A fortnight today, Sinn Fein might be the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Smashing Stormont has a very different meaning for republicans these days. We could be on the brink of the most iconic election on the island since 1918. But could it still go wrong for Sinn Fein? If so, where?
No-one within the party is publicly bullish. Sage voices are hopeful but not over-confident.
There are no wild expectations of new seats, no huge Sinn Fein surge. There is also acknowledgement that the DUP might still run the party close. Sinn Fein is down in vote share from the last Assembly election in every poll. But the drop for republicans looks a gentle tumble down Slieve Donard compared to the DUP’s falling-from-Everest polling descent.
“What we have, we hold” might not be Sinn Fein’s ideal election slogan but it would represent reality.
The party retaining all seats, making no gains but taking the first ministership via DUP losses, seems plausible. Sinn Fein needs only to hold across 13 constituencies. The DUP is stretched wide, defending in 17.
It would be astonishing if Sinn Fein lost seats in West or South Belfast. West is the party’s only four-seater and will surely remain such. The SDLP slipped to seventh place last time.
In South Belfast, Sinn Fein’s Mairtin O Muilleoir reached quota on first preference votes in 2017 and his replacement Deirdre Hargey ought to do likewise.
Most other three-seaters look comfortable. Michelle O’Neill will not be losing sleep over Mid-Ulster.
The all-female Sinn Fein trio including herself will surely be returned. Conor Murphy and his two colleagues should be fine in Newry and Armagh.
West Tyrone might have been trickier if a ‘Beattie Bounce’ proved real but UUP candidate selection rows mean that the party’s not-too-distant sixth place last time is unlikely to be improved upon.
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein’s two seats in South Down have been accompanied by an increase in percentage first preference vote share at every election since 1998. Alliance’s challenge here threatens all three incumbent parties but Sinn Fein should still return a pair.
What of the one-seaters? In East Londonderry, the nationalist bloc has held steady at one-third and should be plenty to see Sinn Fein’s Caoimhe Archibald and the SDLP’s Cara Hunter elected without undue fuss. Sinn Fein covets a second seat but it seems unlikely.
Party big-hitters Declan Kearney and John O’Dowd will be safe in South Antrim and Upper Bann respectively. Sinn Fein always run two in Upper Bann, Liam Mackle the latest running mate of O’Dowd, but this has only ever paid off once, in 2016, and again looks optimistic. Philip McGuigan topped the poll for Sinn Fein in North Antrim last time and whilst he had to be patient to get over the line, you cannot imagine his vote straying. Another Sinn Fein hold.
So where could — repeat could, not will — Sinn Fein possibly lose seats?
It seems strange talking about Sinn Fein vulnerability in North Belfast. This was the site of the party’s 2019 General Election coup, when John Finucane ousted Nigel Dodds, abetted by SDLP withdrawal. Sinn Fein has held two Assembly seats there since 2003 and the unionist bloc vote has fallen by 10% in the constituency since the first election in 1998.
But Alliance’s Nuala McAllister lurks not far below the surface and threatens both sides. The threat seems greater to the SDLP’s Nichola Mallon or either DUP candidate but neither Caral Ni Chuilin nor Gerry Kelly can be uber-confident of re-election.
There has been talk of Sinn Fein being vulnerable in Foyle. In 2017, the party’s two candidates romped home on first and second count respectively. That made the Sinn Fein General Election meltdown two years later genuinely astonishing.
Following a subsequent clearing of the stables, the party puts its two Assembly co-options to the electoral test. Both should pass, even though the SDLP is back up to three candidates.
Fermanagh and South Tyrone looks the one Sinn Fein three-seater potentially tricky to defend.
The party’s 2017 haul was based on 42% of the poll, substantially below its other three-seaters. And the party now fields three new candidates.
But the DUP’s two seat 2007-17 era seems over in the constituency and whether the UUP can double its representation looks doubtful. The SDLP was a fair way adrift in seventh place last time.
By default, Sinn Fein may hold all three berths. Few places do marginal better than Fermanagh and South Tyrone though and caution is required.
So the drama may come from Sinn Fein’s stout defences installing Michelle O’Neill as First Minister, rather than via big changes in constituencies.
It could prove a low churn election, of static Sinn Fein and modest DUP slippage.
But that’s all that is needed for the dramatic headline story of a new lead party in Northern Irish politics.
Sinn Fein’s campaign has been tightly disciplined. You’ve got to go back nearly two years for the most recent serious party controversy, the Bobby Storey funeral.
And even that won’t change many votes come Thursday week. Michelle O’Neill insists the election is more about the cost of living crisis than a united Ireland.
In truth, the party cannot do much about either. But no need to disappoint the electorate at this stage, any more than the DUP will be telling unionist voters before May 5 about the inevitability of protocol compromises.
What matters for now is not losing Assembly seats — and Sinn Fein seems quite well placed in that regard.
Next week: the final forecast. Career-ending.
Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool