Snap election analysis – part two

10 Jan 2017 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 10 Jan 2017

We are now officially in election season. What should we expect from the new polls, considering the Assembly’s reduction from 108 to 90 MLAs?

Stormont is set for an election in the coming weeks, under new conditions and under the cloud of a financial scandal that appears to have caught the public imagination.

Since we published part one of our analysis of how a snap election could affect the Assembly, such an election has become much more likely thanks to deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness’ resignation yesterday.

Unless emergency talks can smooth out the differences between the DUP and Sinn Fein, the Executive will collapse and a weary public will trudge to the polls.

The reduction in MLAs will apply to any snap election and, while the extent of the Renewable Heat Incentive’s effect on matters is hard to gauge, that represents a huge point of difference.

The methodology for this analysis is not especially refined. One thing it relies on is the concept of “spare votes” – whereby sitting parties that also had candidates who just missed out last time will be able to shore up their existing seats with the votes from the near-miss candidates. This itself an imperfect factor, not least because our voting system (single transferable vote) already takes account of these votes, to a significant degree.

Vote transfers from elected and eliminated candidates means that, by design, these “spare” votes are, by the end of polling, not really spare at all. Parties do have some wriggle room, however - particularly in their choice of total number of candidates. A reduction in these numbers at the very least makes it more likely the candidates you do field will get through to the later rounds and so remain in the discussion.

So, this is no more than an educated guess. Our ranges “of likely results” are simply an attempt at looking what is likely – some of our possibilities appear much less likely than others, while it is also possible that the seat distribution will fall outside the ranges we have put forward.

However, that does not mean all this is without merit, and increasingly refined models – especially in such uncertain circumstances, with so many unpredictable factors – do not necessarily produce vastly more accurate projections.

Constituencies continued

Foyle – here the DUP has one seat and should hold it barring a major scalp to their votes, as Gary Middleton was the first man elected and the UUP’s only candidate was eliminated early.

This remains a nationalist stronghold, with both Sinn Fein and the SDLP having two seats each. PBPA’s Eamonn McCann was the last man past the post in the previous election but he must still stand some sort of chance and, if he succeeds, the loser will likely be one of the two major nationalist parties – although they both have spare votes, having seen candidates eliminated late on.

Range of likely results: DUP 1, SF 1/2, SDLP 1/2, PBPA 0/1

Lagan Valley – one of the existing Alliance seats that is vulnerable, Trevor Lunn did not get a huge number of first preference votes last time out and, with a higher quota to come, he might miss out. However, the hope for him comes from the face he was the second person elected last time out, with the final four seats being determined one round later in counting, so later preferences did break his way.

Despite being one of the true DUP heartlands, they lost a seat last year – dropping from four to three – with the UUP making a gain, and DUP defector Jenny Palmer giving them their second seat here.

Ms Palmer is likely to be a prominent figure again in this election. She wrote an open letter to DUP members and representatives just last week, imploring them to stop putting up with scandals. Expect that to be printed out and put through letterboxes throughout the area in the next month.

But could the DUP really go from four out of six seats, to two from five, in less than a year? It would be a monumental change and is extremely unlikely.

Range of likely results: APNI 0/1, UUP 1/2, DUP 3

Mid Ulster – four seats were announced in the first round of counting last year, three for Sinn Fein and one for the SDLP. The SDLP will keep theirs, and Sinn Fein will probably keep theirs too – for them not to do so would require a plummet in the number of votes, especially when it comes to second preferences.

That means there is a probable fight out between UUP’s Sandra Overend and the DUP. Ms Overend was elected one round ahead of Keith Buchanan last time but the DUP has spare votes (the final round was between their two candidates and no-one else).

Ms Overend has a higher profile in Northern Ireland then either Mr Buchanan or Ian McCrea, who was a sitting MLA until he lost his seat last May, but that does not necessarily have a bearing on the constituency. For the UUP to keep a presence here it probably needs a massive RHI-fuelled swing.

Range of likely results: SDLP 1, SF 3, UUP 0/1, DUP 0/1

And more again

Newry & Armagh – the DUP’s William Irwin, their sole candidate, will again get elected in round one if he keeps his votes from last year. Sinn Fein have three seats here and, with two of them elected in round one last time, will be confident of keeping those seats again.

The SDLP took one seat here and also have a large number of spare votes, with Karen McKevitt the last person eliminated. If they stand only one candidate they should keep this seat. This is because, while the UUP also has a seat here as well as spare votes, their total number of first preferences is much lower than the SDLP’s.

Range of likely results: DUP 1, SF 3, UUP 0/1, SDLP 0/1

North Antrim – Jim Allister has spare votes here and the TUV leader will get re-elected. If he’s feeling bold – and when is he not? – he might also keep the second candidate to try and put more pressure on a beleaguered DUP. The DUP themselves will probably think they have no chance of getting four seats and so will only put up three candidates. This will leave them with spare votes and make it more likely they will keep the three seats they do have.

UUP’s Robin Swann only got in late last time, but he has been a representative in North Antrim for some time and will not just surrender his seat. However, it seems unthinkable that Sinn Fein will not hold on to the seat they do have – but this is made more complicated by the fact that Daithí McKay was very popular in the area and would have been a shoo in, while his resignation as an MLA and then from the party will have disillusioned some people. The SDLP – whose candidate was the last one eliminated in May – has no spare votes but will feel it has a puncher’s chance of an astounding gain purely based on any local dissatisfaction within Sinn Fein (who remain by far the most likely party to pick up that final seat).

Range of likely results: TUV 1, DUP 3, UUP 0/1, SF 0/1, SDLP 0/1

The third and final part will follow later today.

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