Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: Expect no festive cheer as Northern Ireland parties prepare to do battle once again

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during the debate
Prime Minister Boris Johnson during the debate
Nigel Dodds
Naomi Long
Michelle O'Neill
Steve Aiken
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

Just when you were looking forward to Christmas as well. Political parties, not Christmas ones. While there was a certain inevitability about yesterday’s election calling, it made few hearts race with joy.

MPs have probably united the country more than at any time in the last three years — in dread of a Yuletide contest. Carol singers yes, but election campaigners at the door?

Northern Ireland’s political parties can hardly relish the event either. Combined, the largest four parties have spent more money than they have received for the last three years — and given the general election will be the third contest this year, the finances may significantly worsen. Despite the time of year though, Northern Ireland’s dutiful voters will still show up. Around 63% voted in November 2003 to elect candidates to an Assembly that didn’t sit until nearly four years later. If 692,028 voters can abandon their fireside for a phantom election, we can expect them to materialise for perhaps the most important contest in a generation.

An election is not just for Christmas but it may not be for much longer either, as there is a distinct possibility of another unstable Conservative minority government being returned. Deja vu all over again.

That might get Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds licking their lips but the DUP nonetheless faces a potentially tough election to hold what they have.

If Boris wins big, the DUP might be operating in a very different Northern Ireland, heavily EU-aligned, in future years. The DUP’s period of being central at Westminster will have ended in Northern Ireland being peripheral in the Union — a political disaster for the party.

If Boris wins small, the DUP is still in play. And if Corbyn wins, everyone might be voting again soon anyway... in a border poll.

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Sammy Wilson told the Commons this week that the electorate would return “100 seats if they had the option”.

Call it a hunch but I think his party might struggle in West Belfast. And North, South and East will all take some defending.

It’s far from automatic that Nigel Dodds will lose North Belfast if UUP leader Steve Aiken holds to his controversial “no pacts” line and fields a candidate. It’s an electorate where the unionist versus nationalist battle is the most acute anywhere in urban Northern Ireland and unionists may well stick with the DUP deputy leader. But it makes Dodds’ task tougher.

I’ve heard many predictions already of the electoral demise of Emma Little-Pengelly in South Belfast. Her victory in 2017 was one of the big surprises. But it’s worth remembering that in what is often regarded as middle-class liberal, infertile territory for the DUP, the party had come a close second at each election from 2005 — to a weakening SDLP.

With prospects of a Remain alliance still looking remote, the DUP still has a chance of holding on against the odds amid a split Remain vote. Head east and Gavin Robinson faces a difficult task holding his DUP seat against Naomi Long and the Alliance surge.

Long needs a 10% swing — big, but only half the size of the one when she managed to unseat then leader of the DUP, Peter Robinson, in 2010.

The Alliance leader really ought to do well. With nearly 50% of the population eschewing unionist or nationalist labels, now should be Alliance’s time — and the council and European elections indicate it may be. But the non-aligned electorate tends to be younger and less likely to vote than the aligned. Two-thirds of 18-24 year olds didn’t bother in 2017 and the contest wasn’t competing against student Christmas parties then.

The DUP also faces a battle to hold South Antrim against the UUP. Danny Kinahan ousted the DUP’s Willie McCrea in 2015 and lost by only 3,208 votes to Paul Girvan last time.

The only other UUP target is Fermanagh and South Tyrone, lost by only 875 votes to Sinn Fein last time, but the party needs, ahem, a unionist pact to have a chance.

The UUP’s expected entry into the North Down fray makes that seat hard to call, with a three-way split in the unionist vote, assuming Sylvia Hermon stands again, even possibly going in the DUP’s favour if the Remain vote splits equally between the UUP and Hermon, but only a fool would make a bold prediction.

Despite underwhelming recent polling, Sinn Fein can be reasonably hopeful of retaining all their seats. South Down is far from safe, with Chris Hazzard’s majority over the SDLP a mere 2,446 and Elisha McCallion’s lead in Foyle is minuscule, at only 169 votes. With the SDLP complaining over the surge in proxy voting in Foyle in 2017, expect another very hard-fought contest.

Handily for Sinn Fein, its November ard fheis will be an election rally in the constituency.

Given this, one wonders whether the expected contest between John O’Dowd and northern leader Michelle O’Neill — no hustings allowed anyway — might even be abandoned to prevent the appearance of pre-election disunity.

There is much to anticipate in what will be a crucial election. January would have been kinder, though.

Jon Tonge is professor of politics at the University of Liverpool and director of the last three ESRC Northern Ireland General Election studies.

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