Belfast Telegraph

Alex Kane: There's potential for an interesting election ... particularly for the DUP

'It has the potential to be a very interesting election here' (stock photo)
'It has the potential to be a very interesting election here' (stock photo)
Alex Kane

By Alex Kane

It is not often that you get to say this about an election in Northern Ireland, but this one does have the potential to be quite interesting.

Alliance needs to prove that the 'surge' in the local government and Euro elections a few months ago was not just a blip.

The SDLP and UUP need hard evidence of something which can be described as a revival; for there is only so long you can keep telling your members and core voters - those who will stick with you to the very end of days - that electoral progress is just around the corner.

The DUP faces the very real threat - although it is too easy to over-egg the scale of that threat - of losing three of its 10 seats.

And Sinn Fein could, if all the cards fall in its favour, emerge with the greatest number of MPs here.

Meanwhile, Lady Sylvia Hermon, assuming she stands, will have a real battle on her hands from the DUP, UUP and Alliance in North Down. Add to that the chatter about pacts, or lack of them in the case of the UUP.

The Remain versus Leave argument will be as central to the election here as it is across the rest of the United Kingdom: and while it is true that an 'agreed' Remain candidate could claim a DUP scalp or two, especially Emma Little-Pengelly's in South Belfast, there is very little evidence that Alliance, SDLP and Sinn Fein will be able to reach an agreement at this point.

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That is partly because Alliance and the SDLP both have South Belfast on their target list already and also because the price to be paid for a pact there would be a deal to help the 'abstentionist' Sinn Fein elsewhere. So, there won't be a pact between them.

Steve Aiken, the UUP's new leader, faces a baptism of fire and seems to have made life particularly difficult for himself by insisting that his party will have a candidate in every seat.

It is worth bearing in mind that in 2017 the UUP fielded a candidate in East Belfast (3.3%) and South Belfast (3.5%) and the unionist electorate made it very clear what their preference was. In Fermanagh-South Tyrone the party had a free run and lost Tom Elliott as MP.

In South Antrim the UUP's sitting MP, Danny Kinahan, lost to the DUP's Paul Girvan. The party chose not to stand in North Down, although that seemed to be in favour of Lady Hermon. I think there will be a 'pact', albeit one that dare not speak its name: and I would be genuinely surprised if the UUP stands in North Belfast. The risks are too high.

Sinn Fein has a difficult fight in Foyle, where Elisha McCallion has a majority of just 169 and faces a showdown with SDLP leader Colum Eastwood. Anne McCloskey from the pro-life Aontu will probably take votes from both parties and in a tight race, who she hurts most could prove decisive. And some unionist and Alliance voters may also row in behind Eastwood.

The party also hopes the very high-profile John Finucane - presently Lord Mayor of Belfast - will capture North Belfast, even if there isn't a unionist pact. The party is reasonably confident of returning with seven seats, but an eighth - especially at the expense of Nigel Dodds - would be a huge bonus.

The DUP has potential problems in South and North Belfast, but also fancies its chances in North Down, where Alex Easton came within a whisker of Lady Hermon in 2017. But it does have enormous difficulties on the doorstep: no progress on the Assembly; abortion and same-sex-marriage legislation changed; a potential border down the Irish Sea, meaning that Northern Ireland wouldn't be treated the same as GB; and 'betrayed' by both Boris Johnson and the entire ERG.

Candidates will be asked very uncomfortable questions, and while it is likely that the party will do fairly well in seats won, it could still suffer from a drop in votes.

Which is why it will have no choice but to play the Union card and hope for the best - reckoning that voter anger against them will be trumped by the need to 'send a message' to Johnson.

It has, as I said, the potential to be a very interesting election here. But the reality will probably be different. It is far too early for a serious prediction; yet, at this point, I think it is still likely the DUP and SF will win 16 of the 18 seats.

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