Tuesday, 17 February 2015

General election predictions: the Ulster battleground

Following on from yesterday's blog post on general election predictions, I will now cover in depth (certainly more depth than a certain Iain Dale has done!) the 18 Northern Irish constituencies and the possibilities within.

The political situation and potential in Northern Ireland is generally the most interesting even when still operating on sectarian unionist-nationalist lines, due to the different ways each side's vote can be split and the increasing prominence of non-sectarian parties (other than the Alliance Party).

Belfast East: This constituency, the only one to have ever been won by the Alliance and the least nationalist in all of Belfast (not a single SDLP or Sinn Fein candidate has even saved their deposit in Belfast East), will probably be the most hotly contested of all the Northern Irish constituencies. Naomi Long has a relatively good record as an MP, but the Democratic Unionists will try their hardest to win this marginal seat back (their new candidate, Gavin Robinson, is no relation to Peter Robinson, just so we are clear)-whether the more hardline Traditional Unionist Voice party will field a candidate again is not yet known.  Probable DUP gain.

Belfast North: The nationalist-inclined electorate is increasing in some parts of Northern Ireland, and this seat is one of them. However, the small core of Alliance voters are generally more inclined, in terms of tactical voting, to support unionist candidates over nationalist candidates in practice, so Sinn Fein will find it relatively difficult to win this from the DUP even if they can squeeze the SDLP vote further than they already have. Probable DUP hold.

Belfast South: Unionist unity here would practically ensure a defeat of sitting SDLP MP Alasdair McDonnell, but this is unlikely to happen anywhere in Belfast. However, Sinn Fein, who did not stand last time and instead endorsed Alasdair, is standing former Lord Mayor of Belfast Martin O Muilleoir (how many ex-Lord Mayors of Belfast have not stood for Parliament somewhere in Belfast at some point in their lives?) and the Green Party is on the rise in Northern Ireland as well (if not to the same extent that GPEW and SGP are). As for UKIP, who are standing PPCs in Northern Ireland for the very first time and have a PPC here, what effects could they have? 50/50 SDLP hold/DUP gain.

Belfast West: The first seat to be gained by Sinn Fein in Belfast, and by far the most nationalist seat in the whole of Northern Ireland. If People Before Profit stand here, they can make good progress, but the overwhelming SF majority will surely see Paul Maskey through this year. Dead cert Sinn Fein hold.

East Antrim: The 2010 boundaries were somewhat better for the nationalist parties than the old boundaries, but this seat is, like the rest of Antrim, still solidly unionist. With the UUP's decline unlikely to be stemmed in the near future, Sammy Wilson will have little trouble holding this seat for the DUP, even if TUV stands again and improves on its 2010 vote share. Dead cert DUP hold.

East Londonderry: Sinn Fein managed second place here in 2010, but the DUP's majority is solid and is likely to remain so-not much more to say. Dead cert DUP hold.

Fermanagh & South Tyrone: The most hotly contested seat between the unionists and nationalists in all of Northern Ireland, with a relatively high turnout to match, and also the joint-worst (alongside Foyle) in terms of Alliance support. Notably, a 'unionist unity' candidate very nearly won this seat, the most marginal in the UK, in 2010, but whether such a unionist pact remains to be seen. As for Tanya Jones' candidature for the Green Party-who knows? Too tight to call.

Foyle: The rise of Sinn Fein means this is no longer as safe for the SDLP as it once was, but even if People Before Profit stands again Mark Durkan is still likely to hold this year. Likely SDLP hold.

Lagan Valley: Very solidly unionist and rural-Jeffrey Donaldson's win for the DUP is basically a foregone conclusion, and TUV's intervention (likely to happen again) will make no real difference to that. Dead cert DUP hold.

Mid Ulster: Once tightly fought between the unionist and nationalist sides, this is today safely nationalist-and unionist unity (which occurred in the 2013 by-election here but only closed the gap a little bit) is not going to happen this year in this seat. Thus, Francie Molloy is almost certain to be re-elected. Dead cert Sinn Fein hold.

Newry & Armagh: With Conor Murphy standing down (personal votes are particularly useful to Sinn Fein MPs), there is some chance that the SDLP will regain lost ground and re-gain this seat, if only narrowly. However, as a considerable swing is needed, the new Sinn Fein PPC here, Mickey Brady, will hold on even if his majority will be lower. Likely Sinn Fein hold.

North Antrim: An easy DUP hold-no matter how hard TUV try (and Jim Allister is not standing again). This is has some nationalist support but nowhere near enough to make this seat anything other than solidly unionist. Dead cert DUP hold.

North Down: The most unionist constituency in Northern Ireland, and the most prosperous-but politically it has been interesting nevertheless. North Down holds GPNI's strongest base, and with the Alliance vote no longer as strong as it used to be they may even get a good third place. Sylvia Hermon is little-known outside Northern Ireland but her overwhelming majority will see her through to the next parliament. When she does step down, though, the seat's long-term future could take an interesting new direction. Dead cert Independent Unionist hold.

Strangford: This is not as solidly unionist as nearby North Down (from which it was created in 1983) but still very much so. The fact that the Northern Irish Conservatives are standing a candidate here (and not standing alongside the Ulster Unionists like they did in 2010) will scupper any hopes of a UUP comeback here against the DUP. Dead cert DUP hold.

South Antrim: This is the UUP's best chance of gaining a seat and thus re-entering the House of Commons, and they nearly won it in 2010. TUV is once again fielding a candidate, and they have a good chance of splitting the DUP vote enough to cause a UUP gain even when the UUP no longer have a formal pact with the Northern Irish Conservatives, especially if the UUP's Danny Kinahan can convince enough people to vote tactically. On the other hand, William McCrea's experience and campaigning skill gives him the upper hand in this tight contest. 50/50 DUP hold/UUP gain.

South Down: A relatively easy hold for Margaret Ritchie-Sinn Fein just does not have a strong enough base for a gain to be viable, and the unionist vote and Alliance vote is practically nowhere. Dead cert SDLP hold.

Upper Bann: Better for the unionist side than the nationalist side, but if TUV intervenes here, Sinn Fein can win this seat from the DUP if they try hard enough. This is the only three-way marginal in Northern Ireland (just 9% lies between the DUP,UUP, and SF) and is worth keeping an eye on. Probable DUP hold, but watch out for a surprise.

West Tyrone: This went to the UUP when created in 1997, but is now solidly Sinn Fein, particularly with Pat Doherty standing again. The Green Party is standing here for the first time (and Ciaran McClean has some experience of being a candidate already because he stood as an independent in 2010) but apart from that there is not much else to say. Dead cert Sinn Fein hold.

Even though only a few Northern Irish constituencies will change hands in my opinion, they could play a strong part in what happens after this year's general election is concluded, due to a hung parliament being very likely. The DUP has twice ruled out a coalition with the Conservative Party in the unlikely event the latter get the most seats in May but they might prove crucial in confidence and supply terms in that situation. Also, Sinn Fein MPs never take their Westminster seats and thus their lack of presence is significant in how many seats are needed for the UK parties who do take their seats to maintain confidence in the government that forms in practice.

Alan.

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