For many years I ran a regular online prediction contest for every Northern Irish election. The growth of the online community (in 1998 precisely eight people sent me predictions of the Assembly result!) combined with my own changing personal circumstances and the welcome willingness of others to pick up the baton have made me a commentator rather than organiser this year; both Stratagem, my host for these essays, and WhiteBox, who had a very successful Dáil election site earlier this year, have run prediction contests for this week’s vote.
At present the average predictions from the two sites are fairly consistent: good news for Alliance (both sites predict that they will gain an eighth seat; DUP to hold steady at 36 (WhiteBox) or drop one to 35 (Stratagem); Sinn Féin either uptick to 29 (Stratagem) or downtick to 27 (WhiteBox); SDLP to hold steady at 16 (Stratagem) or improve to 18 (WhiteBox); UUP to drop to 15 (Whitebox) or 16 (Stratagem); Greens to hold one seat, TUV to gain one and two other independents rounding out the total. The Irish News, going on gut instinct, predicts no change for the DUP or Alliance but is otherwise in line with WhiteBox.
My experience of previous such exercises is that punters tend, on average, to underestimate the amount of change that is coming. Fans of each party will tend to cancel each other out; in addition, I know all too well that if you spend too much time staring at the results of the last election it becomes very difficult to creatively imagine the results of the next, and it is easy to be over-conservative.
So, based on those predictions, I would expect that Alliance will have a good election and the UUP a bad one; the SDLP may make modest gains and the DUP suffer minor losses; and SF will end up at about the same as last time, give or take one or two. The political effect will be not only that the SDLP are ahead of the UUP in seats as well as votes, but that the UUP lose their second ministry in the Executive to either the SDLP or conceivably Alliance.
But it becomes interesting when we try to match these numbers with seats. If the DUP lose only one seat, it must be their fourth in Strangford, snatched by a knife-edge from the SDLP in 2007 and now hit by the boundary changes. I can see possible other losses in East Belfast, North Antrim or West Tyrone, and possible gains in Lagan Valley, North Belfast and North Down, but none of those is at all certain. If the DUP get away with only the one loss, in the wake of last year’s difficulties, and in the election cycle after their best ever result at regional level, it can be counted as a success.
The Sinn Féin outcome is particularly difficult to read. Against the almost certain loss of the Lagan Valley seat, thanks to the boundary changes, one can set possible gains in East Antrim (thanks again to the boundaries), and party sources have been talking up their chances in Upper Bann and Fermanagh-South Tyrone. I think the new boundaries do not work in SF’s favour, and, as with the DUP, even a net loss of a seat will disappoint the rank and file but is actually a decent result.
The SDLP are gifted with two more or less automatic gains in this year’s election – a new seat in Strangford, as noted above, and the seat in West Tyrone that they should never have lost to Kieran Deeny in 2007; they should also have a very strong chance of taking a new seat in East Antrim and a decent chance of picking up a unionist seat in South Down. It’s interesting therefore that both prediction contests set those likely gains off against losses elsewhere, I suppose most likely in the two south-western seats targeted by Sinn Féin, and also perhaps in North Antrim. The SDLP punched below its weight in 2007, which was anyway a bad election for them, and by rights should gain seats rather than tread water this time even with the same vote.
All of the UUP’s second seats from 2007 are vulnerable – North Down has already been lost by defection, and Upper Bann and East Antrim look rather marginal as well. In addition, the party’s seats in North Antrim and South Down look vulnerable to boundary changes, East Londonderry is another defection, and North Belfast just looks vulnerable; having said that, with the eye of faith one can see some possibility for progress in Lagan Valley, Strangford and West Tyrone. Expectations are so abysmal for the UUP that losing two seats from their historic low of 2007 might actually be seen as a success.
I would love to ask those who predict that Alliance will gain an eighth seat where they think that eighth seat will be. A second in East Belfast? Probably the most likely, if the party can keep even a third of the extra votes gained by Naomi Long last year. A second in North Down? Given the maelstrom of transfers likely at the end of that count, it couldn’t be ruled out. A breakthrough in Upper Bann, with a high-profile UUP defector, or in East Londonderry, where the numbers are better than one might think? Only in a very good year; but perhaps this is that year?
For the other parties, there seems a general expectation that Steven Agnew will hold the Greens’ seat in North Down, and that Jim Allister will win for the TUV in North Antrim but without bringing any followers on his coat-tails. One of the two independents who everyone seems to expect to be elected is certainly Dawn Purvis, formerly of the PUP; I suppose that one or other of the two UUP defectors, Alan McFarland in North Down or David McClarty in East Londonderry, is also likely to make it, though I have a sneaking suspicion that Eamonn McCann may surprise some of us with his performance in Foyle.
Of course there will be surprises. South and West Belfast, South Antrim, Mid Ulster, and Newry and Armagh do not feature in the discussion above, the conventional wisdom (for what that is worth) is that none of those will see a change in party strengths. My own gut feeling is that this may underestimate voter volatility, whether in South Belfast or South Antrim; but we will know for sure in a few days’ time. If, as in previous years, the punters have underestimated the wings, this may yet prove a more exciting election than we had expected.