Nominations open and posters appearing, an election is looming, so its time to take a view on the next few weeks of political cut and thrust, or not. There is not much excitement around a European election.
So looking forward (and that is said with all the enthusiasm mustered, which is not that great) the outcome of the vote for the Northern Ireland Members of the European Parliament, June 2009, is unlikely to deliver an electoral surprise. It is probable that the same three Parties will win the seats. That doesn’t mean that the voting spread won’t be of political interest; the biggest story may well be the decline in number of people being bothered to vote.
There are three seats up for grabs under the proportional representation system used for the Northern Ireland. These are currently held by Jim Allister, elected under the DUP banner and topping the poll in 2004, Barbre de Brun, Sinn Fein, 2nd highest vote, and Jim Nicholson, UUP, 3rd and elected on final transfers.
A Province-wide campaign is a challenge to all but the larger Parties. This means that, unusually for Northern Ireland, there are relatively few candidates: just seven in the 2004 European election. The Alliance Party, Labour and the Conservative Party threw their lot behind independent John Gilliland.
In 2004, the first count results were as follows:
Jim Allister (DUP) 175,761 (32.0%) up 3.6%; elected on first count.
Bairbre De Brun (SF) 144,541 (26.3%) up 9.0%; elected on first count.
Jim Nicholson (UUP) 91,164 (16.6%) down 1.0%.
Martin Morgan (SDLP) 87,559 (15.9%) down12.1%.
John Gilliland (Independent) 36,270 (6.6%).
Eamonn McCann (SEA) 9,172 (1.6%).
Lindsay Whitcroft (Green) 4,810 (0.9%).
In percentage terms the 2004 parties’ vote was almost the same in the 2007 Assembly elections. However, like for like, the 2004 European Elections saw a decline in the overall vote of around 20% from the 1999 Euro poll. While the DUP topped the poll in both instances, its vote was down around 20,000 in 2004 compared to 1999. The decline in the total unionist vote was about 75,000. Although the Sinn Fein vote was up around 27,000 the big loser was the SDLP whose vote crashed by more than half from the 190,000 votes for John Hume. The great uncertainty in the upcoming election is the extent to which the overall vote might decline and how the spread of that decline will impact on each Party – it is a factor that both unionist and nationalist parties will fear, equally.
There’s no agreed independent candidate this time. The Alliance Party has selected Ian Parsley, a young candidate who is being offered some profile, no doubt with a longer term view of election in the North Down area. In 1999 the Alliance vote was less than 15,000; the same or more would be a huge success for Alliance.
The SDLP selection of Alban Maginness seems to be a pitch for the old traditional middle class vote. Maginness is better known than Martin Morgan, the considerably younger 2004 candidate. There is nothing new to ‘bring back’ voters. The greatest threat to the SDLP is a further decline in their vote: if the SDLP can hold its vote from 2005 it would be happy.
Jim Nicholson is once again standing for the Ulster Unionist Party. The Conservative Party, with which the Ulster Unionists are now aligned, is unlikely to bring many votes. Any small increase in the UUP vote is more likely to be from some middle class Catholic voters who are unhappy with nationalist parties’ support for the end of academic selection.
No doubt Nicholson’s seat will only be secured with the transfer of votes from Jim Allister, now standing for Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). The UUP will hope that the number of transfers might make the final vote ‘close’ and attempt to use this to vindicate its Conservative alliance. That would be wrong. Transfers to the UUP will be a protest against the DUP, not an indication of trust restored.
Of the two largest parties last time, Sinn Fein keeps Barbre de Brun as its candidate, no doubt campaigning on experience and its ‘leadership’ credentials; though some republicans may be asking where that leadership is heading. de Brun has been virtually anonymous since her election to Europe. The Sinn Fein led policy to end academic selection is as unpopular with parents of children at Catholic Grammars as much as it is unpopular among unionists. On balance though, this is more likely to hit the SDLP, who share Sinn Fein’s policy objective, and is more rooted in the middle classes than Sinn Fein. However, whether any bread and butter issue will make an impact on the European campaigns is doubtful. More fundamentally, Sinn Fein must be looking at both the last Fermanagh Council by-election and the possibility of a ‘dissident’ republican standing and wondering how well the once envied machine will be able to deliver the vote as it has done in the past.
Jim Allister’s TUV poses a threat to the overall DUP vote. There is general Unionist disaffection with the performance of (at) Stormont. It could be expected that up to about one third of the DUP vote at the 2007 Assembly election would have been with an expectation that the Party would not be entering a power-sharing government with Sinn Fein. Some of this group may well still vote for DUP as the least bad option, there will be some not vote at all and the remainder will vote for Jim Allister.
In 1999 Bob McCartney of the UK Unionist Party gained around 20,000 votes, and this vote would certainly have transferred largely to Jim Allister in 2004 – one reason for the DUP vote holding. The DUP will also have benefited in 2004 from a drift of voters away from the Ulster Unionist Party, who by that stage were disillusioned with David Trimble. It is unlikely that any more votes for Jim Allister will come from the UUP – that vote has long left the Ulster Unionist Party.
Jim Allister is likely to pick up the ‘angry’ vote of those who transferred their vote to the DUP, and feel let down, and the DUP vote that believes there is no right time to share power with IRA/Sinn Fein, and feel betrayed. The bookies may be right that Allister’s total vote will most likely amount to no more than around 30,000-40,000 votes. A higher vote and the current sense of a Unionist electorate that is deeply unsettled is actually an electorate with a seething anger towards current political leadership and direction from both Unionist parties.
What then of the DUP? The candidate is Belfast based, though Diane Dodds has a high profile as Councillor and ex-MLA in West Belfast; she is also married to the current Minister of Finance Nigel Dodds, so has high name recognition. Her views on the price of bullocks and lambs is unknown – while Allister has been very much present in the News Letter’s Saturday pullout Farming Life; a widely read farming paper across the community. There is also the possibility that Diane Dodds may suffer to some extent from the fallout from the Westminster expenses row. Some unionist voters may be unwilling to vote for yet another DUP ‘family’. A DUP election strategy based on it being the only Party that can gain more votes than Sinn Fein seems tired, and a little odd when the two parties are ‘sharing’ power in Stormont. Alternative strategies may not be available.
Jim Allister may not have much chance of retaining his European seat, but his votes will still matter and will probably be the focus of post-election media analysis. Allister’s vote represents an angry and alienated Unionist electorate that may be sidelined, but can’t be easily ignored. What will be interesting will be to review the spread of the TUV votes – will Allister’s votes be predominately urban or rural? What would be the impact at the next Westminster election of the TUV vote; where the DUP and UUP are close enough that a decent percent vote by the TUV would mean the UUP regaining a seat, possibly South Antrim – assuming the UUP is able to assure a turnout of its core vote.
There is also interest in the spread of nationalist voting. At this point we do not know if a ‘dissident’ republican will stand in opposition to Sinn Fein. As Liam Clarke says in the Sunday Times, even a 2% ‘dissident’ vote would impact on the Sinn Fein’s ambitions. Will Sinn Fein fail to gain votes, or even hold its own? Will the SDLP hold enough votes to still be in the political game come the Westminster election within the next year or so.
There is little to suggest that the outcome of the June election will be anything other than the same old parties being returned to Europe. But the disaffection with the current political leaderships may mean that a protest may be made by opting for the outsider or simply not voting. Will we be looking at another sectarian head-count in the June Euro poll? Perhaps. Perhaps also wondering where the heads have gone?