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Northern Ireland Election - What Are the Seats to Watch Out For?

Election day is upon us and as voters go to the polls and the rest of us await the results, we thought it would be helpful to outline some of the seats we recommend keeping an eye on in particular as the results come in on 6 May.

Before setting out the notable seats in earnest, a quick refresher of the basics of terminology won’t go amiss. For an Assembly election, Northern Ireland is divided into 18 constituencies, each of whom will return 5 MLAs, meaning a total of 90 MLAs will be returned.

While some constituencies may have three candidates from a single party (typically a major party), giving them the opportunity for more MLAs, it can also create a situation where the third, lowest preference candidate’s seat is deemed ‘marginal’, or most at risk, giving the ability for other parties to threaten the seat through vote transfers (covered in a previous blog). This can mean that the more candidates a party runs in a single constituency, the more confident they will be of their chances of doing well in that constituency.

When an MLA is ‘co-opted’ (as you will see referenced below), they are simply replaced by another candidate from within their party – this can happen throughout the year and avoids the need to hold a by-election, whilst also maintaining party-political balance within the Assembly.

With that in mind, here are the seats we would recommend keeping an eye on in this election:

South Down: It’s only in recent weeks that South Down has been key seat to watch, if not to find out how an ongoing party-political drama will play out. DUP veteran Jim Wells recently quit the party in opposition to their candidate, instead endorsing South Down’s TUV candidate - the entirety of the officers in the DUP’s South Down Association have also done the same. But with South Down comfortably returning two Sinn Fein MLAs, two SDLP MLAs and only one DUP MLA last election, will this political saga hinder the DUP, help the TUV, or will it split the ticket entirely and create a surprise fifth result?

North Belfast: One of Belfast’s four constituencies, in the last election the unionist vote was higher than the nationalist vote, but due to transfer votes it resulted in the DUP and Sinn Fein both holding two seats with the SDLP holding the other. This constituency also has no incumbent DUP MLA seeking re-election, but two veteran Sinn Fein MLAs – for the DUP, there may be some anxiety in fielding two entirely new candidates, while the constituency could see an Alliance surge with Sinn Fein’s second seat appearing vulnerable, despite being held by a veteran MLA.

Fermanagh & South Tyrone: While Sinn Fein currently have three seats here (with the DUP and UUP holding the rest), their third seat is marginal and will be facing stiff competition to win it. Whether Sinn Fein, who are currently riding high in the polls, are able to hold this third seat or not may therefore be a litmus test for their performance across the rest of Northern Ireland as a whole.

Foyle: Located in Northern Ireland’s north-west, Foyle is a former heartland for the SDLP which now sees firm competition from Sinn Fein. Of the five seats in this constituency, there are currently two held by the SDLP and two by Sinn Fein – all of whom were co-opted in the last Assembly and so are facing their first test at the ballot box. The fifth seat is held by the DUP but is at risk as the SDLP and Sinn Fein try to extend their lead in this seat – but will they succeed?

Lagan Valley: Lagan Valley should be a safe seat for the DUP; former First Minister Paul Givan is standing, but it is party leader Sir Jeffery Donaldson (who is MP for the same constituency) who will be attracting the most attention. Sir Jeffery will be hoping the removal of his party colleague and former leadership rival, Edwin Poots, from Lagan Valley to make space for himself won’t dent his reputation and will secure him a seat (though this will lead to a by-election for Sir Jeffery’s Westminster seat). There are also seats currently held by the UUP and Alliance, but their fifth seat, held by the SDLP’s Pat Catney, is the third most marginal in Northern Ireland, making it highly vulnerable.

As an addendum to our final post, we thought we would update you on the latest polling which has come through since we started. Two polls have come through just days before the election, one from LucidTalk followed by another from Irish News – both have Sinn Fein remaining as frontrunners with 26% of the vote, and the SDLP in fourth place with 10% of the vote.

Second and third place appear in flux, however – LucidTalk has the DUP sitting in second place with 20% of the vote and Alliance and the UUP in joint third place with 14% of the vote each, whereas Irish News has both the DUP and Alliance in joint second place with 18.2% of the vote and the UUP in third place with 12.1% of the vote.

The polling will give some confidence to Sinn Fein, who have consistently been polling in first place, that they will be the largest party in Stormont for the first time ever as they reach the finish line. The surge in Alliance support will also provide positive news - despite the fact they would be unable to take the position of deputy First Minister, they may be able to take on more Ministerial posts. For the DUP, though, the question still looming over the post-election landscape is whether they will form an Executive with Sinn Fein at all.

This wraps up our blog series - we hope you’ve found it useful and informative in the run up to what will be an interesting election. Keep an eye out for more content from our public affairs team on a range of topics from across the UK and devolved nations.

Image credit: Krzysztof Nahlik

Last updated 05/05/2022