Coming so soon after March’s snap Assembly elections, Northern Irish voters must surely be at fairly high risk of serious democratic fatigue as the general election campaign rushes towards them.
Nonetheless that Assembly election, a self-inflicted debacle for capital-U Unionism which saw a buoyant Sinn Fein fall only just short of being the largest party, may lend this campaign a slightly existential flavour even if Ulster’s constitutional status, being guaranteed by referendum, doesn’t justify it.
It’s difficult to make predictions about what will happen. Whilst March’s Assembly elections were very bad for unionism they followed several years of very good results for unionism. What happens on the night will be driven more by who turns out than by inexorable tides of history or demography.
Much may also hang on whether or not there are pacts between different parties, which are much more common in Ulster than on the mainland.
On the Unionist side, the Belfast Telegraph reports that the Democratic Unionists and Ulster Unionists are exploring a six-seat deal, which would include vulnerable unionist seats such as North Belfast and Upper Bann as well as ultra-marginal South Belfast, where a single unionist candidate could unseat the SDLP.
For their part, Sinn Fein are apparently exploring the possibility of an ‘anti-Brexit’ alliance between themselves, the SDLP, the Alliance, and the Greens – although not the UUP, which also campaigned to remain.
That said, here’s a quick overview of the Northern Irish constituencies which may be in play during the election, organised by which party currently holds the seat.
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. With its slender unionist majority and high-profile incumbent this seat is an obvious candidate for any deal between the unionist parties.
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.
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. David Simpson enjoyed a majority of 2,264 even against a UUP opponent in 2015, but it would likely be dramatically extended if they didn’t stand.
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 – but it’s an obvious candidate for them stepping aside in order to induce the UUP into a broader pact.
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. Hard to see Elliott holding it without a pact, but also hard to see a deal for this seat not being agreed.
Social Democratic and Labour Party:
South Belfast: In 2015 the SDLP’s Alasdair McConnell 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. Nonetheless it remains the only case where a deal could secure a new seat for Unionism, so a deal is likely. The DUP are the largest party in the constituency and will probably insist on being the ones to stand, although with its large Alliance and SDLP votes a liberal Ulster Unionist in the Kinahan mould might be a wiser choice. The SDLP are probably favourites to hang on if they can attract ‘anti-Brexit’ votes from Alliance and Sinn Fein supporters.
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.
Newry and Armagh: It’s very unlikely that any of Sinn Fein’s three seats are at risk, but if you had to pick one this would probably be it. The UUP’s Danny Kennedy cut their majority to just over 4,000 at the last election in the absence of a DUP competitor, and this would be his fourth time contesting the seat at a general election. This makes a deal here an obvious thing for the DUP to offer in exchange for UUP support elsewhere. However in March’s Assembly elections Kennedy lost his Assembly seat whilst two nationalists who’d ranked lower than him in 2016 held on, and suffice to say any boost to the Sinn Fein total here almost certainly takes it out of contention completely at this election.