Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: The many factors at play in a General Election that's just too difficult to call


Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Nobody could say this election was boring. Whatever the faults of the parties and their campaigns, there was rarely a dull moment.

And that is because so much is at stake. We will be spoilt for choice in terms of where to watch when counting begins on Thursday night.

The big and bitter battles are undoubtedly in North Belfast and Foyle. The fight in the former will be very close. I've lost count of the number of times I've flipped from John Finucane to Nigel Dodds as the likely winner over the course of this campaign. Dodds has been flat out and he has a fine record as a hard constituency worker to rely on. He has also been helped by those controversial loyalist banners. They will guarantee a high turnout in working-class loyalist areas.

DUP sources tell me that Rathcoole is the place to watch. Turnout can be low in the estate. But if voters there come out in similar numbers to those in the best Sinn Fein areas, Dodds will do it, they say.

Sinn Fein, just like the DUP, has thrown everything at North Belfast, and that party has numerically far greater personnel resources to rely upon. John Finucane will pick up a significant amount of support from middle-class Catholic voters who normally wouldn't entertain his party.

Those loyalist banners have also secured him considerable sympathy among SDLP and Green voters because he is himself a victim, witnessing his father being killed.

If the DUP loses North Belfast, it will be a bad election for the party even if it does well elsewhere. Dodds is its rock at Westminster.

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But if he is unseated, and Alex Easton also fails to win North Down, then the DUP really will be in the doldrums.

If Sinn Fein loses in both North Belfast and Foyle, it will have cause for concern. Brexit and the withdrawal of the SDLP and Greens in the former constituency have created a perfect storm for the party that will likely never come again.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has fought a remarkable election campaign. But he was similarly strong - on the ground and in terms of media performances - in May's EU election and it didn't adequately translate into votes. However, this campaign has a different feel.

If Eastwood and Claire Hanna are both elected, the party is back at the races in terms of being competitive with Sinn Fein. The Ulster Unionists could be in trouble tomorrow. New leader Steve Aiken got off to an awful start in this campaign with his U-turn on contesting all 18 constituencies. His performances in TV debates have been mixed.

He did land blows on the DUP in Tuesday's BBC head-to-head. But the big question is whether moderate unionists disillusioned with the DUP will switch to the UUP or Alliance.

Naomi Long's party outpolled the UUP in the EU election. If it managed to do the same in this one - or even go near - it would be disastrous for the UUP.

Alliance will suffer in some constituencies from the first-past-the-post system leading to tactical voting. But the party is tapping into a public mood of utter frustration with the DUP and Sinn Fein. Anecdotal evidence suggests that even if it doesn't win seats, Alliance could poll very strongly in some places.

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