By Lowri Pitcher
There are 18 Westminster constituencies in Northern Ireland with electorates ranging between 60,000 to 80,000. Before the dissolution of Parliament the Democratic Unionist Party held 10 seats, Sinn Féin held seven (although Sinn Fein MPs do not take their seats in the House of Commons due to a long-standing policy of abstentionism) and one seat is held by an independent.
Normally, seats with large majorities are considered ‘safe’ seats and would require a substantial swing towards opposition parties in order to switch hands on December 12.
Eight seats in Northern Ireland have significant majorities (over 10,000). These seats include: Belfast West with a majority of 21,652 held by Sinn Fein, East Antrim with a majority of 15,923 held by the DUP, Lagan Valley with a majority of 19,229 held by the DUP, Mid Ulster with a majority of 12,890 held by Sinn Fein, Newry & Armagh with a majority of 12,489 held by Sinn Fein, North Antrim with a majority of 20,643 held by the DUP, Strangford with a majority of 18,343 held by the DUP and finally, West Tyrone with a majority of 10,342 held by Sinn Fein.
There are three seats in Northern Ireland with majorities of more than 7,000 but less than 10,000. These are Belfast East with a majority of 8,474 held by the DUP, East Londonderry with a majority of 8,842 held by the DUP and Upper Bann with a majority of 7,992 also held by the DUP.
One of the most marginal seats is Belfast North with a majority of 2,081 held by the DUP, whose representative is Nigel Dodds, Westminster leader of the party. Other marginal seats include Belfast South with a majority of 1,996 held by the DUP, South Antrim with a majority of 3,208 also held by the DUP and South Down with a majority of 2,446 held by Sinn Fein.
Finally, the seat of North Down held by independent MP Lady Sylvia Hermon has a narrow majority of 1,208. However with Lady Hermon’s announcement that she will not be seeking re-election the seat may well change hands to the DUP which follows closely behind.
Two of the seats with the narrowest majorities include Fermanagh & South Tyrone which has a majority of 875 votes held by Sinn Fein with the Ulster Unionist Party in second place; and the seat with the narrowest majority in Northern Ireland, that of Foyle where Elisha McCallion representing Sinn Fein won by a margin of 169 votes during the 2017 General Election.
As has become quite commonplace in this election, similar electoral pacts have been agreed upon in Northern Ireland. The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) announced that it won’t run in Northern Belfast, East Belfast, or North Down; while Sinn Fein will stand aside in South Belfast, East Belfast, and North Down.
In Belfast North, Nigel Dodds’ seat, Sinn Fein now gets a clear run to unseat. During the 2017 General Election, they lost by 46.2 per cent to 41.7 per cent. The SDLP took 4.5 per cent of the vote, meaning that Sinn Fein is now a firm contender.
Additionally, the SDLP may be able to win back Belfast South, where it lost to the DUP by 30.4 per cent to 25.9 per cent. In 2017 Sinn Fein received 16.3 per cent of the vote which leaves the SDLP with a good chance of winning back the seat.
The pact came about on the basis of trying to elect pro-remain representatives in a region that voted 56 per cent to remain in the 2016 EU referendum. The aim is to ensure reduce the number of seats held by pro-Brexit DUP. However, it should be noted that if Sinn Fein were to win more seats, given their abstention in the House of Commons, the pro-remain seats would not transpire into pro-remain votes in the Commons. It would simply mean there were less pro-leave votes as there would be less DUP representatives.
After the 2017 General Election, the Conservative Party lost its majority. This led to Theresa May’s government negotiating and entering into a confidence and supply agreement with the DUP. However, the party opposed both Theresa May and Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreements mainly over the controversial issue of the Northern Ireland Backstop, meaning relations between the parties became very strained.
At this election, according to Jon Tonge, professor of politics at Liverpool University, the DUP is “desperate for another mathematical miracle” in order to retain their role as kingmakers. However, as Professor Tonge has also acknowleged; that is a scenario that is unlikely to reoccur. For another minority government to be formed, the Conservatives would not have achieved a majority, and the DUP would have to hold a number of seats which would supplement the number the Conservatives have won.
It is fairly certain the DUP would not go into coalition with Labour, even if they have the numbers. Whilst the DUP have hinted at collaborating with Labour in the event of a hung parliament, the party’s chief whip Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said that a government led by Corbyn would be a “disasterous” scenario for the UK. Party leader Arlene Foster has described Corbyn as “an anathema to anyone who believes in the United Kingdom”, adding that “If it comes to be the case that someone else is leading the Labour Party, then we will judge it against not only our 12-point plan but whether it’s good for Northern Ireland to be in communication with whoever’s leading the Labour Party at that time”.
Northern Ireland is a very interesting electoral region of the UK. Alongside the presence of new mini electoral pacts, one of the most intriguing aspects in Northern Ireland is the future of Nigel Dodds’ seat. The electoral pacts also raise the question of whether unified parties can indeed unseat incumbent MPs. Otherwise, many seats hold large majorities and the landscape is therefore likely to remain relatively similar to before the election after December 12.