Why this election matters

Northern Ireland has had a busy few years at the polls since we voted in 2015’s general election. With just four days left before Northern Ireland votes let’s look at where the parties currently stand and how confident they at least appear ahead of voting day.

Sinn Féin go into this election from a position of strength. The four seats they currently hold – Newry and Armagh, Mid Ulster, West Tyrone and Belfast West – are all safe seats, where the party won three seats or more in March’s Assembly poll. Consequently, one could argue that a bad day for Sinn Féin would be one where they only hold on to these four seats.

It appears that Sinn Féin may have at least one gain to celebrate on Friday morning: that’s Fermanagh and South Tyrone. This marginal constituency, which the UUP’s Tom Elliott won in 2015 by just over 500 votes, looks likely to return to Michelle Gildernew this time after the party’s surge in March saw Sinn Féin gain a seat whilst the DUP and SDLP both lost out.

Elsewhere, Sinn Féin may be confident of taking South Down, a SDLP held seat where Sinn Féin gained 7,000 more first preference votes in March; and Belfast North, a DUP-held seat where Sinn Féin also had a strong result three months ago.

A win in both seats would take Sinn Féin to seven seats – their best Westminster result ever. The party will also be eyeing up gains in Foyle, Upper Bann and Belfast South, though victories here seem less likely.

For the DUP, currently defending eight seats, the outlook is more mixed. They have three safe seats – East Londonderry, North Antrim and Strangford – where they will feel confident of securing wins. Upper Bann, East Antrim and Lagan Valley are slightly different stories, as the UUP have ran Doug Beattie, John Stewart and Robbie Butler – three of their newer yet better known voices. The DUP will be watching these seats for any sign of a UUP resurgence – particularly Lagan Valley where the UUP took 25% in March.

The DUP’s remaining two defences look more difficult. In Belfast North, where deputy leader Nigel Dodds took 6,000 more votes than Sinn Féin in 2015, Sinn Féin are fighting hard after March’s election saw them come just 1,100 votes short of topping the poll.

Whereas a lack of other unionist candidates should help the DUP in Belfast North, the same cannot be said in Belfast East where incumbent Gavin Robinson faces a serious challenge from Naomi Long, leader of the Alliance Party. With the UUP also standing in the constituency, Alliance may well take this seat back from the DUP as they did in 2010.

In terms of targets, the DUP will be focussed on Belfast South and South Antrim where they are seeking to defeat the SDLP and UUP respectively. Whilst the DUP lost a seat in both constituencies back in March, they remained firmly in the lead in terms of votes, and are running well-known candidates in both areas this time round (Emma Little Pengelly and Paul Girvan respectively). It is very possible that they could make up the thousand vote gap in South Antrim, but the ultra-marginal seat of Belfast South seems a less likely gain.

As for the SDLP, despite a good Assembly election result in March, they go into this election playing a game of defence. The party looks unlikely to make gains on Thursday, and in this writer’s opinion looks likely to lose at least one of its three seats. Foyle is perhaps the safest SDLP seat, with Belfast South and South Down under threat from the DUP and Sinn Fein respectively. The SDLP will fight hard to keep these seats but all will be revealed on Friday.

The UUP has the most to lose, holding two of the most vulnerable seats. The UUP could even end up returning no MPs to Westminster– and runs the risk of being blamed for DUP losses in South and East Belfast.

The only party with nothing to lose is Alliance. The party has no seats to defend, and so is throwing the kitchen sink at just two races – Belfast East and Belfast South. In Belfast South, the most marginal of all constituencies, the party has a smaller chance of winning but should by no means be written off.

In summary, then, from this writer’s perspective Sinn Féin and Alliance have it all to play for whilst the SDLP and UUP have the most to lose. The DUP, playing a mixture of attack and defence, has reasons to worry but could come out of this contest with gains.

Either way, this is perhaps the most interesting general election in Northern Ireland in years with fewer safe seats and upsets looking likely.

About James McMordie

James is a PhD student in the Department of International Relations at the University of St Andrews. His interests include European, British and Northern Irish politics, foreign policy and history.