Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: It's shaping up to be a cliffhanger poll even before the parties set out their stalls

DUP’s Alex Easton
DUP’s Alex Easton
Stephen Farry
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

All this election excitement and we've not even moved from pacts to policies yet. It has been an extraordinary week in what is shaping up to be a dramatic contest.

The more parties pull out, the more absorbing things become.

Remarkably, half of Northern Ireland's seats might conceivably change hands on December 12.

Three of Belfast's four could be accompanied by Fermanagh- South Tyrone, Foyle, North Down, South Antrim, and just possibly South Down and Upper Bann. Alternatively, everything could stay the same. Dull it ain't. Amidst the flurry of pacts, Alliance has, remarkably, been attacked for having the temerity to stand in constituencies, as if it is no business of political parties.

Quite why a determinedly non-unionist and non-nationalist party should be obliged to step aside for unionist or nationalist parties is unclear.

Alliance has two good seat-winning chances and withdrawal anywhere would surely confuse the party's message.

Demands for absenteeism have been made in the context of a Remain pact. But the faultline is no longer clear-cut.

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The choice is mainly between Remain parties or a DUP more viscerally opposed to the Brexit on offer than are many Remainers.

The Conservative leader's visit to Tandragee might have helped Tayto crisp sales but not those of his EU deal to many unionists.

So the value of parties stepping aside might be questioned - or seen more in the context of ancient unionist versus nationalist quarrels.

The Greens cannot be viewed through that traditional prism, in fairness.

They have proved their environmental credentials by not requiring supporters to travel to polling stations to back them.

Whether the politics of the planet are improved by having a party engage in widespread abstention is debatable.

After a difficult start following retreat from North Belfast, the UUP's mood improved with the news that Lady Sylvia Hermon is not to defend her remarkable electoral record in North Down.

With the right candidate, this gives the UUP a chance to plough what ought to be fertile ground.

Yet the UUP starts the outsider of three possible winners in the constituency.

The DUP long odds-on (1/3) to take North Down? What will happen to the house prices?

If the DUP does win - and Alliance's Stephen Farry will be a tough opponent for Alex Easton - it will further demolish the tired myth that the party cannot prosper in supposedly liberal unionist areas.

It is of course true that DUP success in leafy middle-class South Belfast owed much to a split vote among rivals and the same would pertain in North Down, where Alliance and UUP will be chasing a similar vote. But Emma Little-Pengelly managed to attract three in every 10 South Belfast voters and Easton four in every 10 in North Down in 2017.

Barring a real shock, Pengelly looks on borrowed time, a very likely victim of Sinn Fein absenteeism, with the SDLP benefiting.

Sinn Fein head to Derry next weekend for the party's ard fheis. The delegates might need to do some local flesh pressing.

The SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, has been made (4/6) favourite to recapture Foyle for his party.

As recently as the 2015 election the SDLP held a 16% lead over Sinn Fein and so you can see why the SDLP is hopeful.

Winning is an imperative for the party's future, even allowing for its very bright prospects in South Belfast.

Surprises have not been confined to Northern Ireland.

The Liberal Democrat leader, Jo Swinson, threatened proceedings against broadcasters for omitting her from the Johnson versus Corbyn showdown.

Her claim of sexism is extraordinary. There remains plenty of that needing tackling in politics, for sure, but this is hardly an exhibit.

The Liberal Democrats polled 7% of the vote in 2017. If the television debate is 60 minutes, that percentage ought to entitle Swinson to four minutes of airtime - an embarrassing walk-on, walk-off part. I don't recall Theresa May being excluded in 2017, although, given her performances, it might have been more effective for the Conservatives.

Northern Ireland's party leader debates ought to be fascinating given the set of intriguing contests and what is at stake.

I've not even had space to discuss the Danny Kinahan v Paul Girvan UUP v DUP match-up in South Antrim, nor Chris Hazzard's attempt to consolidate Sinn Fein's 2017 South Down gain at the SDLP's expense.

There is also the intrigue of the DUP's not-entirely-safe Upper Bann seat, where Carla Lockhart has been selected as its candidate.

Thank goodness for the uselessness of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. Otherwise we would only have these treats every five years, not two.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and Director of the ESRC's 2010, 2015 and 2017 Northern Ireland Westminster election studies.

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