidates: Michaela Boyle (SF); Allan Bresland (DUP); Tom Buchanan (DUP); Eric Bullick (Alliance); Joe Byrne (SDLP); Pat Doherty (SF); Ross Hussey (UUP); Declan McAleer (SF); Barry McElduff (SF); Paddy McGowan (Ind); Eugene McMenamin (SF).

Let’s start on the minority side. Last time out, the DUP were lucky to snatch the UUP’s seat and gain a monopoly of unionist representation. However, in last year’s Westminster election Ross Hussey did really well – just about the only UCUNF candidate to register a substantial gain – and he can be expected to win back that seat, probably knocking out Allan Bresland.

On the nationalist side, Sinn Féin have three quotas and a bit, but converting that bit into a fourth seat is a long shot. It requires, essentially, the SDLP to make a complete balls of things, which is not unknown in West Tyrone. Last time out, despite the SDLP having more than a quota of first preferences, these were spread amongst three candidates, with sufficient transfer leakage to allow sitting independent MLA Kieran Deeny to hold his seat despite a serious loss of votes.

This time, however, Dr Deeny is not running, and the SDLP have settled on a single candidate. Winning that seat back should still be straightforward. But hold on, look at those two independent candidates bringing up the rear. Both veteran SDLP men, between them straddling the Strabane and Omagh parts of the constituency, and who’ve called on their voters to transfer to each other…

/facepalm/

And that’s where the unpredictability is. If Joe Byrne comes in significantly short of a quota, if the ersatz SDLP candidates do respectably well, if SF can push its first preference tally up above 50%… Lot of ifs there, and I’d still predict Joe Byrne to take the seat, but it could be touch and go.

The Dreary Steeples

2007 Stormont results: SF 36.2%, 2 seats; DUP 25.5%, 2 seats; UUP 19.7%, 1 seat; SDLP 14.0%, 1 seat; Gerry McGeough 1.8%; Alliance 1.1%; RSF 0.9%; UKUP 0.8%.

2010 Westminster results: Gildernew (SF) 45.5%; Connor (Unionist Unity) 45.5%; McKinney (SDLP) 7.6%; Kamble (Alliance) 0.9%; Stevenson (Ind) 0.4%.

2011 Stormont candidates: Pat Cox (Ind Rep); Kenny Donaldson (UUP); Alex Elliott (TUV); Tom Elliott (UUP); Phil Flanagan (SF); Arlene Foster (DUP); Tommy Gallagher (SDLP); Michelle Gildernew (SF); Seán Lynch (SF); Maurice Morrow (DUP); Hannah Su (Alliance).

In last year’s Westminster election this was the nail-biter par excellence, with SF agriculture minister Michelle Gildernew hanging on by a mere four votes against a joint DUP-UUP-Conservative-TUV-Orange Order campaign to unseat her. Predictably, the drive to unionist unity produced an equal and opposite reaction in Sinn Féin’s populist “Save Michelle” campaign, with a knock-on effect for the SDLP, who to be fair were in a no-win situation, but still managed to handle it really badly.

Doing the maths, this constituency has three nationalist seats and three unionist. The balance of two DUP to one UUP will remain the same, with the DUP having the advantage of running the Fermanagh-based Arlene Foster alongside the Dungannon-based Lord Morrow. Tom Elliott’s personal popularity in Fermanagh will see him elected, but without enough votes to bring in running mate Kenny Donaldson.

On the nationalist side, Michelle Gildernew will coast back in. She’s the only outgoing SF MLA for the constituency after Gerry McHugh resigned from the party, first to sit as an independent, then rather quixotically joining Fianna Fáil. McHugh is not standing again, and his seat is expected to go to ex-prisoner Seán Lynch. That leaves the final seat, and the question of whether fresh-faced SF man Phil Flanagan can take out SDLP veteran Tommy Gallagher.

This is where the backwash from last year comes in. The SDLP had obviously been positioning their celebrity candidate Fearghal McKinney to be the new standard-bearer for the area. However, the result of last year’s campaign is that Fearghal’s name is mud in the constituency, hence good old Tommy Gallagher (69) going once more into the fray. Tommy will still find it difficult, since even in 2007 the SDLP didn’t have a full quota here; and, while a proper running mate might have been an intolerable luxury, it might not help that the SDLP doesn’t even have a sweeper candidate in South Tyrone. Make no mistake, this is SF’s number one target, and if the Shinner vote here hits 40% – within sniffing distance of three quotas – Tommy will have a very hard time holding on.

Constituency whistle-stop, part 2: the north coast #ae11

All right, let’s head way up north for this round.

North Antrim

2007 Stormont results: DUP 49.0%, 3 seats; SF 15.9%, 1 seat; UUP 14.3%, 1 seat; SDLP 12.2%, 1 seat; UKUP 4.2%; Alliance 2.8%; IRSP 0.9%; James Gregg 0.7%.

2010 Westminster results: Paisley jnr (DUP) 46.4%; Allister (TUV) 16.8%; McKay (SF) 12.4%; Armstrong (Cons/UCUNF) 10.9%; O’Loan (SDLP) 8.8%; Dunlop (Alliance) 3.2%; Cubitt (Ind) 1.4%.

2011 Stormont candidates: Jim Allister (TUV); Jayne Dunlop (Alliance); Paul Frew (DUP); Bill Kennedy (UUP); David McIlveen (DUP); Daithí McKay (SF); Declan O’Loan (SDLP); Audrey Patterson (TUV); Evelyne Robinson (DUP); Mervyn Storey (DUP); Robin Swann (UUP).

In the buckle of the Bible Belt, it’s the first election in over forty years where a Paisley hasn’t been on the ballot paper. Nonetheless, I expect the DUP to comfortably retain its three seats, though even if it has a few votes left over it’s a long way from taking a fourth. Jim Allister will also be elected, as will Sinn Féin’s Daithí McKay.

That leaves one to play with. If Allister is to be elected, it has to come at someone’s expense. That will be either the SDLP or UUP, and it’s not immediately clear which.

On the face of it, the SDLP look more vulnerable. That boundary change that shifted three (almost exclusively Catholic) Glens wards into East Antrim has put the second nationalist seat under very serious pressure. Now, Declan O’Loan is a maths teacher by background, and is capable of adding up. Hence his suggestion last year (which so enraged Margaret Ritchie that she withdrew the whip from him) that there should be increased collaboration between the two nationalist parties. For Margaret in South Down, the Shinners are the deadly enemy; for Declan, he needs SF voters to be very kind to him on transfers if he’s going to survive. I hope he does, because the Assembly would miss his waspish intelligence, even if some of his party colleagues wouldn’t.

The UUP’s trouble is that, though there should be enough votes knocking around to secure a fifth unionist seat, we come up against the perennial problem of vote-shredding and transfer leakage. For reasons best known to themselves, the UUP have come up with the crackpot strategy of running two candidates where there’s only one available seat. They’ll probably also want transfers from DUP and TUV candidates, whereas Declan O’Loan only needs a bundle of SF transfers and perhaps a modicum from Alliance to keep him in the fray. I have a feeling it’ll be very close.

East Derry

2007 Stormont results: DUP 39.8%, 3 seats; SF 20.0%, 1 seat; UUP 18.5%, 1 seat; SDLP 13.1%, 1 seat; Alliance 4.1%; UKUP 1.6%; Green 1.5%; RSF 1.2%; Victor Christie 0.2%.

2010 Westminster results: Campbell (DUP) 34.6%; Ó hOisín (SF) 19.3%; Macaulay (UUP/UCUNF) 17.8%; Conway (SDLP) 15.5%; Ross (TUV) 7.4%; Fitzpatrick (Alliance) 5.5%.

2011 Stormont candidates: Bernadette Archibald (SF), Gregory Campbell (DUP), Thomas Conway (SDLP), John Dallat (SDLP), Boyd Douglas (TUV), Barney Fitzpatrick (Alliance), David Harding (UUP), Lesley Macaulay (UUP), David McClarty (Ind), Adrian McQuillan (DUP), Cathal Ó hOisín (SF), George Robinson (DUP).

Well, we may talk about dirty campaigning, but as the Irish News recently informed us, this is literally the case in East Derry, where constituents are much exercised by the stink arising from some farmers using human shit to fertilise their fields. The practice seems to be completely legal, but just not very pleasant.

We can predict seats from the outset for the DUP’s Gregory Campbell MP (who has mysteriously gained a dispensation to double-job) and George Robinson, SF’s Cathal Ó hOisín and veteran SDLP man John Dallat. The calculations arise with regard to numbers five and six.

The DUP did well to win three seats last time, but if their vote slips to 35% or below then that third seat comes under pressure. However, we don’t know who it might fall to. Complicating things is that the UUP have deselected their sitting MLA David McClarty, who is running as an independent, and are opposing him with a fresh team of Lesley Macaulay and David Harding, both of whom are thought to be fairly strong candidates. And there’s the dark-horse candidacy of the TUV’s Boyd Douglas, who was actually elected to the 1998 Assembly and has a solid base amongst those dour Presbyterian farmers who supported Willie Ross for so long.

So, that’s two seats to fill and five candidates (McQuillan, McClarty, Macaulay, Harding and Douglas) who might all have a decent shout at them.

A slight crinkle is provided by the nationalist vote in the constituency, boosted by the last boundary review, creeping up into the region of two and a half quotas. That half a quota is interesting. It might boost Alliance’s Barney Fitzpatrick if he’s still in the race when the last nationalist is eliminated. (Unlikely, however.) And I don’t think there’s enough cross-community transferring to boost the more moderate unionist options. There may be a big block of non-transferable votes, or there may just be a final nationalist candidate left languishing in seventh place.

Foyle

2007 Stormont results: SDLP 37.0%, 3 seats; SF 30.8%, 2 seats; DUP 17.0%, 1 seat; SEA 5.0%; IRSP 4.4%; UUP 4.3%; Green 0.9%; Alliance 0.5%; Willie Frazer 0.2%.

2010 Westminster results: Durkan (SDLP) 44.7%; Anderson (SF) 31.9%; Devenney (DUP) 11.9%; McCann (PBP) 7.8%; Harding (UUP/UCUNF) 3.2%; McGrellis (Alliance) 0.6%.

2011 Stormont candidates: Martina Anderson (SF); Pól Callaghan (SDLP); Terry Doherty (Ind); Mark H Durkan [relation] (SDLP); Colum Eastwood (SDLP); Paul Fleming (SF); Willie Hay (DUP); Eamonn McCann (PBP); Raymond McCartney (SF); Paul McFadden (Ind); Keith McGrellis (Alliance); Pat Ramsey (SDLP).

Foyle has been a very very stable constituency in terms of Assembly seats, returning three SDLP, two SF and one DUP for the last three Stormont elections. This may just change this time around.

Willie Hay (who, by the way, has made a lot of friends by the tough but fair-minded way he’s done the Speaker’s job) will stroll back in as representative of the constituency’s unionist minority, who have favoured the DUP in every election since 1981. Remarkably, for the first time in the north’s history, the UUP will have no candidate in the area, though since it’s reduced down to one seat out of thirty on Derry City Council that would have been a token candidacy anyway.

On the nationalist side, SF have been narrowing the gap on the SDLP for some time now and would dearly love to overtake them, with this being the SDLP’s historic stronghold and just about the only place the SDLP still has substantial working-class support. With the absence of perennial vote-getters Mark Durkan (though his soundalike nephew is on the ticket) and Mary Bradley, plus dissension in Foyle SDLP about candidacies, they surely have a chance to narrow the gap further, though it would be surprising if they closed it. My gut instinct is that the SDLP will have something under three quotas and SF something over two.

So, if the third SDLP seat is under pressure, this is where Eamonn McCann might sneak in. My guess is that partisan supporters of either nationalist party would rather transfer to McCann than the other nationalist party, so we could see him picking up support in the later counts. Getting into the Assembly, of course, would be ideal for Eamonn as a platform from which to orate.

Also note the substantial vote in 2007 for Mrs Peggy O’Hara, mother of hunger striker Patsy, who stood formally as an independent but in a campaign that was very largely an IRSP one. There’s no IRSP candidate for the Assembly, but they are running for the council, and might entice out some disgruntled republicans who wouldn’t otherwise vote.

Constituency whistle-stop part one: the ‘burbs #ae11

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.

East Belfast

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.

The Gold Coast

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.

Strangford

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.

A wee overview of the runners and riders #ae11 #lg11

Okay, I hear you. It’s election time again. You can tell it’s election time because the area’s lampposts are covered with cryptic posters informing the broad masses that the Stickies haven’t gone away. So this is an opportunity to take the north’s political temperature.

That said, it’s been an incredibly dull election, for a number of reasons. One is that, with the Assembly having bedded down to the point of having run a full term, the constitutional question, though it’s still wheeled out, has slid down the list of priorities. Even the TUV’s leaflets have had sections on education and unemployment, and fewer pictures of masked gunmen than you’d expect. And yet, on those famed bread-and-butter issues, there’s very little difference between the parties. The only substantial fights in the Assembly have centred either around post-primary selection (no easy solution, as there’s no cross-party consensus, but there’s no doubt Caitríona Ruane has handled the issue really badly) or else Nelson McCausland’s Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (which has 1% of the Stormont budget but generates 90% of the hot air). So what we’re left with is a dominant DUP-SF axis coasting merrily along, while the UUP and SDLP are reduced to bitching that things were much better when they were the main parties. (They weren’t.)

To the extent that there’s a constitutional aspect, it has to do with the obsession Tom Elliott and Jim Allister have developed with the possibility of Martin McGuinness becoming first minister. I think this is not very smart politics. For one thing, it’s unlikely to happen. For another, McGuinness has said with irritating reasonableness that, if such were to transpire, he’d like to abolish the (basically symbolic) distinction between FM and DFM and have Peter as his joint first minister. Nonetheless, the smaller unionist parties have developed plans of Baldrickesque cunning to prevent this appalling vista. Tom Elliott’s plan is for the DUP and UUP to form a grand coalition after the election for the sole purpose of nabbing the FM slot, after which they could get back to tearing lumps out of each other. Jim Allister’s plan is to get every unionist MLA to swear on the Holy Bible (King James Version) that they won’t consent to be Martin’s deputy, thereby making it impossible for an Executive to be formed and collapsing the Assembly. Peter Robinson’s rather more straightforward plan is to say “Vote DUP”.

And here’s the rub. It’s not merely that Martin as FM is a less scary prospect after four years of him as DFM. (He’s even developed a cult following among a minority of unionists who reckon he’s by far the most effective minister at Stormont.) It’s that everybody who’s really concerned about that issue will be voting DUP anyway. So Peter is happy enough to carry on with his can-do “Let’s Keep Norn Iron Moving Forward” campaign and let Elliott and Allister make the argument for voting DUP.

The final reason why this is a boring campaign is that nobody expects big swings. The two main parties – and you could see this from Peter and Martin’s body language in the UTV leaders’ debate – are expecting to have their dominance in their respective electorates easily confirmed. (Remember that in the north there are effectively two elections, the intra-unionist one and the intra-nationalist one.) Their smaller rivals are down but not out. But there will be movement, and in a PR-STV contest those fifth and sixth seats can go in unexpected ways. So let’s have an overview of what the parties are looking to achieve.

First, an overview. The 2007 Assembly results:

DUP 30.1%, 36 seats; SF 26.2%, 28 seats; UUP 14.9%, 18 seats; SDLP 15.2%, 16 seats; Alliance 5.2%, 7 seats; others 8.4%, 3 seats.

And last year’s Westminster results:

SF 25.5%, DUP 25.0%, SDLP 16.5%, UCUNF 15.2%, Alliance 6.3%, TUV 3.9%, others 7.6%.

As you can see, apart from a minority of the DUP base hiving off to the TUV, not a fierce lot of change, even with two peculiar constituencies having high-polling independents. There’s a basic stability there, and this allows us to have a fairly steady benchmark.

So, to the parties.

The Dupes: The DUP will be looking to retain their position as the biggest party in the Assembly and by far the main unionist party. It’s likely they’ll drop a few seats – they polled extremely well last time, have several vulnerable seats and it’s difficult to see gains for them. This is especially the case as proven vote-getters like Big Ian, Wee Ian, Doddsy, Jeffrey Boy and Singing Willie are not on the ballot this time. They are helped though by having largely contained the TUV threat at the Westminsters and by the continued weakness of the UUP. There’s also the gradual fading into the background of the storm that engulfed Peter Robinson last year, with our tactful local media not tending to harp uncharitably on themes of nymphomaniac wives, teenage restaurateurs, plots of land and five pound notes. Not that this has gone away, but Peter will feel he’s weathered the worst of it. So from a base of 36 seats, it’s quite plausible to see them returning with 33 or thereabouts, and they’d be happy with that.

The Shinners: Sinn Féin, who have sharp antennae for these sorts of things, are not hyping up the possibility of becoming the biggest party. What they want is to get to the magic 30 seats that would get them a petition-of-concern veto in the Assembly, like the DUP already has. This doesn’t require much of a gain, but it’s easier said than done. In the first place, they need to hold all their seats, now a notional 27 after boundary changes in Lagan Valley. Then they need to make gains, but their targets tend to be either improbable long shots (a third in Foyle, a second in East Derry) or blood-from-stone efforts in their heartlands (a fourth in Mid Ulster, a third in the Dreary Steeples). They also haven’t managed to crack the SDLP’s residual areas of strength. That said, I think SF’s unparalleled machine will deliver them one or two gains, but perhaps 29 is more realistic than 30.

The Good Ole Boys: If there’s been any entertainment value in this very dull election, it’s come from the reliably shambolic Ulster Unionist Party, which has scarcely known what to be at since losing its pre-eminence. Reg Empey’s recently concluded leadership had involved a dizzying succession of alliances actual and proposed – with the DUP, the SDLP, the TUV and of course the Tories in the snappily named Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force – leading one to suppose that Reg was being too clever for his own good. Yes, Reg was full of ideas, it’s just that none of them were very good. But now Reg is awa’ to the House of Lairds, and the Belfast-based ex-Vanguard element who had been running the UUP have been displaced by the new culchie regime of Tom Elliott, John McCallister and Danny Kennedy, in what looks very much like Back To The Future IV: Harry West’s Revenge. The culture shock some urban observers got in the UUP leadership election, when busloads of elderly Orangemen from Tyrone and Fermanagh alighted at the Waterfront Hall to vote for their boy Tom, was highly amusing. And Tom Elliott, though a very nice man at close quarters, hasn’t really set the world alight and is unmistakably what he is, a big farmer from Fermanagh, something that plays very well with the UUP’s rural sector but not quite so well in greater Belfast.

There’s a further point here in that the UUP, always a mess of contradictions, has dissolved into an amalgam of squabbling little local fiefdoms that barely resembles a party. This isn’t merely a question of Basil McCrea and David McNarry hating each other’s guts. In a structural sense, the existence of local fiefs with their own personal followings is the UUP’s strength, in providing an electoral bedrock, but also its weakness, in that it’s almost impossible for it to function as a party. Despite Empey’s organisational reforms, despite managing to get a few fresh faces onto the ballot, the old faces are still there. Moreover, at a time when the party is supposed to be presenting a united face to the electorate, it has proved impossible to stop divers UUP bigwigs phoning the Nolan show and running their yaps without first clearing their bright ideas with the party leadership. Incredibly, the leader himself is prone to do this. Finally, we should note that in this election there are former UUP activists running as candidates for the DUP, the TUV, Alliance and UKIP. You can see why the UUP is compulsive viewing, in a car crash kind of way.

The South Down and Londonderry Party: What the SDLP want is to hold what they have, and get that extra seat (or it may be two, the maths is complex) that would give them a second minister under d’Hondt. Secondly, they want to defend their eponymous strongholds against the barbarian hordes known as Sinn Féin. In both South Down and Foyle they benefited in the Westminsters from unionist tactical voting and from the personal popularity of their candidates. But the real sign of strength in those constituencies is beating the Shinners on first preferences under PR. If SF should get their nose ahead in South Down, for instance, that would clearly mark Margaret Ritchie’s cards.

Ah yes, Margaret. Again, this demonstrates the cultural divide in the SDLP. Alasdair McDonnell would have been a more dynamic leader, there’s no doubt, but had his problems with personal unpopularity in the party, hence Margaret winning as the steady-as-she-goes candidate. The question is whether steady as she goes is a viable path for the SDLP. Already one hears rumblings about Margaret’s leadership and whizzkid strategist Conall McDevitt, and they really need a decent performance to quiet those rumblings down. For the meantime, there probably won’t be much change in the party’s totals, but the long-term prognosis is still dodgy. The SDLP continues to draw many votes from middle-class Catholics who remember with reverence Hume and Mallon, and who note that the SDLP wear nicer suits than the Shinners and are less likely to address the electorate as “youse”. But that vote is aging, it’s vulnerable to SF somehow working out an approach to the Catholic middle class (which they haven’t as yet), and east of the Bann it’s vulnerable as much to Alliance as SF, which may go some way to explain the SDLP’s fulminations against the profoundly inoffensive David Ford. Which brings us neatly to

The Nice People: It’s easy to make fun of Alliance. Their earnestness, their zealous moderation, their unmistakable Cherryvelley ambience. Not to mention that doorstopper of a 148-page manifesto. But, having secured their first Westminster victory last year with Naomi Long’s defenestration of Peter Robinson, they’ve got a bit of wind in their sails. Fordy is talking about them taking nine or ten seats, something that would get them a proper minister under d’Hondt, not just a justice ministry held as a DUP-SF stitch-up. This isn’t impossible. Alliance are very transfer-friendly indeed, their foregrounding in the campaign of Naomi (who isn’t even a candidate) shows a sense of who their popular figurehead is, and their cannibalising of the UUP’s almost defunct liberal wing add up to a party worth keeping a wee eye on. That said, Alliance’s almost total non-existence outside the Belfast commuter belt puts a distinct limit on likely gains.

The Prodiban: There was a time, after Jim Allister polled a whopping 66,000 votes in the 2009 Euro-election, that it looked like the TUV would return a swathe of representatives to Stormont. But the party’s damp squib at last year’s Westminsters have lowered the old sights a bit. It’s almost certain Jim will be elected in North Antrim, but it’s harder to see who might join him. Most TUV candidates last year were polling between 5% and 8% – that is, between a third and half a quota, without many obvious sources of transfers. Let’s assume they do a bit better under PR, especially if the turnout is low – I’m still not seeing that TUV breakthrough, unless David Vance knows something I don’t. Love their election broadcast, though.

The odds and sods: As far as independents and small parties go, their goal will just be to get their foot in the door. It’ll be tough for them, but look out in particular for Dawn Purvis, Alan McFarland, David McClarty and of course Eamonn McCann.

And there’s more.

There is of course also a local government election, the first since 2005 due to interminable wranglings over council rationalisation. This is important because it’ll probably be the last to the current councils, and it’ll be important for the parties to get springboards to bigger councils with higher quotas. It’ll also, if we expect a relatively static Stormont result, give us some clues as to the underlying strength of the parties. The result last time out was:

DUP 29.6%, 182 councillors; SF 23.2%, 126 councillors; UUP 18.0%, 115 councillors; SDLP 17.4%, 101 councillors; Alliance 5.0%, 30 councillors; others 6.8%, 28 councillors.

Two things to watch on both sides of the fence:

Major theme: The DUP polled very well indeed last time, with outright control of three councils and effective control of several others, and may be vulnerable to setbacks, though again the weakness of their competitors stands in their favour. Look out especially for the DUP performances in Castlereagh and Ards, where the Iris Affair is still a big deal locally.

Minor theme: The TUV will find it tough going at Assembly level, and will be hoping a reasonable return of councillors will give it a platform to build from. Look out for Ballymena and Ballymoney.

Major theme: Sinn Féin underperformed last time out, and is likely to do quite a bit better this time round. Overall control of a few councils isn’t impossible, but – and I agree with Chris here – perhaps more important is whether the party can break new ground east of the Bann.

Minor theme: there are quite a few candidates representing shades of non-SF republicanism, from éirígí to the IRSP to various independents. I don’t expect them to be very successful, but they are worth watching for signs of discontent in the traditional republican base.

Sin é. Phew.

[Electoral stats– indeed, all the electoral stats you could possibly want – chez Nick.]

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