Divisions in the unionist vote in next month's European election could open the way for a second nationalist MEP in Brussels, a new analysis has revealed.
LucidTalk, our polling partner, is predicting a cliffhanger with a close race for the third seat.
Its trend analysis suggests Sinn Fein will comfortably top the poll, but the two main unionist parties could be left slugging it out until the eighth count before they are elected.
The prediction states that the three sitting MEPs – Martina Anderson, Diane Dodds and Jim Nicholson – are most likely to be re-elected.
But it also suggests that the proliferation of unionist candidates gives the SDLP's Alex Attwood a real chance of stealing the third seat from the UUP.
Bill White, managing director of LucidTalk, said: "Unionism may have to have a long hard look at itself after these elections are over, because the results at the last count stage could be very tight.
"Undoubtedly, the SDLP is in with a real chance."
The close result bears out recent warnings from Peter Robinson, the DUP leader, that the unionist vote risks being shredded.
In all there are 10 candidates running, only two of which are nationalist/republican.
The remaining eight are either pro-Union or neutral on the issue, like the Greens.
The computer model predicts that Sinn Fein's Martina Anderson will top the poll with 26.2% of the vote, while Alex Attwood of the SDLP (16.7%) will come ahead of the UUP's Jim Nicholson (14.2%), but well behind Diane Dodds of the DUP (20.8%), on the first count.
With the help of Ms Anderson's surplus and transfers from Anna Lo of Alliance (5.9% on the first count), he stays ahead until the seventh count.
Click here for our full European election table
Then TUV leader Jim Allister is eliminated, bringing in Mrs Dodds and Mr Nicholson. This leaves the eventual European line-up unchanged, with one Sinn Fein, one DUP and one UUP.
At the seventh count the projection shows Mr Allister on 10.5% of the vote, Mr Attwood on 23.2%, Ms Dodds on 21.7% and Mr Nicholson on 18.1%.
If this is the case, it will be the first time in the 35 years of European elections in Northern Ireland that the top three candidates on the first count were not eventually elected. This underlines the fragility of Mr Nicholson's position and the effect that the large number of pro-Union candidates has on the votes of each individual.
"This is the most likely scenario, but the picture could change as the campaign gains momentum," Mr White said.
"The count table I've suggested is the most likely model, but there are others – 70% of these models would show the same three parties being elected, with about 30% showing Alex Attwood getting elected instead of Jim Nicholson."
Mr White made his projections on the basis of the last three LucidTalk polls for the Belfast Telegraph, which were held in May 2012, November 2012 and September 2013, as well as the actual results in previous elections. His company also interviewed its market research panel of 220 people from across Northern Ireland and weighted the results to reflect the province's demographic make-up.
Mr Nicholson's projected first preference vote is 3% down on the 17.1% he scored last time out in 2009. Then he was backed by the Conservatives, but this time they are fielding Mark Brotherson.
NI21 and UKIP are also standing, and are projected to score 3.2% and 2.1% respectively.
Mr Allister, at 7.8%, is expected to be down on the 13.7% he scored in the last Euro election. NI21, the Greens (2.3%) Ukip and the Conservatives all risk losing their deposits.
The 10 Northern Ireland European Parliament candidates standing for election on May 22 are:
Anna Lo (Alliance)
Mark Brotherston (Con)
Diane Dodds (DUP)
Ross Brown (Green Party)
Tina McKenzie (NI21)
Martina Anderson (SF)
Alex Attwood (SDLP)
Jim Allister (TUV)
Henry Reilly (Ukip)
Jim Nicholson (UUP)
Where the transfers go (or don't go) will be crucial
By Bill White
It's always dangerous, indeed it could be suicidal in terms of reputation, for a polling company to take several different polls, other data, and various weighting assumptions, and then collate election projections.
But we're brave souls, or at least foolhardy, and it's also fun. So we've collated a realistic possible result for the forthcoming NI European elections on May 22.
We are predicting the same three parties returned again – Martina Anderson (Sinn Fein), Diane Dodds (DUP) and Jim Nicholson (UUP). However, as can be seen, the battle for the last two seats could be a close contest between the DUP, SDLP, and UUP.
Our projections are only a model, and are meant to provide a 'feel' for a possible way the count could go. We have modelled one result outcome, but there are many different scenarios, with most of these showing Sinn Fein, the DUP and UUP being the favourites to retain their seats.
However, this time the SDLP is also in with a real chance.
It is critical how the transfer scores will be applied, plus the level of non-transferable votes at each counting stage. In our model we are assuming a non-transferable vote rate of 10% at each count stage, but in reality it could be as low as 5% or 20% or higher.
In all PR elections, vote transfers, and the level of non-transferable votes at each stage, can become critical to the outcome.
This could be crucial on the unionist side of the contest, as only two of the 10 candidates are nationalist or republican, while the other eight are either pro-Union or neutral.
As I said, it's a risky business predicting election outcomes, but at least it's a great excuse for an argument.
Bill White is managing director of Belfast-based polling and market research company LucidTalk – polling partners of the Belfast Telegraph.
How the pollsters arrived at their conclusions
The main input data to the projections came from:
- Previous LucidTalk Northern Ireland-wide polls from May 2012, November 2012, and September 2013. This produced trends in party support over the 2012 to 2013 period.
- Interviews with the 220 member LucidTalk opinion panel (balanced to reflect NI society), carried out in the last two weeks.
- Assembly, Westminster and Euro elections since 2009, including vote transfer patterns.
- Various weighting factors were also built into computer models to reflect the structure of European elections.
These are three examples:
a) This European election suits the bigger parties who have large numbers of canvassers and a large number of council candidates contesting the local government elections which are held on the same day. This favours the DUP and Sinn Fein, and to a lesser extent the SDLP and UUP.
b) Name-profile of each candidate. For instance, Jim Allister running for the TUV is different from the TUV running another candidate from the party.
c) Past performance. Some parties perform differently in European and Assembly elections. For instance, Alliance traditionally performs less well in Euro elections because its support is concentrated in constituencies around Belfast and not spread evenly across Northern Ireland.