Changes to the number of Assembly seats in the forthcoming Northern election will give an artificial seat boost to the two big parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin. Each of the 18 constituencies will elect five MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) rather than the previous six. Because the Assembly will be reduced from 108 seats to 90, all parties (with the possible exception of Alliance) will lose seats. Last time round, everything went right for the DUP in several constituencies, where it shaded extra seats – which it can’t hold.
However, the vote outside of the big two is fragmented. Thus both could survive a fall in votes, while increasing their relative strengths in the Assembly. The new system makes it harder for smaller parties to win seats: the quota in each constituency will be just over 16%, where previously it had been just over 14%.
The election was brought about because of the scandal about the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), the latest in a line of scandals to hit the Executive.
The Newsletter, the traditionally Unionist daily, has made the running in exposing this. However, it is important not to confuse the attitude of the media with that of ordinary voters: especially DUP voters. This will be a rough, sectarian election: the RHI scandal will definitely be put to one side in some of the more polarised constituencies, where it will be a straight sectarian headcount.
This is being written five weeks before the election. The issues will certainly shift, and it is foolish to be categorical, nevertheless it is clear that a number of high-profile figures are under threat. Veteran campaigner Eamonn McCann finally won a Council seat in Foyle (Derry City and surrounding area) in May 2016, 47 years after his first electoral outing. He is fighting a difficult battle on behalf of People Before Profit: Unionists have a quota in the constituency, which will go to the DUP, while both the SDLP and Sinn Féin have just short of two quotas each.
Former culture minister Carál Ní Chuilín of Sinn Féin will be in a three-way battle for the last two seats in North Belfast, with the SDLP’s Nicola Mallon and the bottom DUP candidate. The surplus from her running mate, Gerry Kelly, will probably, but not certainly, win her a seat.
Assembly Speaker Robin Newton is in difficulty in East Belfast. The DUP currently holds three seats there. Newton has faced controversy over his handling of the Speakership. Last year, he was the last-placed DUP candidate. That vote, if repeated, would only give the DUP two and a quarter quotas. Even holding last year’s vote just would not keep them the third seat.
East Belfast is one of the constituencies most worth watching. A significant fall in the DUP vote would be very significant. It is the North’s most Protestant constituency. There are several large working-class areas. A previous DUP scandal cost former First Minister Peter Robinson his Westminster seat there.
It will be tremorous if PBP take a second seat in Sinn Féin’s former West Belfast heartland. An increasingly professionalised Sinn Féin no longer has its former activist base. Many in its former heartland see it as having introduced cuts, and being on the wrong side on local issues such as the Casement Park stadium where outgoing Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard has ‘called in’ the redevelopment application after local objection.
Despite being the wrong side of controversy, Arlene Foster will top the poll in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Foster is rooted in Fermanagh’s Protestant community. There will be a backlash of support for her, portraying her as a victim of the metropolitan media (to the extent that Belfast is metropolitan). Foster is, however, terminally damaged: the longer she hangs on as DUP leader, the more damage she – and it – suffers. She has flip-flopped on several issues since the crisis developed, sending out very mixed messages.
It is uncertain whether an Executive can be put together after the election. Materially, both Sinn Féin and the DUP need to do so: they have too many party workers dependent on the Assembly. However, neither can control the logic of events. The intentions of both parties may not be enough to produce an agreement – at least in the short term.
By Anton McCabe