Reduce and reform – how a snap election could affect the Assembly
Just a couple of months ago we thought 2017 would be a big year for politics in Northern Ireland.
That remains the case, but for entirely different reasons. The outcomes-based Programme for Government, actual progress on health reform, even Brexit – all have since taken a back seat.
Politics is dominated by fallout from the Renewable Heating Incentive scandal, so much so that a new election looks possible, less than a year since the new mandate began.
The public in general seems outraged by RHI, but this will not necessarily affect the balance of power; it is the opinion of current DUP voters that will decide whether there are major changes at Stormont.
Inertia has long been the hallmark of the ballot box in Northern Ireland. Major changes are occasional and, otherwise, there has not been large vacillation from one election to the next.
Whether the RHI scandal will have had any effect – on the DUP, and also on Sinn Fein, some of whose supporters have voiced serious displeasure over their party’s mixed messages – remains to be seen.
What will be a huge change at the next Assembly elections, be they in the next couple of months or four years down the line, is the reduction in the number of MLAs from 108 to 90.
Each constituency is losing a representative, going from six to five, and this will affect the tactics of each party as well as the outcomes themselves.
It could also see the DUP, and Sinn Fein, increase their power within the chamber – even if their respective shares of first-preference votes both fall.
Scope has decided to take a look at the results from each constituency in the last election, to try and gauge possible battle lines on a case by case basis. This is purely an exercise in educated guessing but might provide some insight into the thoughts of senior figures within the main parties.
Remember that the parties in question will be making similar calculations themselves, probably with some private polling, because no-one with a dog in the race likes going into an election with no idea what will happen.
We will look at each constituency largely on the basis of last year’s results – and leave it largely to the reader to imagine what effect RHI might have should it have caused a seismic wave of displeasure among voters.
The electoral dynamics will change for each party but, broadly speaking, those who have extant seats in any given constituency as well as candidates who did not get elected (effectively “spare votes” to shore up their existing seats) will be the most secure, followed by those with MLAs at Stormont but not spare votes, while those who nearly got elected will remain in contention.
Belfast East – the DUP currently has three seats, Alliance two and the UUP one; given the next person in would have been Alliance (or Green), while all the DUP candidates got elected, it seems very unlikely APNI will lose one of their two seats as they have spare votes.
The question here appears to be whether the UUP will keep their seat or the DUP will keep their three. Robin Newton, the speaker who found himself in hot water over RHI, was the final DUP member to be elected.
Range of likely results: APNI 2; DUP 2/3; UUP 0/1
Belfast North – the DUP has three members, Sinn Fein two, and the SDLP one. This is a closely- and bitterly-fought constituency. Gerry Kelly was elected in the first round last time, while all the other five members got their seats in round 11.
Moreover, none of the parties who won seats put up any other candidates – so they have no spare first-preference votes. Any one of the DUP, Sinn Fein or SDLP could lose a seat and, barring any major changes, none of the other parties will pick a seat up.
Range of likely results: DUP 2/3; SF 1/2; SDLP 0/1
Belfast South – the most varied seat in Northern Ireland. APNI, Green, SDLP and Sinn Fein all won one seat, the DUP two. Alliance and the SDLP had other candidates who did well but missed out, giving them spare votes, while the UUP’s candidate was the only one eliminated in the final stage.
Sinn Fein only put up Máirtín Ó Muilleoir and so have no spare votes but he was elected long before anyone else and so looks secure. The DUP will win at least one seat – the final one looks like a race between the sitting DUP and Greens, and perhaps also the UUP, if they make gains.
Range of likely results: APNI 1; SF 1; DUP 1/2; SDLP 1; Green 0/1; UUP 0/1
Belfast West – People Before Profit’s (PBPA) Gerry Carroll came from nowhere to gain a huge number of first-preference votes last time and his seat looks rock solid. The higher quota means the DUP candidate, who was the final person eliminated last time, has an even bigger struggle to get elected.
Sinn Fein won four seats and the SDLP won one. The latter’s Alex Attwood was the final person elected last time and looks most vulnerable, especially as Sinn Fein had a fifth candidate and so have some spare votes in the bank. The question is whether SDLP can hold firm and reduce the SF quota to three.
Range of likely results: PBPA 1; SF 3/4; SDLP 0/1
East Antrim – the DUP won three seats, and the UUP, Alliance and Sinn Fein one each. Both the UUP and Alliance have spare votes and their seats look solid.
The last two members elected both came in the final round and were for Sinn Fein and the DUP, and this is the probable battleground for the final seat.
Range of likely results: DUP 2/3; UUP 1; APNI 1; SF 0/1
East Londonderry – the DUP won three seats, Sinn Fein one, the SDLP one, while the final slot is filled by independent unionist, and current Justice Minister, Claire Sugden.
At least two of the DUP seats are rock solid. Sinn Fein nearly won a second seat and so their presence is also nailed on. The interesting part of the race looks like it is two from three of the DUP, SDLP and the Justice Minister (who could be bolstered by her increased profile). If Ms Sugden were not to be elected the troublesome question of who takes the Justice Minister's position would also be reignited.
Range of likely results: DUP 2/3; SF 1; SDLP 0/1; Independent 0/1
Fermanagh & South Tyrone – the First Minister might be under pressure in the House on the Hill in East Belfast but, back home, she is in no danger. The DUP has two seats here and, given the vote numbers, should have no problem retaining them.
Sinn Fein is the most interesting case. They only won two seats last time but fielded four candidates who all had a substantial presence. If they only run three candidates they could, conceivably, win three seats this time.
As things stand, the SDLP and UUP hold the other two seats; the latter has spare votes and so looks much more solid than the former, who would be at significant risk unless there is a large swing towards their party.
Range of likely results: DUP 2; SF 2/3; UUP 0/1; SDLP 0/1
The rest of the constituencies will feature in an article next week.
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