Northern Ireland: The Forgotten Election

As pundits speculate wildly about the scale of the coming Labour landslide and Conservative collapse in England, Scotland and Wales next Thursday, let’s remember that 18 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons are elected by voters in Northern Ireland.

This became briefly important in 2017, when the Democratic Unionist Party’s MPs propped up Theresa May’s government for the two agonising years before its collapse. There were also utterly rumours that Sinn Féin might take its seats in order to thwart or ameliorate Brexit. (This was never going to happen.)

In the 2019 election, the DUP got the most votes, but slipped back badly and lost two seats, finishing with eight MPs. This was one more than Sinn Féin, whose vote also slipped but who compensated one lost seat with a gain from the DUP. The SDLP, previously the dominant Nationalist party, came back from a wipeout in 2017 by regaining two seats from both the DUP and Sinn Fein. And the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland won the seat left vacant by a veteran independent Unionist.

Five years on, in 2024, the DUP face further losses, with half of their seats potentially at risk from other parties. Sinn Féin’s seven look safer, though a couple are wobbly. So do the SDLP’s two. The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland could end up with anything from zero to three seats (some optimists even see a fourth potential gain). The Ulster Unionist Party, which ran Northern Ireland as a one-party state from 1921 to 1972, but has been locked out of Westminster for the last few years, see two potential gains. And there is an independent Unionist in the running as well. Unionism as a whole could win anything between six and ten seats of the eighteen. 

Nine of the eighteen seats can be regarded as pretty safe for the incumbent parties. East Antrim, North Antrim, East Londonderry and Upper Bann are solidly DUP these days, and West Belfast, Mid Ulster, Newry and Armagh and West Tyrone are even more solidly strongholds of Sinn Féin. Foyle was lost by the SDLP in particular circumstances in 2017, but regained with a massive majority in 2019, and can be safely tallied in their column again.

Three, or possibly four, of the DUP’s eight seats are vulnerable. South Antrim sees a strong challenge from the Ulster Unionist Party. In two other seats, the DUP faces fierce opposition from the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland. The exit from politics of the DUP leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, after he was arrested on historic sex crime charges, has left his Lagan Valley seat more open than it has been since its creation in 1987; and his successor as party leader, Gavin Robinson, faces a tough challenge from Alliance’s leader, Naomi Long, in East Belfast – a rather rare case where the leaders of two significant political parties are candidates in the same constituency. Alliance optimists add neighbouring Strangford to the list of potential gains, but it is a longer shot.

Three of Sinn Féin’s seven seats are at risk on paper, though my gut feeling is that they will keep all three. In 2019 North Belfast was gained from the DUP after 130 years of Unionist dominance, and while in theory the margin is not irreversible, in practice the DUP will be putting their resources into defending East Belfast. Fermanagh and South Tyrone, normally a knife-edge seat, was regained by SF from the UUP in 2019, but I hear grumblings from local Unionists that they are further behind this time. And some SDLP optimists see grounds for hope in South Down, which SF have held since 2010; again, it is a long shot.

I noted Foyle as safe for the SDLP above; their other seat, South Belfast and Mid Down (formerly just South Belfast), is probably also pretty safe, given that SF are not standing against them and the incumbent MP, Claire Hanna has positioned herself well. (Her father was my landlord when I moved back to Belfast in 1992; it’s a small world.) The weird thing about South Belfast is that the Alliance Party got more votes than anyone else in two of the last three elections, including the SDLP. But South Belfast voters are volatile.

The most fascinating seat, and the least typical, is the Alliance Party’s current patch of yellow on the map, North Down. Here, Stephen Farry, Alliance’s deputy leader, faces a challenge from local independent Unionist Alex Easton, who has the support of the DUP despite having parted company with them acrimoniously in 2021, and also from the colourful retired British army officer Tim Collins, selected as the UUP’s candidate. To do justice to this very odd campaign would take more space than is reasonable, so I’ll leave it there.

One last point to make is that the Boundary Commission’s changes to the Northern Ireland seats were pretty minimal. They were also difficult to calculate because of the lack of co-terminosity between the different electoral units involved. I myself supplied the projections of the 2019 results onto the 2024 boundaries in Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher’s Guide to the New Parliamentary Constituencies. On the Northern Ireland politics blog Slugger O’Toole, Michael Hehir has been providing his own projections, which I am glad to say differ little from mine. We come to the same conclusion: that in this election, it will be voters, not boundary changes, that determine the results.