One of Northern Ireland’s potentially most consequential elections in its history is approaching alarmingly quickly and the political parties have been shifting into election mode over the last few months. With the bulk of candidates selected and party conferences out the way, it is time for the campaign to begin heating up. There is a lot at stake in 2022. The idea of a United Ireland has perhaps never been so tangible. The Northern Ireland Protocol dominates the news and minds of Unionists. Many NHS waiting lists are years long. Clare Bailey and Edwin Poots are at war over competing climate bills.
At this point it is anticipated that many more seats than usual will change hands – will the moderates end the DUP-Sinn Féin stranglehold? Will the TUV launch a credible challenge from the right of the DUP? Can Sinn Féin become the largest party? Will the Alliance Surge continue? Will the UUP continue their Beattie Bounce? Can the SDLP realize its potential?
Democratic Unionist Party
The current largest party in the Assembly has had a turbulent year, to say the least. Three leaders in one six-week period, cratering polling numbers, heavy pressure from hard-line and moderate Unionists, loose cannon MPs and the continued existence of the Northern Ireland Protocol has not made for a straightforward year. The regular LucidTalk/Belfast Telegraph tracker poll has seen them drop to 18% whilst a different University of Liverpool poll has them at 20% (down from 28% in the last election).
However, since Jeffrey Donaldson became leader, the ship has been steadied somewhat. He has been able to frame the recent softening of the EU’s position on the protocol as a DUP win. It is unlikely that they will slide further in the polls and a small bounce-back could be on the cards. Despite this, their position remains unenviable and the next six months will continue to be painfully arduous. Seats in Strangford, North Down, North Belfast, Foyle, North Antrim, South Down and Lagan Valley amongst others are at risk. All polling should be taken with a pinch of salt and it seems unlikely that the drop-off will be as steep as LucidTalk suggests but a loss of 10 seats (down from 28) would not be unrealistic.
Sinn Féin has been cruising in 2021. After a difficult 2020 following the controversy surrounding the Bobby Storey funeral, they have steadied the ship and taken a back seat whilst other parties take the negative headlines. Politically speaking they have barely put a foot wrong. They are in the driving seat to take the position of First Minister and become the largest party in the Assembly for the first time. They have polled consistently around 24% (four points below 2017) – well above any other party. That small drop could still translate into a loss of a seat or two. Foyle is the main seat that would seem really at risk at this stage. The local party deselected both sitting Sinn Féin MLAs (including Martina Anderson, a veteran Sinn Féin politician) after a series of controversies. The SDLP are running three candidates in the constituency and are absolutely gunning for a gain in their Derry heartland. If their vote drops a little more, some of the constituencies which have three or four Sinn Fein MLAs could come into play.
Social Democratic and Labour Party
With Sinn Féin running a tight ship, it has been difficult for the SDLP to make any inroads. They have a strong set of MLAs and a straightforward, competent leader in Colum Eastwood. They have done a good job of finding several younger, more dynamic MLAs whilst both Eastwood and Claire Hanna have been strong representatives as MPs. There has also been more effort than most parties to about policy away from traditional sectarian issues and place a big emphasis on the work Nichola Mallon has done as Infrastructure Minister.
They have also been taking some bold stances in recent weeks. They have been by far the most vocal proponents of vaccine passports and also took the decision to attend the controversial Northern Ireland centenary service despite heavy criticism from Sinn Féin. Gaining in Belfast South and Foyle will be their priorities along with protecting their vulnerable seats in Lagan Valley and Upper Bann. If Sinn Féin starts to fall, they could start aiming to pick off Sinn Féin MLAs in constituencies like Belfast West and Fermanagh and South Tyrone where they hold three or four seats.
Ulster Unionist Party
At the beginning of this year, the UUP was in the doldrums. Their vote share has seen a continuous decline since the 1998 election. They were being squeezed by Alliance on one side and the DUP on the other. They were unable to decide whether to out-unionist the DUP or out-moderate Alliance and ended up doing neither. A series of stale leaders, flip-flopping on Brexit and unclear policies compounded the issue. However, up stepped Doug Beattie (and his able deputy Robbie Butler) to replace Steve Aiken as the leader in May, in the midst of the DUP’s leadership turmoil. As the DUP spiralled out of control, Beattie rode a wave of new optimism straight into the media headlines. Styling the UUP as firmly inclusive and progressive, Beattie is trying to introduce a different option for Unionists. They have plenty of goodwill behind them and UUP health minister Robin Swann by far the most popular politician in Northern Ireland thanks to the pandemic.
However, they have recently faced controversy over refusing to say if they would accept a Sinn Féin First Minister. There has also been criticism over the fact that they keep calling themselves progressive. Beyond being LGBTQ+ friendly (at least amongst the leadership) little genuine progressive policy has emerged so far. Part of the problem here is that many of the rank-and-file councillors and members are actually pretty conservative and feel uncomfortable with the new direction. It feels as if the sheen has come off somewhat recently but there is no question that the UUP is still in a far better position than last year. They could pick up seats in plenty of constituencies where they will go toe to toe with the Alliance party.
2019 was a breakthrough year for the non-sectarian Alliance Party. A constant fixture since the 1970s in NI politics, they had never quite managed to capture the public’s imagination. This changed in 2019. Riding a pro-second Brexit referendum wave, they won one of the three European Parliament seats for the first time and gained 21 council seats (up from 32) in the local elections. In the general election, they doubled their vote share to 16.6% and won a seat in North Down with a 36-point increase in vote share to knock off the heavily favoured DUP. The momentum was still them in January, peaking at 18% in the polls.
Since then, a relatively quiet year combined with the UUP shifting to challenge for the many moderate unionists who voted for them in 2019 has seen the momentum drop off. It will likely be the case that either Alliance or the UUP see a big gain in seats but not both. Places like North Down, Lagan Valley, Strangford, Belfast North, Belfast South, East Londonderry and North Antrim will all be constituencies where these two parties will likely be competing to gain a seat – momentum will be key.
The Greens also had a good 2019, doubling their council seats from four to eight, in the back of a global green wave in May of that year. Their support is heavily concentrated in Belfast and North Down. Both current MLAs are somewhat vulnerable – leader Clare Bailey snuck into the final seat in Belfast South in 2017 and will be in a tough race with the UUP, SDLP and Alliance all keen to gain that seat. The other seat in North Down seems safer. Stephen Agnew received 13% there in 2017. His replacement, Rachel Woods, will benefit from Alliance transfers and North Down’s split Unionist vote. Recent polling has been strong, so their main pick-up opportunity will be Belfast East where they had excellent council election results in 2019. Deputy leader Malachai O’Hara is a councillor in Belfast North which will be their other target.
Traditional Unionist Voice
TUV leader Jim Allister has long been a big character in the Northern Ireland political soap opera. Known for his extreme views on the Union, he has been a leading voice in the fight against the Northern Ireland Protocol. He gets a remarkable amount of media coverage given he leads a party with just a single MLA. Having been an afterthought in every election since their formation in 2007, the TUV are increasingly being welcomed to the mainstream. Their strong position on ditching the Protocol and whipping up paranoia about a United Ireland have damaged the DUP severely from the right. Their problem remains that Allister is the only person in the party worth mentioning. They have just six councillors. They have had issues in the past with the colourful spokespeople and candidates they have put forward.
It will however be a tall order for them to translate press coverage into seats. With the DUP somewhat strengthening their opposition to the Protocol recently, combined with a lack of credible candidates and being extremely transfer-unfriendly, it’s foreseeable that they could only gain a handful of seats. A second seat in North Antrim seems possible. East Antrim and Strangford are also constituencies that could be targeted. Belfast East, South Antrim and Upper Bann could be outside shots. It is difficult to see any more possible gains outside of that. Any gain in seats would be a success, but it may be underwhelming when compared to their position in August.
People Before Profit
With the legendary civil rights campaigner Eamonn McCann finally retiring in March, the socialist PBP needs a new face. Gerry Carroll is their sole MLA in Belfast West. His seat is safe, but it will be difficult for them to make big strides forward next year. They will be targeting Foyle (where McCann held an Assembly seat between 2016 and 2017), hoping to capitalise on Sinn Féin’s strife in the constituency. They will probably run a second candidate in Belfast West and promising councillor Fiona Ferguson will put in a big push in Belfast North. Foyle is by far the most realistic opportunity but without the indomitable Derry legend McCann as the name on the ballot, it will be a tough ask.
The only party worth keeping an eye on without any current Assembly representation is the conservative republican Aontú. They currently have two councillors and are notable enough to generate occasional media coverage. Their main target will be Foyle, where they managed to win 4.5% of the vote in the 2019 general election. However, it would be a big surprise if they won any seats, especially with the SDLP and Sinn Féin taking any chance to punch down on them.
The current independents in the Assembly are Jim Wells, Claire Sugden, Trevor Lunn and Alex Easton. Well known for his archaic views on homosexuality, former health minister Wells had the DUP whip withdrawn in 2018 after he attacked party leaders. It is unclear whether he will be their candidate for South Down in 2022. If he is not and the DUP chooses to run someone else, this would be a chance of neither of them winning a seat. Former justice minister Claire Sugden is a popular independent unionist from East Londonderry who should cruise to re-election. Trevor Lunn left the Alliance party due to internal differences last year and will not stand again. Alex Easton quit the DUP during the leadership turmoil citing a lack of “respect, discipline or leadership”. He intends to run again for his North Down seat. There is speculation that he could join the TUV but that is far from a given. He may find re-election tough with the DUP presumably running two candidates and the UUP, TUV and Alliance all targeting the seat. Independent Unionist councillor Tom Smith has also floated the idea of running in North Down, making it one of the most unpredictable constituencies out there with the unionist vote sliced and diced extensively – the transfers will be key.