By Richard Livingstone
Of Northern Ireland’s eighteen constituencies ten elected Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MPs in 2017, seven picked Sinn Fein MPs and the last, North Down, elected independent unionist Sylvia Hermon.
Both the DUP and Sinn Fein secured their highest ever number of MPs in that election. More moderate parties lost out: the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), which is more fiscally conservative but less hardline unionist than the DUP, lost an MP each to the DUP and Sinn Fein. The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), the more moderate nationalist party, lost two MPs to Sinn Fein and another to the DUP.
The other major party in Northern Ireland, the cross-community Alliance Party did not hold any seats in 2015 or 2017 but its leader Naomi Long did represent Belfast East between 2010 and 2015.
Of the eighteen seats, four are Belfast seats – although all four stretch beyond the city limits to take in outlying suburban areas. Three of these are currently DUP-held marginal whilst the fourth is safely held by Sinn Fein.
Outside of Belfast, the constituencies in the north and east of Ulster are predominantly unionist whilst those in the south and west of the province tend to be more nationalist. Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Green Party are encouraging tactical voting in Belfast and neighbouring North Down by standing down in some seats to support Remain-backing candidates, although the Alliance Party have chosen not to do so to ensure that they do not compromise their cross-community support. This is the first time that the SDLP have stepped aside for Sinn Fein, although Sinn Fein have in the past done so for the SDLP.
The DUP and UUP are stepping aside in a seat each (Belfast North and Fermanagh & South Tyrone) to help the other’s fortunes in those key marginals.
Below, we look at each seat in turn. I have included maps for the more competitive seats. The leads for the top two parties in each ward in the constituency maps are taken from calculations produced by electoralcalculus.co.uk .
DUP vs Alliance
Of the four Belfast constituencies, East Belfast is the most unionist. In 2017, the combined vote of the nationalist parties (Sinn Fein and the SDLP) was less than 3%. The Combined votes for nationalist and unionist parties are similar in local elections in Ballymacarett ward, which includes the catholic Short Strand area, but in every other ward in the constituency the unionists are between 25% and 60% ahead.
But whilst the constituency is solidly protestant, it is more divided socioeconomically. Geographically it is a class sandwich: two slabs of working class bread with a richer middle-class filling as the seat progresses eastwards along the Newtownards Road.
At the western inner city end, there are the terraced streets where Van Morrison grew up (in Bloomfield ward) and the council estates where George Best lived and first played (in Cregagh ward), as well as the docks which once provided jobs (both on the docks themselves and at Shorts) and now exemplify regeneration in the city through George Best airport and the Titanic Quarter. These areas are in the main proudly unionist or loyalist, and tend to vote for the Democratic Unionist Party.
Further east are the middle-class streets around Stormont that Morrison sung about on Astral Weeks, and the large detached houses such as the one where C.S. Lewis grew up (in Belmont ward). This area, comprising Belfast’s Ormiston electoral district, is where the alliance Party is strongest. Beyond Stormont and Knock golf-course, and beyond the city boundaries in the Lisburn and Castlereagh district, lies Dundonald, historically a town of twelfth century origins now part of the Belfast conurbation and home to many who could no longer afford to live in the city. Dundonald includes the large Ballybeen Housing Estate (covering Enler ward and surrounding streets) and is even more heavily unionist in elections than inner-city East Belfast.
The Alliance Party’s Naomi Long held the seat between 2010 and 2015 and is standing again. She will benefit this time by the decision of both Sinn Fein and the SDLP to stand aside for her. But she won in 2010 in unusual circumstances (corruption allegations involving the wife of DUP leader and local MP Peter Robinson) and, as noted above, the combined Sinn Fein-SDLP vote share here is very small.
Current DUP MP Gavin Robinson (no relation to Peter) is now sitting on a majority of 8,474 – 20% ahead of Long – having won 56% of the vote. A narrow majority of the constituency voted to Leave in the 2016 referendum, and with demographic changes its electorate might now be 50-50 on the Brexit issue, but it is difficult to see where Naomi Long could get enough votes from to win the seat back.
Verdict: Likely DUP hold
DUP vs Sinn Fein
This could be the tightest Northern Irish result on election night. The DUP’s leader in the House of Commons, Nigel Dodds, held the seat with a 2,081 vote majority over Sinn Fein in 2017. For this election, the SDLP have decided not to contest the seat for the first general election since 1970, asking their supporters to instead back Sinn Fein as the most likely Remain party to win there. In 2017, the SDLP secured 2,058 votes – only 23 votes less than Dodds’ majority.
Of course, it is far from certain that every SDLP voter will vote here for Sinn Fein. However, demography is also working in Sinn Fein’s favour in this seat, which was evenly split 50-50 in the 2016 referendum. The constituency is also fairly evenly Protestant and Catholic, but predominantly working class – it is one of the poorest places in the UK with the highest level of working age benefit claimants in the United Kingdom.
If East Belfast is a class sandwich, Belfast North is a cultural double-decker sandwich, stretching from the Cathedral District in the city centre north along the east side of Belfast Lough to take in most of Newtownabbey. At the southern edge it includes parts of strongly protestant Shankill, whilst the other side of Crumlin Road are the strongly nationalist Ardoyne community, and further east the tricolour flag adorned towers of the New Lodge estate.
Further along the Antrim Road are the protestant communities of Fortwilliam and Ballysillan. As the Antrim Road and the M2 motorway both turn inland, the communities become more Catholic again near the city’s zoo and beyond the city limits into the Glengormley part of Newtownabbey. North beyond this are some very unionist parts of Newtownabbey, a postwar new town created by merging a number of outlaying suburbs of Belfast.
The poverty of the constituency and this patchwork of protestant and catholic areas makes it often highly combustible, with a history of strongly Loyalist and Republican sentiments and paramilitary groups.
Dodds first won the seat in 2001, benefiting from hardline unionist concerns regarding the Good Friday Agreement, beating the previous UUP MP into fourth place. His first two elections achieved double-digit leads but Sinn Fein’s share of the vote has risen over that time from 25% to 42%, squeezing out the SDLP.
The SDLP’s decision to step aside this time means that John Finucane, local councillor for the Castle area, current mayor of Belfast and son of murdered republican lawyer Pat Finucane, puts him within touching distance of Dodds. The UUP are also standing aside (to help Dodds) as they have done in the last two elections.
Verdict: Toss up
DUP vs SDLP
Belfast South is the middle-class Belfast seat, covering most of the city centre and Queen’s University, and stretching southwards along both banks of the River Lagan. Beyond the city limits it takes in suburban Newtownbreda and the small town of Carryduff, which comprise the Castlereagh South electoral area of the Lisburn and Castlereagh district.
It includes the affluent Malone and Upper Malone districts of Belfast (catholic and protestant respectively). But there are more deprived protestant areas in the constituency too, including parts of the Cregagh Estate in the east and the Sandy Row community (tucked behind Great Victoria station in Blackstaff ward) in the west where Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins grew up – both areas which once had high levels of loyalist Ulster Defence Association (UDA) activity.
This is the most pro-Remain constituency currently held by the DUP: 69% of voters there backed remaining within the EU making it the third most Remain seat in Northern Ireland.
The constituency is very divided party politically. In the 2015 general election, no party secured 25% of the vote. In that year, the winner was the SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell (24.5%). He increased that to 25.9% in 2017 but still lost to the DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly (daughter of convicted loyalist arms-smuggler Noel Little) who successfully squeezed the UUP vote to win (30.4%).
This time, Claire Hanna, the SDLP’s new candidate, is likely to improve the SDLP’s support: both Sinn Fein (16.3% of the vote in 2017) and the Green Party (5.1%) are stepping aside for her. This must boost her chances and Belfast South looks like the SDLP’s best chance of regaining parliamentary representation.
Verdict: Toss up
Safe Sinn Fein
Although the constituency includes part of the highly loyalist Shankill district, this is a safely Republican constituency. Indeed, it is the safest seat in Northern Ireland for any party: Sinn Fein took two-thirds of the vote here in 2017.
The constituency stretches from the Belfast’s town centre along the Falls Road through Andersonstown and ends in the outlying Poleglass and Twinbrook estates and the old linen village of Dunmurry. Those areas once lay beyond the city boundaries but were brought within them in 2014. There is still a part of the constituency beyond the city limits but there are very small numbers of electors there. Other than the Shankill area in the north, the constituency is solidly Catholic and Republican.
Current MP Paul Maskey inherited the seat from Gerry Adams in 2011.
Verdict: No change
East Antrim covers County Antrim’s coast from the Jordanstown area of Newtownabbey (home to the university of Ulster) north to the Glens of Antrim. Its largest settlements are the port town of Larne and Carrickfergus, famous for its twelfth century castle and for being William of Orange’s landing place in 1690 prior to the Battle of the Boyne.
The latter fact is one that is unlikely to be forgotten by the constituency’s Member of Parliament, the staunchly socially conservative, arch Eurosceptic and climate changing denying Sammy Wilson, first elected in 2005 as the DUP supplanted the UUP’s historic dominance in Northern Ireland.
Wilson has occasionally been the source of some humour: when he was a councillor in Belfast, he sued the Sunday World for publishing naked holiday photos of him. Martin McGuinness quipped afterwards at their first meeting that “it is great to see him today with his clothes on” and nationalists often wink-wink reference his “naked sectarianism”.
For this election, he appears to have put his full name on the ballot paper as “Samuel Sammy”. It is not yet clear whether this will be corrected for the final ballot papers.
Whilst the Glens area in the north is strongly Catholic, the constituency as a whole is over 80% Protestant and Wilson won 57% of the vote in 2017. He is certain to be re-elected this time. Even if he does have difficulty spelling his own name.
Verdict: No change
This constituency does not cover any of the city of Derry/Londonderry but instead covers the east of County Londonderry (and a small part of County Antrim), stretching along the cliffs and golf courses along coast from the ruins of Dunluce Castle in the east to the village of Greysteel in the west. The largest town is Coleraine, which is strongly Protestant, as are the seaside towns of Portstewart and Portrush. Further west, Limavady (the second largest town in the constituency) is more evenly split in its population whilst the small town of Dungiven to the south is heavily Catholic.
This is the only unionist seat remaining west (mainly) of the River Bann. It looks likely to do so for some time more, although there is a long term drift to becoming more catholic and nationalist and a narrow majority of the electorate voted to Remain in the EU. Sometimes provocatively hardline DUP MP Gregory Campbell won 48% of the vote in 2017, 22% ahead of second-placed Sinn Fein.
Verdict: No change
Fermanagh and South Tyrone
Sinn Fein vs UUP
Four of the last five general election results in this constituency were very close, all with majorities of less than a thousand: a Sinn Fein majority of 53 in 2001 and of just 4 votes in 2010, a UUP majority of 530 in 2015 and a Sinn Fein one of 875 in 2017.
The constituency has a Catholic majority, but unionists have frequently won through as a consequence of electoral pacts. The only election since hunger striker Bobby Sands’ by-election victory in 1981 not to have such a pact was in 2005. Sinn Fein won that time by 4,582 votes. In each pact, it was the DUP that stood aside for the UUP, although the DUP candidate (one Arlene Foster – what ever happened to her?) in 2005 comfortably beat the UUP into third place. Other than the two 1981 by-elections, there have been no electoral pacts between Sinn Fein and the SDLP here, splitting the nationalist vote.
The constituency is based around two towns: picturesque Enniskillen in the heart of County Fermanagh and Dungannon in the County Tyrone part of the seat. On the Fermanagh side, north of the county leans unionist, the rural south and west are nationalist whilst Enniskillen is more mixed. Dungannon is fairly Catholic, and the Clougher Valley area to the town’s southwest even more so. The area east of Dungannon is more protestant.
If there was one nationalist candidate against one unionist candidate in the seat, the nationalist would win easily. But the DUP are again standing aside for the UUP candidate, Tom Elliott, who was MP between 2015 and 2017. The SDLP are fielding a candidate (despite only getting 5% in 2017) against sitting Sinn Fein MP Michelle Gildernew. The Alliance Party and an independent are also standing.
IT is therefore likely to be a tight contest again. Forced to pick, Gildernew might have the slight edge based on the 2017 vote, but given that much of the Catholic vote is based in rural areas bad weather on election day could be enough to tip the balance.
Verdict: Toss up
Sinn Fein vs SDLP
“Foyle” (name for the River Foyle flowing through the heart of the seat) is the politically correct name for the constituency that compromises Northern Ireland’s second city: known by its original name of “Londonderry” to Protestants and as just “Derry” to Catholics.
Derry/ Londonderry is three-quarters Catholic nowadays and this has been a strongly nationalist seat since its creation in 1983. There are protestant pockets in the city on the Waterside (east of the River Foyle) and the Fountain estate just east of the city walls.
Despite the city’s long republican history (Free Derry, the Battle of the Bogside, Bloody Sunday) this constituency was long the stronghold of the more moderate SDLP who had double-digit leads in every election between 1983 and 2015. It was therefore a shock when the party’s former leader Mark Durcan lost to Sinn Fein’s Elisha McCallion in 2017.
McCallion’s majority was only 169 in that election. The SDLP’s current leader, Colum Eastwood will hope to overturn this, given his party’s improvement against Sinn Fein in this year’s local elections. This is another election that will be very close.
Verdict: Toss up
Lagan Valley is the name of the constituency based on Northern Ireland’s third largest city, Lisburn. The city and constituency span the river, taking in parts of Counties Antrim and Down. Other major settlements include Hillsborough (home to the Queen’s and Secretary of State’s official residence in Northern Ireland), Dromore and Moira.
The constituency’s current MP, Jeffrey Donaldson, was first elected as an Ulster Unionist in 1997. Donaldson is a disciple of Enoch Powell: Donaldson grew up in Powell’s South Down constituency and worked for him. Donaldson still keeps Powell’s hat on the shelf of his constituency office.
Donaldson was part of the UUP’s negotiating team for the Good Friday Agreement, but walked out on the process and fell out with the party over it. He remained with them in the 2001 election but broke with them in 2003 to join the DUP. The change did not impact significantly on his local standing: he secured 56% of the vote as the UUP candidate in 2001 and 55% as the DUP candidate four years later. What is more, much the local party membership pretty much moved over with him.
Donaldson therefore looks pretty invincible, taking 60% of the votes cast in 2017.
Verdict: No change
Safe Sinn Fein
Mid Ulster has been a constituency name since 1950, but its current form dates from 1997. Covering eastern county Tyrone and south-eastern County Londonderry, Mid Ulster is now a safe constituency for Sinn Fein.
It is based around the towns of Cookstown and Magherafelt, and also includes the smaller towns of Coalisland and Maghera. The two larger towns are majority Catholic but not overwhelmingly so (Cookstown 56%; Magherafelt 60%). However, the two smaller towns are almost solidly Catholic (Maghera: 75%; Coalisland 94%).
Martin McGuinness won the seat for Sinn Fein in 1997 and held on to it until he stepped down in 2013. In a bitter by-election, Sinn Fein’s Francie Malloy held the seat in 2013 and took 54% of the vote in 2017. This looks likely to remain as Sinn Fein’s second safest seat.
Verdict: No change
Newry and Armagh
Safe Sinn Fein
Newry and Armagh is unique as a constituency bearing the names of two cities. The larger is Newry, near the Irish border. Whilst Newry may be divided between counties – its town hall symbolically straddles both Counties Armagh and Down, and the river that divides them – it isn’t much by religion, being 88% Catholic.
The city of Armagh is smaller, but arguably historically more significant: it was where St Patrick established the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland and where Brian Boru, the first king of a united Ireland, is buried. It too has a majority Catholic population.
The two cities only account for 35% of the population of the constituency. The rest is made of small towns and villages. South Armagh is strongly Republican: the area around Crossmaglen was “Bandit Country” during the Troubles. In contrast, the northeast of the constituency around Tandragee, Markethill and Richland is predominantly Protestant.
The SDLP’s Seamus Mallon held the seat between 1986 and 2001, but Sinn Fein took it when Mallon stood down. The DUP stood down for the UUP in their 2015 tactical pact when current MP Mickey Brady first stood, but competed against each other for the protestant vote in 2017 and this time around.
Verdict: No change
This constituency is based around the towns of Ballymena, Ballymoney and Ballycastle. And also includes the Giant’s Causeway and Rathlin Island.
It is the DUP’s longest held seat: Reverend Ian Paisley first won here in 1970. His son Ian Paisley Junior took over in 2010.
The DUP vote has never dropped below 40% in the constituency and, other than in the first 1970 contest, no competitor has secured more than 25%. Last time around, Paisley Junior took 59% of the vote, 43% ahead of second-placed Sinn Fein. This is also the most pro-Brexit constituency in Northern Ireland: 62% voted to Leave the EU.
Verdict: No change
DUP vs UUP vs Alliance
North Down is sometimes described as the most British of the Northern Ireland constituencies, based around the seaside resort of Bangor and also includes affluent Holywood, the small coastal town of Donaghadee and the seaside village of Millisle.
Despite being almost entirely protestant, it has had recent electoral history of electing independently-minded Members of Parliament. After 55 years of electing Ulster Unionist MPs James Kilfedder, its MP in 1977, resigned the whip. Three years later Kilfedder formed the Ulster Popular Unionist Party, which in true Life of Brian style was basically just him. When Kilfedder died in 1995, Robert McCartney won the seat for the UK Unionist Party, another small party based around the individual views of its one MP.
When McCartney lost the seat to the UUP’s Sylvia Hermon in 2001, it looked as if perhaps the constituency had returned to proper party. But this fell to pieces in 2010, when the UUP formed a poorly received electoral alliance with the Conservatives. By then Hermon was the UUP’s last remaining MP, and she had always worked better with Labour than the Conservatives in Westminster. Hermon resigned from the UUP and won in 2010 as an independent against her erstwhile party.
Hermon was re-elected in 2015 and 2017, but with the DUP snapping at her heels in the last contest: just 3% behind. Unlike the DUP and UUP, Hermon is also pro-Remain, and so the SDLP, Sinn Fein and the Green Party all decided to stand aside for her this time around to maximise her chances. Whilst none had large support, between them they secured 9% of the vote – a useful boost.
Unfortunately for them (and arguably North Down), Hermon has decided not to stand either. That just leaves the DUP, UUP, Alliance and Conservative Party in the running (the Northern Ireland Conservative Party have a history of standing in the constituency).
Whilst the Alliance Party might hope to pick up former Hermon votes, and those of the parties standing down, it is my no means clear that they will succeed with the former. The DUP took 38% last time, the Alliance 9%. The UUP may take part of Hermon’s vote (after all, she first won as their candidate). That said, the Alliance did do well in this year’s local elections in the constituency: taking 25% to the DUP’s 28%. The Alliance Party was particularly strong in the west of the constituency around Holywood whilst the DUP dominated the east, particularly Donaghadee and Millisle.
This looks therefore like a three-cornered race, probably resulting in a DUP win with the Alliance Party coming second and the UUP third.
Verdict: Likely DUP gain
DUP vs UUP
South Antrim has changed hands five times in the twenty-first century, despite being previously only represented by the Ulster Unionists since the Partition of Ireland.
When Clifford Forsythe died in 2000, former Mid Ulster MP William McCrea won the seat for the DUP on the back of local resentment towards the Good Friday Agreement. The UUP’s David Burnside won the seat back the following year, but McCrea won again in 2005, holding it for the next decade. In 2015, Danny Kinahan regained the constituency for the UUP, only to lose it to new DUP candidate Paul Girvan in 2017.
The constituency is based around the attractive county town of Antrim and the inland part of Newtownabbey. It also includes the towns of Ballyclare, Crumlin and Randalstown and includes land around Belfast International Airport.
In this year’s local elections the UUP were ahead of the DUP in Ballyclare and the villages that surround that town and Belfast international airport. The DUP were ahead elsewhere, particularly in the Newtownabbey part of the constituency. There are catholic areas in parts of the rural northwest (around Randalstown) and southwest (around Crumlin) of the constituency, but the constituency is 70% Unionist.
Girvan is a less controversial MP than his DUP predecessor was: whilst representing Mid Ulster McCrea became the only MP to have called for the RAF to bomb a village in his own constituency. Girvan’s majority of over 3,000 in his 2017 victory suggests that the constituency has become more DUP-inclined but wanted someone less volatile than McCrea. He therefore starts as favourite in what is still likely to be a fairly close race.
Verdict: Leans DUP hold
Sinn Fein vs SDLP
Along with Foyle, the SDLP lost South Down to Sinn Fein in 2017, but with a larger majority of almost 5%.
The constituency is largely rural and none of its four towns reach a population of 12,000. These, in order of size, are Downpatrick (where St Patrick is buried), the port town of Warrenpoint, the picturesque seaside town of Newcastle and the fishing port of Kilkeel. Most of the constituency is majority Catholic, although Kilkeel and the area around the village of Rathfriland have Protestant majorities.
The constituency was once held for the Ulster Unionists by Enoch Powell, but he lost the seat to the SDLP in 1987 as the seat became steadily more nationalist. Sinn Fein’s support gradually has gradually built up since the 1990s to the point where Chris Hazzard was able to win the constituency for them in 2017.
The SDLP still have some strength in the constituency, particularly in the eastern Lacale area around Downpatrick, whilst Sinn Fein is particularly strong around the Mourne Mountains in the south-central part of the constituency. Whilst the SDLP are still competitive here, the long-term shifts in politics in this constituency suggest that Sinn Fein is favoured to hold on and perhaps increase its majority.
Verdict: Leans Sinn Fein hold
This constituency slightly oddly does not include the village of Strangford itself (which is in South Down) but instead describes this eastern County Down seat that almost surrounds Strangford Lough.
About 30% of its population live in its largest town is Newtownards (it is not that new: it was founded in 1605 as an Ulster plantation on the site of an earlier town founded by the Normans in Henry III time). Smaller towns include Comber, Ballynahinch, Portaferry (at the tip of the Ards peninsula) and Saintfield.
Since the Good Friday Agreement, the constituency has been safely held by the DUP, even after the sex and money scandal that ended Iris Robinson’s career as an MP. Her successor Jim Shannon built the majority to over 18,000 (47%) at the last election – despite being identified as Parliament’s least sexy MP in 2011.
Perhaps after Iris Robinson, Newtownards has had enough of sexy. Shannon will safely win this year.
Verdict: No change
In contrast to Jim Shannon (see Strangford above), outgoing Upper Bann MP David Simpson has perhaps overdone the sexy: he is stepping down after revelations of his affair with someone who worked in his constituency office.
Simpson won the seat in 2005, from the UUP’s former leader David Trimble. The UUP now trail in third place whilst Simpson held a healthy majority of almost 8,000 over Sinn Fein in 2017.
71% of this constituency’s electorate live in the Craigavon conurbation in northern County Armagh, which comprises not only the partly-realised new town of that name but the two larger towns either side: Lurgan to the east and Portadown to the west. The remainder of the electorate are in west County Down, equally split between those who live in the town of Banbridge and those living in smaller villages.
Lurgan has a Catholic majority and there are also substantial and growing Catholic minorities in both Portadown and Craigavon town. The County Down parts of the seat however are strongly Protestant.
Like East Londonderry, this constituency may eventually over time become competitive for Sinn Fein. But for now, Simpson’s DUP successor Carla Lockhart should have no problem holding Upper Bann.
Verdict: No change
Safe Sinn Fein
West Tyrone is based around Omagh (County Tyrone’s county town) and the border town of Strabane, as well as smaller towns including Castlederg, Newtownstewart and Sion Mills. All of these but Newtownstewart have Catholic majorities and in Strabane they exceed 90%.
It is the newest constituency in Northern Ireland, created in 1997 and was initially won by the UUP’s Willie Thompson. Sinn Fein took the seat in 2001 and now regularly has majorities exceeding 20%.
Sinn Fein are now on their third MP here: 27 year old Orfhlaith Begley was elected in a by-election last year caused by the resignation of previous MP Barry McElduff following a video which was seen as mocking the 1976 Kingsmill Massacre.
The scandal did little to dent Sinn Fein’s majority in that election. This is now Sinn Fein’s third safest seat, after Belfast West and Mid Ulster, and the only real question is whether Begley will take more than 50% of the vote this time around.
Verdict: No change
Based on the above, our projections are:
- DUP (currently 10 MPs): 8-11 seats
- Sinn Fein (currently 7 MPs): 5-8 seats
- UUP (currently 0 MPs): 1-2 seats
- SDLP (currently 0 MPs): 1-2 seats
- Alliance (currently 0 MPs): 1-2 seats
- Independents (currently 1 MP): 0 seats
Best guess: DUP 9, Sinn Fein 7, SDLP 1, UUP 1