Belfast Telegraph

DUP 'likely to remain as top dog for another term'

Nicholas Whyte

The St Andrews Agreement is perfectly clear: the nominating officer of the largest political party after the election gets to nominate the new First Minister of Northern Ireland; the largest political party of the other designation shall nominate the new Deputy First Minister.

At both the last two elections in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein had more support than any other party, with 171,942 votes to the DUP’s 168,216 in the 2010 Westminster election, and with Bairbre de Brun winning 126,184 first preferences to 88,346 for the DUP’s Diane Dodds in the 2009 European election.

If the unionist vote is again sufficiently dispersed, and Sinn Fein is able to retain its level of support, Martin McGuinness could look forward to swapping jobs with Peter Robinson.

However, I don’t think that this is likely. Not because I anticipate any slippage in Sinn Fein support — they have consistently delivered results in the 25%-26% range for the last several elections, and I see no reason to anticipate that this year will be different. But I do expect the DUP to make up the 3,700 vote difference from last year, and probably more than that.

The 2010 and 2009 elections were notably bad results for the DUP, for slightly different reasons which largely no longer apply. Both elections saw Jim Allister and his TUV eat into the DUP’s core vote.

But Allister’s 13.7% in 2009, where he was unable to win a European seat despite being a competent incumbent, had dwindled to a mere 3.9% in 2010, at a time where the DUP’s leadership were under the cloud of unprecedented scandal that would have made it a good time for alternatives to break through.

More important, in 2010 two independent unionist candidates, both supported by the DUP, gained over 21,000 votes each in constituencies where the DUP was the largest unionist party in the last Assembly election. It seems a fair extrapolation that if Rodney Connor and Lady Sylvia Hermon had not stood, and there had been a DUP candidate on the ballot paper in either or both of North Down and Fermanagh-South Tyrone, the extra votes gained would have been enough to make the DUP the biggest party.

The DUP had an exceptionally good election in 2007, winning 36 Assembly seats on 30.1% of the vote — the best result in percentage terms for any party in a regional election since 1973.

That is unlikely to be repeated. But the DUP was almost four percentage points of vote share, and eight seats, ahead of Sinn Fein in the 2007 election, and I would be astonished if it lost even half of that margin this year. The DUP is likely to remain the largest single party.

Nicholas Whyte runs the NI Elections website. This article reproduced by kind permission of lobbying group Strategem. The full article is available here

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