December 30, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith
The best way to predict what will happen in Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies in the 2015 General election is to look at what happened in the 2010 General election. Such is the inappropriateness of First Past the Post as an election system for Northern Ireland that we can already predict the outcome. That said, it is important to explain why the outcome is predictable, and look at the one or two seats where it is not so clear.
First of all – a recommendation – Biteback Publishing has produced “The Politicos Guide to the 2015 General Election” – which I highly recommend anyone as interested in the upcoming election buys – it includes seat by seat guidance to the prospects next year. The information below is provided by them.
The electoral cleavage in Northern Ireland is between the Unionists (who tend to be Protestant), who want to remain part of the UK, and the Nationalists (who tend to be Catholic), who want to be part of Ireland. The Conservatives have tried to get into Northern Irish politics, on the basis of the peace process making the historic political cleavage less relevant, but this hasn’t been successful.
What’s more, the more ‘extreme’ parties on either side of the political divide have been growing in strength in both the Northern Irish Assembly and in Westminster constituencies. So Sinn Fein (the political party that was associated with the IRA) have five seats, whilst the more moderate SDLP has three seats. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP – founded by the Reverend Ian Paisley) has eight of the 18 seats whilst the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP – which was led by David Trimble, one of the architects of the 1998 peace process) have now got no seats at all. They even formed an electoral alliance with the Conservatives called the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force (UCUNF), although that link up no longer exists.
You will have noticed that leaves two seats. One is held by Lady Sylvia Hermon – an independent candidate – in North Down. She used to be in the UUP, but left because of the alliance with the Conservative Party. North Down consists of Bangor and Hollywood (birthplace of Rory McIlroy), which makes it the most affluent of all Northern Irish seats. The other seat – Belfast East – is held by Naomi Long – who represents the non-sectarian Alliance Party. She managed to beat the DUP’s leader, Peter Robinson, who at the time was surrounded by a scandal related to his wife’s financial arrangements. Sylvia Hermon is 59, so unlikely to retire very soon – if she did, the DUP would almost certainly win. Given Peter Robinson is still First Minister of Northern Ireland and still the DUP party leader, and the scandal is in the past – it is possible they will win back that seat. So the DUP could in theory have 10 seats. Bear this in mind given the likelihood of a hung Parliament next year.
Fermanagh and South Tyrone provided the closest result of all constituencies in 2010 – with Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew winning by just four votes against an independent, Rodney Connor, who was the Unionist “Unity” candidate (the DUP and UUP dropped out of that race). The constituency is the most evenly divided of all in a cultural and political sense – with 52% being Catholics. In 2015 the result will again depend on unity. If the SDLP choose a candidate and the Unionists again put forward one candidate, the Unionists could win – so it all depends on which “side” gets the most votes out.
In Belfast North, where 45% of the population are Catholic, the DUP have only a 2,000 majority – but a further major population shift will be needed to change that result. It is worth bearing in mind that in general, Catholic families have more children, so in the future much could change in terms of which side of the political cleavage gets most seats.
Residential segregation means that most Northern Irish constituencies are very safe for the DUP or Sinn Fein. This is why it is likely that 2015 will see at least 8 DUP seats, 5 Sinn Fein seats and 3 SDLP seats.
But that doesn’t mean it is impossible for a Nationalist to win in a majority Protestant community. In Belfast South the SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell won in 2010 despite the constituency being 41% Catholic. There are a variety of reasons for this. Sinn Fein didn’t stand and both the Unionist parties did stand, with the result that McDonnell got 41% of the vote and the DUP and UCUNF put together got 41% of the vote. But something noted by the writers of the ‘Politicos guide to the 2015 election’ is that Belfast South has a substantial academic and student vote, some affluent and desirable residential areas too – meaning it has the highest educational qualifications of any seat in Northern Ireland. Added to this, is the highest concentration of ethnic minorities and a young age structure. Why is all this important? Well, voting behaviour experts say that education means people choose for themselves instead of just so what their family has always done. The young, with little memory of the troubles at their worst, are less bound too by the sectarian divide.
If this continues, it looks like politics will change in Northern Ireland, many would say for the better. If people start to vote for instance along the lines of which party’s economic policies they most agree with, rather than blindly on a religious angle, it would surely help the country become better represented democratically. This, for instance, is why Labour have started to make representations towards DUP voters, even though the Conservatives have naturally been associated with the Unionists. More of that in my next Northern Ireland blog.