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Overview:

There are 18 Parliamentary constituencies in Northern Ireland. At dissolution the Democratic Unionists held eight, Sinn Fein four, the Social Democratic and Labour Party three, the Ulster Unionists two, and Independents one.

  • For the DUP, this will be about trying to regain momentum after the self-inflicted disaster of this year’s snap elections to the Assembly. They will also be trying to pick up seats from the UUP and SDLP.
  • By contrast, Sein Fein will be trying to keep up the sense of momentum towards constitutional change they’ve been trying to generate since said Stormont election. In Westminster teams, they’ll be gunning to retake a seat from the UUP and maybe further whittle down the SDLP.
  • For the Ulster Unionists this will very likely be a mostly defensive election, unless a last-minute pact puts them at the tip of the pro-Union spear in a winnable seat. They disappeared from the House of Commons in 2010 but took two seats back last time, and will be fighting to hold on.
  • It’s a similar story for the SDLP, the traditionally moderate nationalist party. They currently hold three seats, one of which is incredibly marginal and another that Sinn Fein might take on a very bad night. They’re not on the front foot in any nationalist seat they don’t already hold.
  • The liberal, constitutionally-neutral Alliance Party currently have no MPs, but they held Belfast East from 2010 to 2015 and will be targeting it again.

Method and Background:

As in 2015, we’ll be taking a region-by-region look at the seats which could change hands and offering our suggested lists of target seats for each party.

These lists aren’t predictions of gains: rather, they’re just seats which we think could be competitive. They might be official party targets, have a small majority, or be subject to other factors which could leave them open to change.

Most of our usual resources are of little help here, as mainland political coverage tends to exclude Northern Ireland because of its completely separate party system. The political situation in Ulster also tends to be rather static because so much of the electorate still votes on essentially communal lines.

Although Westminster elections are no longer proxy votes for Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, as that status is now guaranteed by referendum, the main parties haven’t shaken off the old logic. Thus most of the potential intrigue centres on potential pacts between parties on the same side of the constitutional question.

Traditionally, this is mostly a unionist game – and true to form there already seem to be unofficial pacts in North Belfast and ultra-marginal Fermanagh & South Tyrone, as well as an attempt to create one to take South Belfast.

More interestingly, there was also an attempt to build an opposing coalition around a different constitutional question: Brexit. The idea was to unite nationalists and pro-Remain unionists into a pact to unseat Brexiteer MPs. Unfortunately as all of these are either DUP (which supported Leave) or UUP (Remain) it looked a lot like a sectarian pact, and it eventually foundered when smaller parties such as the Alliance and Greens refused to take part.

We’re also keeping an eye on the work of many other pollsters, psephologists, and analysts, some of whom our assistant editor has collated onto a Twitter list.

Battleground Rating: 3/10

Targets by party:

(NB These are our own suggestions of potential attack seats for each party – including those officially designated as targets and others where the incumbent has a relatively small majority, or local factors are at play which may open the seat to change.)

Democratic Unionists:

South Antrim: Danny Kinahan captured this from the DUP in 2015 as probably the most avowedly liberal unionist MP, following a near-miss by the Conservative-aligned Reg Empey in 2010. His majority is just 949 and it’s easy to see why a smarting DUP might fancy a shot at taking it back. It looked like a logical seat to stand aside in to induce the UUP to stand aside elsewhere, but it doesn’t look like that has happened so Kinahan will have a fight on his hands.

Belfast East: It took another pact go allow the DUP to take this seat in 2015, securing a majority of almost 2,600 over the Alliance’s Naomi Long even thought she put on over 4,000 votes from her 2010 performance. If the UUP ‘split the vote’ here it’s not hard to see the Alliance retaking it, especially if they benefit from tacit tactical voting from SDLP and Sinn Fein supporters. However, given how much of the Alliance support base is unionist any too cosy arrangement with Sinn Fein may cost them.

Belfast South: In 2015 the SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell held this seat with the lowest share of the vote of any MP in the country with just 24.5 per cent. The UUP and DUP between them used to have enough votes to win this seat, although in 2015 a strong performance by the Alliance put that in doubt. Without a pact it’ll be hard for either unionist party to win here, especially if McDonnell picks up tacit support from Alliance and Sinn Fein voters, but of the two the DUP are larger so may have the better bet.

Ulster Unionists:

Belfast South: At one point it sounded as if this might be a hot prospect for the UUP, with ex-leader Mike Nesbitt tipped as a possible unity candidate. Although they poll much lower than the DUP individually, the UUP pitch for the seat must be that they’re more likely to woo voters over from the Alliance, who took over 6,700 votes last time, with a liberal candidate in the mould of Nesbitt or Kinahan. It doesn’t look like it’s happening this time though.

Upper Bann: This seat has a solid majority of capital-U Unionist voters, but the UUP run the DUP close enough that it may be possible for Sinn Fein to slip through the middle in a good year. The UUP have been wearing down the DUP over the past couple of elections and David Simpson’s majority is now just 2,264, so if the party were on the front foot they might hope to take it.

Alliance:

Belfast East: This provided one of the big surprises of election night in 2010, when Naomi Long unseated Peter Robinson, the First Minister, after he was embroiled in scandal. She declined to follow her party’s Liberal Democrat allies onto the Government benches and spent five years with the Others before the DUP took it back, with the help of a pact, by the narrow margin of just 2,600 votes. With the majority that small the Long must fancy her chances of a comeback if the UUP so much as put up a candidate – although word on the ground is that unionism’s poor showing at the Assembly poll may drive more of the DUP’s traditional voters to the polls.

Sinn Fein:

Belfast North In 2010 this was the only unionist seat in the city after the Alliance’s shock capture of Belfast East. At the last election Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s Westminster leader, managed to extend his majority from 2,224 to 5,326 in the absence of an Ulster Unionist competitor. Unfortunately for Gerry Adams, this is one of two seats where the unionists have managed to actually put a pact together, with the UUP standing down, which probably places it beyond his reach. The other is…

Fermanagh & South Tyrone: In 2015’s stand-out result for the Unionist parties, Tom Elliott unseated Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew to win back a seat last held by his party at the 1997 election. This is one of the most marginal seats in the country, with a history of both nationalist and unionist MPs – in 2010 a Conservative-aligned independent unionist fell just four votes short. As a big, western constituency it also has a psychological impact on the political map out of proportion to its single MP, breaking the unionist parties out of their eastern strongholds. The DUP are standing down here to give Elliott a clear run, but this seat was close-run even in such conditions last time and Sinn Fein will be gunning for it.

South Down: Once Enoch Powell’s seat, South Down has an interesting dynamic. It’s a straight fight between the SDLP and Sinn Fein, but the former stay ahead by attracting a substantial share of the seat’s unionist voters. That’s probably why Margaret Ritchie, the incumbent, has been so keen to downplay any suggestion that her party will be making deals with Sinn Fein – a one-election deal could cost her dearly if it alienated her pro-Union support long-term. Although her majority is just shy of 6,000, absent a pact Sinn Fein may be competitive: they topped the poll in the parallel Assembly constituency in March.

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