Snap election analysis – part three
Whither Jonathan Bell?
Will he stand in this election? If he does, it is inconceivable that he will do so under the DUP ticket. Nor does it seem a natural fit for him to move to the UUP – either for him, or the party in question.
But Mr Bell is still an MLA and he might wish to remain so. Standing as an independent unionist in an election that has the spectre of RHI hanging over it? That is entirely plausible.
Then, to some degree at least, the ballot in his constituency of Strangford becomes a referendum on people’s feelings about RHI, a referendum on Arlene vs Jonathan, a referendum on the DUP leadership itself.
Of course, Mr Bell has represented the area for years and he will rightly feel that his own record and relationship with constituents will also have a part to play. But it is the former that will dominate the media, and provide probably the biggest subplot in what is already an election rich with narrative.
With that pressing question, we begin our final look at how local constituencies might turn out in the coming election.
Straight to it
North Down – Alliance has a lot of spare votes and should keep their seat. The Green Party’s Steven Agnew was the third person elected last time and is a popular and prominent MLA, so stands a good chance even if he cannot rely on any spare votes. The DUP has three seats and would no doubt like to keep them all, but no spare votes meaning their candidates could be under pressure in earlier rounds (and despite two early wins last time, their third candidate only succeeded in the final round), while the UUP will want to hold on to their presence and does have some spare votes to rely upon.
Range of likely results: APNI 1, DUP 2/3, UUP 0/1, Green 0/1
South Antrim – the DUP has three seats, with one of those was elected in the final round of counting, and no spare votes, which means they are vulnerable – perhaps in principle more than practice, an RHI swing is needed to make a dent - and can take nothing for granted. More vulnerable still is the Alliance Party; former leader David Ford was not elected at the final stage but got a modest number of first-preference votes and has no spares to rely upon, so his seat looks the most precarious. Sinn Fein normally get one seat here, did so last time, and will expect to do so again. SDLP did OK and were eliminated relatively late on but it is unlikely they will make gains.
The Ulster Unionists were confident enough to put up three candidates last time and will have been disappointed to see only one elected. Expect them to field two this time, ensuring they hold their ground at least, and allowing them to dream of more (even if it is unlikely).
Range of likely results: DUP 2/3, APNI 0/1, UUP 1/2, SF 1
South Down – Sinn Fein have two seats and spare votes, SDLP has two seats and spare votes – both will likely hold their own. Otherwise, the DUP has a single seat and no spares, ditto the Ulster Unionists. The difference is that Jim Wells had 50% more first-preference votes than Harold McKee and was the first person elected. For the DUP to miss out and the UUP to hold firm, a massive swing is necessary.
Range of likely results: SF 2, SDLP 2, DUP 1
Strangford – much depends on Jonathan Bell, as previously discussed, and whether he stands as an independent. The DUP has three seats here (including Bell’s) and some spare votes in the bank. Expect them to stand three candidates again, and none of them to be Mr Bell. Alliance has a firmly firm grip on its position here but Kellie Armstrong was one of the final MLAs elected and so is vulnerable. The UUP has two representatives here – Mike Nesbitt topped the first-preference polls while Philip Smith got in by the skin of his teeth, and they have no spare votes, so they too will be taking nothing for granted. The SDLP’s Joe Boyle was the last person eliminated but they will not expect to pick up a seat given the reduced numbers.
Range of likely results: DUP 2/3, APNI 0/1, UUP 1/2, Independent unionist Jonathan Bell 0/1
Upper Bann – DUP has two seats and saw its two candidates elected in the first and second rounds, anything less than a solid hold would be a complete disaster, and all but unthinkable. Sinn Fein’s two candidates both did well in terms of first-preference votes but both were only elected in the final round of counting. The UUP also holds two seats here and, while they had less first preferences than Sinn Fein, they fielded a third candidate and so have some spare votes that could put pressure on in earlier rounds.
The fact that Sinn Fein took so long to see their candidates elected despite many first preferences implies they did not do very well in attracting votes down the ballot (a better tactic for them would be to field two candidates by try and get a ratio of 2:1 in first preference votes, compared with the roughly even distribution they achieved last time, aiming to get one elected early and then rely on transfers from that first candidate to elect the second – if they do that, they should hold their seats). Meanwhile, the SDLP lost its seat here last time but will still have its fingers crossed for a long-shot gain here in March (we consider that unlikely).
Range of likely results: DUP 2, SF 1/2, UUP 1/2
West Tyrone – Sinn Fein have three seats here, all of which were picked up in the final round of voting, when their fourth candidate was eliminated. If they drop down to three candidates they should easily hold on to what they have. If not, they risk losing out, but expect them to rationalise – in which case, one of the DUP, UUP and SDLP to drop the seat they currently hold.
DUP spare votes makes this a safe enough seat for them so this probably comes down to a shootout between UUP and SDLP.
Range of likely results: SF 3, DUP 1, UUP 0/1, SDLP 0/1
Should we expect big changes? The DUP has been embroiled in financial scandals before – Red Sky and Nama were prominent issues between the 2011 and 2016 elections, and there was little change in their vote share, and no change in the number of seats.
In fact, Sinn Fein and the SDLP were the only parties to lose seats – one and two respectively – and the only parties to make gains were the Greens, who doubled their seats to two, and People Before Profit, who gained a presence in the chamber with two seats.
Alliance, the UUP and DUP all lost under 1% share of first preference votes between 2011 and 2016, while the SDLP and Sinn Fein lost just over 2% and just over 3% respectively.
And as our constituency-by-constituency look indicates, whether RHI will affect the attitudes of voters or not, there are a lot of things that could happen - but in Northern Ireland not very much does tend to happen.
Our projections have parties with the following ranges of seats: DUP between 29 and 38; Sinn Fein 22 and 29; UUP 6 and 16; SDLP 5 and 13; Alliance 5 and 8; TUV will get 1; PBPA 1 or 2 (or maybe three – we did not even suggest this in part one but with a sizeable but not unimaginable swing they could – could – win two seats in West Belfast); the greens could hold both their seats or be wiped out, and there could be one or two independents – or none at all.
That creates the impression that the DUP are set to consolidate their power (bearing in mind 31 or 32 seats would represent par, given the reduction in numbers) with Sinn Fein not doing too badly either (23 or 24 would be par for them). However, as there is no real bottom-line data on its impact, RHI was not taken into account. The DUP are under pressure and Sinn Fein’s hardened stance against their long-term governmental partners stems from disquiet amongst their core support.
We are also at a time when change is in the air. Political establishments are being bent or broken by changes in voting patterns. And, while they might not like to admit it, the political establishment in Northern Ireland is the DUP and Sinn Fein.
Mike Nesbitt is not Donald Trump but the shape of his election campaign will not be that different from Drain the Swamp – with the scandal-afflicted DUP cast in the role of the swamp.
Scope is not here to make predictions with any certitude. An election is by no means a certainty at this stage, even if it is likely, and the DUP/Sinn Fein power bloc has survived other major scandals in the past decade.
But that cannot go on forever. And if a change in seat numbers is accompanied by a tangible and decisive shift in the choices made at the ballot box, our predictions could – like so many others – appear way off and Northern Ireland could, politically at least, be a much different place.
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