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How Will Each Party Fare at the Ballot Box?

The stage is set and campaigning is in its final stages, but for some outside Northern Ireland a quick look at the parties can cause some confusion. Unlike in Scotland and Wales, who have Scottish Labour and Welsh Conservatives serving in parallel to their Westminster counterparts, Northern Ireland has a host of parties unique to them – so who are they, and what are the prospects for each party on voting day?

Sinn Fein, currently the most popular nationalist party (meaning a party who support the ultimate aim of joining the Republic of Ireland) in Northern Ireland, are on course for their best election ever and are poised to make history as the first nationalist party to take the position of First Minister.

Credit: Robert Mayne

Stormont buildingThat outcome could result in a ‘border poll’ (a referendum on Northern Ireland uniting with the Republic of Ireland) increasing in its likelihood - the party’s Northern Ireland leader, Michelle O’Neill, has insisted their immediate concerns remain on the issues of the present, but that doesn’t mean a border poll would be completely off the table.

For Sinn Fein, who have been consistently ahead in the polls for months, this election campaign has been about staying the course, not creating any controversies and maintaining that lead at all costs.

Northern Ireland’s other major nationalist party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), don’t look as though they’ll be having the same buoyancy at the ballot box – typically polling fifth, they may make minimal gains and party leader Colum Eastwood has expressed his confidence that the party can gain seats. Focusing hard on the cost-of-living crisis, the SDLP have left behind their ambitions for a border poll at present and criticised Sinn Fein for saying it would be on their cards.

For the SDLP, though, it will be what happens after the election that has all eyes on them as they have previously implied they may, depending on the priorities of any future Executive, not form part of the government and instead may go into opposition. To so do would be a bold move and certainly help give the shake-up of the institution the SDLP say is needed, but questions remain if the party could recover from a 5-year stint outside government.

It's been a rough year for Northern Ireland’s most popular unionist party (meaning a party who support Northern Ireland remaining in the United Kingdom). The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) had a 2021 which included three different leaders and two different First Ministers, but the party are back on track to have another successful election. However, it may not be an outcome they can accept - recent polls have the DUP sitting in second place, which would still allow them to form an Executive with the leading party (in this case, Sinn Fein).

To do so, however, would mean accepting the deputy First Minister post – despite both First Minister and deputy First Minister being equal roles (‘deputy’ is purposefully left lowercase to emphasise this), strong symbolism is attached to the post of First Minister and a unionist party accepting the ‘deputy’ position would be unprecedented, being seen by some as an existential threat to the union.

The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), under fresh leadership from Doug Beattie and a new, progressive style of unionism, had been enjoying a revival that was dubbed the ‘Beattie Bounce’ just a few months ago. Recently that seems to have deflated, with recent polling, which once had the UUP above the DUP, now putting them in fourth place.

However, the UUP’s Robin Swan, who held the post of Health Minister prior to the start of election campaigning and throughout the pandemic, has consistently polled highly as Northern Ireland’s most popular politician, which may bode well for the party going into election day.

The Alliance party may be the real party to watch this election as they are experiencing an upsurge of support - if polling is to be believed they are biting at the heels of the DUP for second place, sitting only a few points behind in third.

Alliance stands out as they are a cross-community party, meaning they don’t identify themselves as either ‘unionist’ or ‘nationalist’, but as ‘other’ (meaning they have no community designation), which means they can typically pick up third/fourth/etc. preference votes from across the political spectrum.

The thorn in the paw of the Alliance party this election is, if they do manage to surge ahead of the DUP and secure second place, they would be unable to nominate a deputy First Minister.

This is because while the First Minister post is determined by largest party, the deputy First Minister’s position is determined by the largest party of the next largest denomination (‘nationalist’ or ‘unionist’) – as Alliance designate themselves as ‘other’, and therefore not representing any one community, this constitutional nuance would prevent them from forming an Executive in the event they do see a significant surge.

Moving on from the five largest parties who formed the previous Government, there are other, smaller parties standing also worth noting.

Traditional Ulster Voice (TUV) led by Jim Allister have existed on the fringes of the Assembly since its formation in 2009 but enjoyed a ‘bounce’ of their own in some earlier polling for the 2022 election. Currently polling around 6th, the TUV don’t look set to emerge any further from the fringes, but their strong opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol may mean they continue to be a vocal minority in Stormont who are able to push the DUP on certain issues.

Socialist party People Before Profit (PBP) have also existed on the fringes, and while they may not gain many seats, they may increase their vote share and benefit from the ‘transfer-friendly’ nature of their ideology amidst a cost-of-living crisis. Northern Ireland’s Green party are in a similar boat – unlikely to see a huge increase in seats, but their topical mission-statement may make them prime second/third/etc preference votes.

So those are the parties (not counting independent candidates, mentioned in our previous blog) and how we think they’ll fare – but as we know, things can change quickly on the campaign trail. As 5 May approaches, keep an eye out here for more blogs on our thoughts, explanations and analysis of all you need to know.

Image credit: Robert Mayne

Last updated 25/04/2022