Belfast Telegraph

Parties keep positions despite seat cut if trends from last Assembly poll applied

By Suzanne Breen

The DUP will have nine more seats than Sinn Fein in our new, slimmer Assembly if voting trends from last year's election are repeated tomorrow.

Arlene Foster's party would lose six seats, but its victory over its rivals last May was so overwhelming that the DUP could carry such a drop and still have nine more seats than Sinn Fein and 19 more than the Ulster Unionists.

In the outgoing Assembly, the DUP had a 10-seat lead over Sinn Fein and a 22-seat lead over the UUP.

If previous voting trends are repeated, Sinn Fein will have 13 more seats than the SDLP compared to its 16 more in the previous chamber.

Northern Ireland's 18 constituencies are being reduced from six to five seats each, meaning that 90 MLAs will be returned to Stormont compared to the 108 since devolution was established in 1998.

Applying a proportional model based on last May's election results, the DUP would have 32 MLAs (down six), Sinn Fein 23 (down five), the UUP 13 (down three), the SDLP 10 (down two) and Alliance seven (down 1).

The combined total for the Greens, People Before Profit, the TUV and Independent Claire Sugden would be down from six seats to five.

The DUP would not only comfortably remain the largest party but, significantly, it would still have the magic 30 MLAs required to bring a petition of concern without the support of another party. However, these estimates do not take into account recent political developments, including the cash for ash scandal and Arlene Foster's widely-judged disastrous handling of the debacle. Nor do they allow for local factors in each constituency.

Some in the SDLP privately complain about the reduction of seats, which they say makes it even harder for the smaller parties to successfully challenge the DUP and Sinn Fein in their communities.

But the new Assembly will still be substantially bigger than most previous ones in Northern Ireland's history. The Assemblies of the 1970s and 1980s had just 78 members. The old Stormont had 52 members in the main chamber and 26 in the Senate.

The drop from a 108 to a 90-member Assembly will save taxpayers almost £2m a year. A total of £882,000 will be saved on 18 salaries - the average MLA earns £49,000 a year. In terms of expenditure on MLAs' offices, staff, and other expenses, it is estimated that reducing the size of the chamber will save a further £1,117,000 a year.

A total of 228 candidates are seeking your vote tomorrow - down from 276 in last year's election.

Just over 30% of them (68) are women, representing a 2.5% rise in female candidates since we last went to the polls.

All the big parties are running fewer candidates than they did last May. The DUP is running 38 (down six). Sinn Fein is running 34 (down five). The UUP has 24 (down two) and the SDLP has 21 (down three).

Alliance is fielding 21 candidates (down two), the Greens have 18 candidates, the Conservatives have 13, People Before Profit has seven, the TUV has 14, the Workers' Party has five, UKIP has one and there are 22 independents running.

Turnout in last year's election was 55%, but the public response during this campaign suggests it will be higher at tomorrow's poll.

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