Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

SDLP could upset Euro applecart

It is perhaps a measure of Northern Ireland politics that there is often more fun in predicting results – especially if there is a whiff of an upset – than in analysing anything the candidates say. It would take a real political anorak to know what any of the main parties, never mind the fringe candidates, have to say on European policies ahead of the Euro elections in three weeks time.

And, let us be frank, it doesn't really matter what their policies are. Elections in this part of the world are not won or lost on parties views on the economy or the health service or education or any of the other issues which can be pivotal in other parts of the United Kingdom. This newspaper has often wished it otherwise, but essentially, even now in what is supposed to be a new Northern Ireland, elections are just sectarian headcounts.

That is why the Lucid Talk predictions on the outcome of the Euro election are so fascinating. The chances are that the three sitting parties – Sinn Fein, DUP and UUP m– will be returned, but it would not be a huge upset if the SDLP's Alex Atwood was to claim a seat at the expense of the UUP.

The problem for unionist voters is that there is a chance their vote could be so hopelessly split that it would open the door for Mr Atwood, one of only two nationalists standing among 10 candidates.

The proportional representation style of the Euro election makes the final outcome unpredictable as there are no guarantees on how surplus votes will be transferred, although they usually follow sectarian lines. It is unfortunate that elections here cannot be fought on policy or even who the best candidate is, but next month's poll could be a serious wake-up call for unionists. Catholics are in the majority in the under-40 age group and nationalist successes in polls across the province are increasing.

At the same time the unionist vote is splitting and splitting, putting them more and more on the defensive. They may soon have to rethink tactics.

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