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The North Down conundrum

North Down is a peculiar parliamentary constituency even by Northern Ireland's rather odd standards. It is currently (since 2005) the only seat held by the Ulster Unionist Party, in the shape of Lady Sylvia Hermon; from 1995 to 2001 it was the only seat held by Bob McCartney's UK Unionist Party; and from 1980 to 1995 it was the only seat held by Sir James Kilfedder's Ulster Popular Unionist Party.

But while Kilfedder and McCartney were effectively one-man-bands with the occasional sidekick, the Ulster Unionist Party is the former party of government for the half-century of Stormont rule. It has now fallen on hard times, and lost five of its six Westminster seats in 2005 (Lady Hermon being the sole survivor). In the 2007 election from the Northern Ireland Assembly, the party came fourth in terms of first preferences, winning 18 of 108 seats with less than 15% of the vote.

Since early 2008, the UUP has been exploring closer links with Britain's Conservative Party, who are pretty much certain to win the British election due next year. The history here is that the UUP were in fact organically part of the British Tories until the early 1970s. They then broke off that relationship. In the late 1980s, local Conservative associations were set up in Northern Ireland, and over the next few years came close to but never quite made a crebible electoral breakthrough. Their strongest area was North Down: Conservative candidates got a quarter of the votes cast for North Down's borough council in 1989, and their local leader got 32% in the 1992 Westminster election.

Over the next few years the Northern Ireland Tories crashed and burned. The long slow death of John Major's government and the early Blair years were not good times for the Conservative brand anywhere in the UK. After 1992 the Conservatives failed to score above 1.3% in any election, getting a handful of councillors each time.

However, this is probably a better time to be associated with the Conservative brand, given the party's ascendancy in the mainland polls. The UUP's veteran MEP Jim Nicholson stood in this year's European elections with Conservative support, and actually posted a mild increase in his vote share from 2004 - 17.1% rather than 16.6%. The UUP, whose Assembly team is shockingly middle-aged and male, clearly hopes for some revitalisation from the Conservatives.

This will come at a cost. Lady Hermon, the party's sole sitting MP, has made it clear that she is Labour in sympathy and will have nothing whatever to do with the Conservatives. The Tories in North Down, meanwhile, have selected as their candidate one Ian Parsley, who recently defected from the Alliance Party after having been their candidate in June's European election. The DUP are waiting in the wings with Peter Weir, who was at one point in his career the UUP's candidate for the seat (before being deselected in Lady Hermon's favour, and subsequently defecting to the DUP). Latest reports, which may be based on no more than reading the numbers, have her considering a run as an independent, possibly with Alliance support (though I am not aware of internal Alliance thinking on that option).

So, who will win? The votes in the 2005 Westminster election, with changes from 2001 (when Alliance didn't stand) were:

Sylvia Hermon (UUP) 16,268 (50.4% -5.6%)
Peter Weir (DUP) 11,324 (35.1%)
Alliance 2,451 (7.6%)
SDLP 1,009 (3.1% -0.3%)
Conservative 822 (2.5% +0.3%)
Independent 211 (0.7%)
Sinn Fein 205 (0.6% -0.2%)

But in the local council election on the same day, it was a different picture (NB fractional votes here because there is one electoral district equally divided between North down and a neighbouring constituency):

DUP 11,034 (34.3%)
UUP 7,343.5 (22.8%)
Alliance 4,958 (15.4%)
Independents 3,180 (9.9%)
Green 2,639 (8.2%)
Women's Coalition 738 (2.3%)
UKUP 734 (2.3%)
PUP 651 (2.0%)
SDLP 526 (1.6%)
Conservative 353 (1.1%)

We can take it that half of those who voted Alliance at the local election, and most of those who supported the independent, Green and Women's Coalition candidates, backed Lady Hermon for Westminster. The results of the 2007 Assembly election were pretty similar to those of the 2005 local election (changes here from the 2002 Assembly votes):

DUP 10,469 (34.1%, +10.6%)
UUP 7,280 (23.7%, -8.4%)
Alliance 3,131 (10.2%, +1.6%)
Green 2,839 (9.2%, +6.9%)
UKUP 1,806 (5.9%, -5.7%)
Inds 1,317 (4.3%)
Ind U 1,129 (3.7%, +0.2%)
SDLP 1,115 (3.6%, -1.3%)
Conservative 864 (2.8%, +1.2%)
SF 390 (1.3%, +0.4%)
PUP 367 (1.2%, +0.2%)

It's pretty clear then that the DUP's core vote in recent elections is 34%, and the UUP's is 23% if Hermon is not on the ballot. It's also clear that habitual Alliance and Green voters will be likely to peel off and support Hermon whether or not their own parties are standing; this is less true, but less important, for the SDLP and Sinn Fein. UKUP's 5.9% in 2007 can be taken as a likely indicator of strength for Jim Allister's hardline TUV if they choose to stand. We can also assume that the Conservative votes will all go to the joint UUP/conservative candidate if there is one.

On this basis, I think I can make the following set of predictions:
  1. If Hermon is endorsed as the UUP candidate, whether or not jointly with the Conservatives, she is very likely to retain the seat.
  2. If she stands as an independent, she has a pretty good chance as well. This rises to a near certainty if she is formally or informally endorsed by Alliance and the Greens. Without such an endorsement, she will need to repeat her record of pulling in non-UUP votes and also persuade at least half of the UUP's habitual voters to abandon their party's official candidate and support her, in order to beat the DUP who one assumes will have support in the mid-30s. If the UUP officially supports Ian Parsley, who will then be a Conservative running with UUP support, this will not be too difficult a task.
  3. If Lady Hermon decides not to contest the seat at all, then it is more open. However it is pretty clear from the numbers that the DUP are ahead of the field.
This has been much discussed on Slugger O'Toole, especially here. (I see one SDLP supporter thinks that with a sufficiently split Unionist vote, the Stoops might have a chance. Bless.)

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