The election in Northern Ireland
Of the eighteen seats in Northern Ireland, fourteen are unlikely to change hands. At the moment, the DUP hold 9 seats, Sinn Féin hold 5, the SDLP 3 and one seat is held by the Independent Sylvia Hermon, who was elected in 2005 as an Ulster Unionist. It will be an interesting election to watch from a few perspectives. Will UUP, now standing under the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force banner make any gains? Will Unionist voters be more convinced of the benefit of supporting a likely government party or an unaligned party? Can the SDLP hold their own under their new leader Margaret Ritchie? Will the DUP and Sinn Féin face an ebb in their increased support since 2001?
I would count the following thirteen as safe seats:
- Antrim East, to be held by the DUP’s Sammy Wilson
- Antrim North, currently held by former DUP leader Rev. Ian Paisley, who will most like likely be succeeded by his son, Ian Paisley, Jr.
- Belfast East, to be held by First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson
- Belfast North, to be held by DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds
- Belfast West, to be held by Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams
- Down North, to be held by Independent Sylvia Hermon
- Down South, currently held by the SDLP’s Eddie McGrady, to be succeeded by the new party leader, Margaret Ritchie
- Foyle, to be held by former SDLP leader Mark Durkan
- Lagan Valley, to be held by the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson
- Londonderry East, to be held the DUP’s Gregory Campbell
- Newry–Armagh, to be held by Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy
- Tyrone West, to be held by Sinn Féin’s Pat Doherty
- Ulster Mid, to be held by deputy First Minister Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness
Leaving the following five, the first three fights between Unionists, the remaining two between Unionists and sitting nationalists:
This seat has been held by the DUP’s Rev. William McCrea since 2005. This year, he is being challenged by the Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey. Ultimately, his own political future and the viability of his party’s alliance with the Conservatives depends on his winning a seat here. McCrea won the seat here from David Burnside, an anti-Agreement UUP loyalist. With politics having moved on since then, and the imperative Unionist voters might have felt in supporting the most hard-line party might have dissipated. Sir Reg does stand fair chance of regaining this seat for the UUP.
This seat was held by Iris Robinson for the DUP from 2001 until her resignation as an MP on 13 January earlier this year, and has been vacant since then. This, of course, put the DUP at a disadvantage, both in terms of the negative publicity and giving their eventual candidate, Jim Shannon less time to build up his organization. He performed strongly in the 2007 Assembly election, but will face a strong challenge from the Conservative and Unionist Mike Nesbitt, a former UTV presenter and Commissioner of Victims and Survivors. Shannon has a stronger base, but even a strong showing here from Nesbitt could help build up the UCUNF to have stronger presence in next Assembly.
This was the UUP’s most embarrassing loss in 2005, when then party leader David Trimble lost out to the DUP’s David Simpson. He is challenged this year from the Conservatives and Unionists by Freddie Mercury impersonator Harry Hamilton. While next in line, this will be much harder for them to win back.
This seat has been held since 2001 by Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew. She won the seat that year by a mere 53 votes, when she faced a single Unionist opponent, the UUP’s James Cooper. She increased her margin in 2005 to 4,582, facing the DUP’s Arlene Foster and the UUP’s Tom Elliot. This year, both Foster and Elliot withdrew in favour of the Independent Rodney Connor. The SDLP candidate, Fearghal McKinney, a former UTV presenter, should poll strongly, though nationalists who see this as a straight fight between Gildernew and Connor might break for the Sinn Féin candidate. This contest is really too close to call this far before the election.
In 2005, the SDLP’s Dr Alasdair McDonnell won this seat, which had been held by the UUP’s Rev. Martin Smyth from 1982 until his retirement, by 1,200 votes, benefiting from the split in the Unionist vote between the DUP’s Jimmy Spratt and the UUP’s Michael McGimpsey. Spratt is standing again this year, with the Conservatives and Unionists fielding Paula Bradshaw. Alasdair McDonnell has proved a popular MP, from all sections of the constituency. There had been speculation of a Unionist pact, but having stepped aside once, the Tories were adamant that they would not role back any further their pledge to stand a candidate in all of the Northern Ireland constituencies. Then last week, Sinn Féin’s Alex Maskey, former Lord Mayor of Belfast, announced that he was standing aside in favour of McDonnell. The kindest interpretation is that they wanted to ensure nationalist representation at Westminster. Of course, they did imply that they hoped the SDLP would do the same in Fermanagh–South Tyrone. But a more devious but possible suggestion is that knowing that McDonnell could be then be branded as the SF-backed candidate, his support among soft Unionist Protestant voters would be dampened. Given the chance of a loss of Gildernew’s seat, Sinn Féin would hate to think that the SDLP held steady, even at a lower base. In any case, I would expect Alasdair McDonnell to hold this seat, but not at all comfortably.
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