With the Northern Ireland Assembly Election fast approaching, these five constituencies will be critical to defining the outcome of the election for all eight parties currently represented at Stormont.
When it comes to both the inter-unionist and the unionist/non-sectarian battles, perhaps none will be more interesting than the one in Belfast East. Currently, the DUP holds two seats and the UUP one along with two Alliance seats. This seat is very mixed with both a large area of vehement inner-city loyalists and swathes of middle-class suburbia. This is one of the TUV’s higher hopes for a seat given those large numbers of loyalists, many of whom have been voting DUP for years without seeing much improvement in their lives.
The UUP is running two candidates, perhaps ill-advisedly. Current MLA Andy Allen only mustered 13% of the vote in 2017, four points short of the quota. The party will need to see a vote surge in the region of 10 points to have any hope of getting two in. What is more likely is that their vote is split and Andy Allen has to unnecessarily sweat during the final counts.
This is also the Green Party’s top target. They had strong council election results here in 2019 and would like to build on Alliance’s non-sectarian success in the constituency. They have built an extensive ground campaign to back their candidate Brian Smyth. He is a former punk-band member from New Lodge – one of the most deprived areas in Northern Ireland. With Alliance having sewn up much of the middle class in the area, Smyth will have to reach into working-class East Belfast to get over the top, directly conflicting with the DUP and TUV.
That battle for working-class votes will be instructive in seeing whether the message on the NI Protocol from the TUV/DUP is dominant or emphasis on the cost-of-living crisis from the Greens could break through traditional sectarian issues. The rubber will hit the road when the nationalist parties and the second UUP candidate have been eliminated and Alliance surpluses redistributed, leaving Andy Allen, one DUP candidate, the TUV’s John Ross and the Brian Smyth fighting it out for two seats. This seat will really gauge where all three unionist parties stand as well as the success of the Green Party, for whom this is their biggest prize in the election.
Another Belfast constituency but this time much more mixed. With two Sinn Fein, one SDLP and two DUP seats this constituency has always been acutely divided. Although home to some of the most deprived areas of Belfast, notorious for violence during the Troubles, it has been evolving gradually with the non-sectarian vote growing in the area as the more affluent areas follow country-wide trends in shifting to the middle ground.
This constituency is high on the target list of Alliance who came close to Sinn Fein in 2017. Sinn Fein only narrowly held their second seat last time around, surprising many. It would only take a modest uptick in support for Alliance and a small drop for Sinn Fein to make to turn the seat yellow. It would be a big story if they lost one of their seats, given they are held by former minister Caral Ni Chuilin and Gerry Kelly – one of the party’s best-known and divisive faces.
Meanwhile, for the DUP the picture has become messy. Both the incumbent MLAs have quit, including the party’s deputy leader Karen Bradley. They lost the parliamentary seat in 2019 in a bitterly fought battle with Sinn Fein and their fall could well continue. If the DUP faces a large fall in seats, this is likely to be one of the first to go.
If they do lose a seat, it may be because of the UUP. They are fielding Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston who joined the party after Doug Beattie became leader. She was previously a PUP councillor and definitely stands to the left of the party on most issues. Having built a high profile in the constituency, she should do well in working-class areas and will be highly transfer-friendly. If the UUP can squeeze in, it would be a huge deal for them. Having Corr-Johnston in the Assembly would be a big win, given how capable she is.
Two other parties – the Greens and PBP – are also targeting Belfast North. The Greens are fielding deputy leader Mal O’Hara, a councillor in the constituency who has built a big gound campaign and a growing profile in the last few months. PBP will be hoping to eat into Sinn Fein’s vote with Fiona Ferguson, also a councillor and one of the party’s better-known faces. Both are outside shots, with the greens in a better position, but their transfers will probably decide who gets which seats.
Home to Derry, Foyle is a nationalist bastion, making it a natural battled ground for the SDLP and Sinn Fein. The constituency has long been an SDLP stronghold being the home of party icon John Hume and current leader Colum Eastwood. Significantly, Eastwood retook the Westminster seat in 2019 they lost here to Sinn Fein in 2017, utterly obliterating his main opponent Elisha McCallion and taking 57% of the vote. Sinn Fein seemed to spiral after this – they removed both their sitting MLAs in 2020 – including Martina Anderson, one of the party’s most well-known politicians and huge Derry figure – and replaced them with political novices.
Since then, much like in South Down, the party has stabilized and is much more confident in maintaining two seats. This hasn’t stopped the SDLP from fielding three candidates, with former Derry mayor Brian Tierney hoping to gain a seat for the party. The SDLP will feel they need this seat. They have three very difficult defences and they will be desperate to compensate in this constituency on the back of Eastwood’s success. If they can’t wrestle one of Sinn Fein, they’ll have their sites set on the DUP’s Gary Middleton – arguably one of the Assembly’s most vulnerable MLAs. Middleton just squeezed in ahead of PBP’s legendary activist Eamonn McCann in 2017. There are just barely enough votes for a unionist seat in Foyle any drop in the DUP vote will more than likely prove costly.
The SDLP want the seat, but so too do PBP, who lost their seat here in 2017. Although McCann is not on the ballot this time, they do have local councillor Shaun Harkin, and the party will be throwing their full weight behind this campaign as their only realistic target. With Alliance and the Greens non-events in the city, they will be looking to consolidate the non-sectarian vote and eat into some of the Sinn Fein socialists too.
Just to add to the DUP’s woes, the UUP recruited Ryan McCready, a former DUP councillor who joined after Doug Beattie became leader and has been one of the faces of the new direction. This battle will be key in understanding if unionist voters are willing to abandon the DUP even if it risks losing the only unionist seat in the constituency. It would take one hell of a vote shift for McCready to get in, but he could easily fatally wound Middleton, especially if his transfers are unfriendly. A big swing to McCready could be symptomatic of a wider trend in other single unionist seat constituencies which would be fatally damaging for the DUP.
South Down is set to be a key gauge of performance for all five major parties. First and foremost, Alliance is widely anticipated to win a seat here and the big question is who is going to lose out. This time last year Sinn Fein looked to be on the ropes. They deselected incumbent MLA Emma Rogan in 2021 and their vote share dropped 7.5 points in the 2019 general election.
However, a year later and the ship has been stabilized along with the wider party whilst the SDLP continue to struggle for momentum. The retirement of Sinead Bradley – a big name in the constituency – was a blow. Her prospective replacement Karen McKevitt now seems to be defending the seat most at risk to the Alliance surge. If Alliance fails to gain here, they will be disappointed and will probably be symptomatic of a bad night all round. Sinn Fein will be expecting to hold two seats and will be bracing for a bad night if they lose one. If the SDLP manage to hold on, they’ll be in for a good night.
Meanwhile on the unionist side, controversial former DUP turned independent MLA Jim Wells is retiring. There is only space for one unionist in South Down and the battle will be bitter. The DUP are fielding Diane Forsythe, an up-and-comer in the party. She left the party following Edwin Poots’ leadership coup last year but returned after Jeffrey Donaldson became leader. More recently, Poots tried to move from Lagan Valley to win the nomination in South Down with the backing of his ally Jim Wells. He failed and Forsythe (viewed as a modern, fresh face in the party) only appears strengthened.
To add to the turmoil, Jim Wells recently left the DUP and endorsed TUV candidate Harold McKee. McKee, a current councillor and former MLA, defected from the UUP in October due to Doug Beattie’s new liberal direction for the party. Then following Wells’ announcement, the entire South Down officer team defected to the TUV. The TUV wouldn’t have had much chance in South Down before all this. However, with a well-known name on the ballot with the backing of a local institution in Wells, they could create trouble. The UUP meanwhile hopes to come through the middle with Jill Macauley. However, with Forsythe as the DUP candidate, moderates will be more comfortable voting DUP.
Upper Bann will be interesting on a few different levels. Again, this is a top Alliance target. They are running Eoin Tennyson, a 23-year-old councillor who secured a stunning 13% for the party in the 2019 general election in the constituency (an 8.4 point rise on the 2017 election). Tennyson is a rising star in the party and a face Naomi Long would love in the Assembly. It will be a disappointing night for Alliance if they fail to win here. At first glance, it is the SDLP who will be sweating over this Alliance threat. Dolores Kelly squeaked in on Alliance transfers in 2017 having received fewer first preference votes than both the second UUP and Sinn Fein candidates. Widely seen as the SDLP’s most vulnerable seat, Kelly will be hoping that the fall of the DUP will save her.
Former DUP Economy Minister Diane Dodds, a close Donaldson ally was co-opted here in 2020 and could be one of the big names to fall. The issue for both Dodds and Kelly is that neither of them can hope for the other to save them as Sinn Fein and the UUP also have hopes for a second seat. This is Sinn Fein’s most realistic shot for a gain and if they can hold their ground from 2017, they will be well-positioned to take the SDLP seat.
The UUP meanwhile will hope that leader Doug Beattie can haul Glenn Barr over the line on his coattails. This plan would be likely to succeed if it wasn’t for the explosion in Alliance support since 2017. This seat will give an excellent insight into where Sinn Fein stands, whether the SDLP can continue to get their candidates elected with strong preferences and whether the famous “Beattie Bounce” is a match for the fabled “Alliance Surge”.