The St Andrews Agreement is perfectly clear: the nominating officer of the largest political party after the election gets to nominate the new First Minister of Northern Ireland; the largest political party of the other designation shall nominate the new Deputy First Minister.
At both the last two elections in Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin had more support than any other party, with 171,942 votes to the DUP’s 168,216 in the 2010 Westminster election, and with Bairbre de Brún winning 126,184 first preferences to 88,346 for the DUP’s Diane Dodds in the 2009 European election. If the unionist vote is again sufficiently dispersed, and SF are able to retain their level of support, Martin McGuinness could look forward to swapping jobs with Peter Robinson.
However, I do not think that this is likely. Not because I anticipate any slippage in SF’s support – they have consistently delivered results in the 25%-26% range for the last several elections, and I see no reason to anticipate that this year will be drastically different. But I do expect the DUP at least tomake up the 3,700 vote difference from last year, and probably more than that.
The 2010 and 2009 elections were notably bad results for the DUP, for slightly different reasons which largely no longer apply. Both elections saw Jim Allister and his TUV eat into the DUP’s core vote. But Allister’s 13.7% in 2009, where he was unable to win a European seat despite being a competent incumbent, had dwindled to a mere 3.9% in 2010, at a time where the DUP’s leadership were under the cloud of unprecedented scandal and one would have thought it a good time for alternatives to break through.
More important, in 2010 two independent unionist candidates, both supported by the DUP, gained over 21,000 votes each in constituencies where the DUP was the largest unionist party in the last Assembly election. It seems a fair extrapolation that, if Rodney Connor and Lady Sylvia Hermon had not stood, and there had been a DUP candidate on the ballot paper in either or both of North Down and Fermanagh - South Tyrone, the extra votes gained would have been enough to make the DUP the biggest party in the election.
The DUP had an exceptionally good election in 2007, winning 36 Assembly seats on 30.1% of the vote – the best result in percentage terms for any party in a regional election since 1973 (unless one tallies together the various divided factions of the UUP in that year). That is unlikely to be repeated. But they were almost four percentage points of vote share, and eight seats, ahead of SF in the 2007 election, and I would be astonished if they lost even half of that margin this year. The DUP are likely to remain the largest single party.
More interesting, perhaps, is the competition for third place between the SDLP and UUP. The SDLP, like SF, have delivered consistent results in the last few elections, in the 15%-17% range. They actually won more votes than the UUP/Conservative alliance in 2010 (where the UUP vote is perhaps depressed by the Rodney Connor and Sylvia Hermon factors, but was also enhanced by the DUP’s travails). Alban Maginnis was a hair behind Jim Nicholson in first preference votes in the 2009 European election. But the SDLP was also – just – ahead of the UUP in the 2007 Assembly election, with 105,164 first preferences to the UUP’s 103,145.
Those 2,000 extra votes actually delivered two fewer seats for the SDLP, and one less minister in the Executive. Their own disorganisation lost a seat that they should have won in West Tyrone, and the UUP benefitted from other parties’ disarray in Upper Bann to win a second seat that they should not have won. Under the Single Transferable Vote, that can sometimes be the breaks. But if I were looking for interesting bets in this election, I think that the margin in both seats and votes between the third and fourth placed parties might repay scrutiny more than the margin between the winners and the runners-up.