Oh Danny Boy, the polls, the polls are calling: an election guide to Northern Ireland

It’s difficult enough to get coverage of Scottish and Welsh politics, let alone the Northern Irish variety. From mainland Britain, Northern Irish is at best viewed with curiosity, at worst with horror. Northern Ireland has a political tradition based around cultural affiliations, national identity and religion that has indeed spilled over into violence. It’s so different from the rest of British political culture that the main parties, except a token Conservative effort, don’t contest elections here.

But contrary to popular belief, Northern Irish politics isn’t all about Protestants and Catholics at each other’s throats. As a society it has shown remarkable resilience towards devastating violence and is a shining example of how even the most divided communities can overcome. Northern Irish voters also care about the same issues as everyone else; jobs, healthcare and schooling.

All in all this creates a unique blend of politics that is rare in the Western World that deserves respect and a least a token interest from everybody else in the UK. In the case of a tight election, the make up of political parties could also be important as to who forms a government.

We may need to pay even closer attention to Northern Ireland soon as the ongoing constitutional crisis there raises the distinct possibility of the imposition of direct rule from Westminster.


EU Referendum - The Border Lands Separating Northern And Southern Ireland

Top security. 

Crossing the border 

As ever, the Border is central to politics here and that’s further complicated by a religious divide. If you think the recent trend of identity politics has made Britain nasty, you should take a look at Northern Ireland. The division between unionists, who are mostly Protestant, and nationalists, who are mostly Catholic, has been long and bitter. For most of the second half of the 20th century, the country was ravaged by The Troubles that claimed 3,532 lives. The conflict caused death or injury to roughly 2% of the population.

Thankfully, the Peace Process of the 1990s has secured peace but the Border remains paramount. Voters continue to vote down community lines, and the continued Protestant majority ensures that unionist parties remain the most successful. This is even more true for Westminster elections, as major policy areas are devolved to the Northern Irish Assembly in Stormont.

There’s been a lot of speculation in the British Press about the prospects of a United Ireland since the EU Referendum and Sinn Féin have pushed for a referendum on the subject. In reality, Scottish independence is far more likely. A recent poll put support for a United Ireland at only 22%, with many Catholics supportive of remaining in the UK.

The EU, again 

The EU referendum is an issue that plays into the Border. Northern Ireland voted to Remain by 56%. Remain was heavily backed by nationalists, who have long seen the EU as a means of forging closer links with the Republic of Ireland and protecting minority rights. A substantial number of unionists voted Leave, with many in that community treating EU membership as something of a trojan horse for a United Ireland.

The Referendum has brought the immediate problem of whether the Border can remain open. It has been open since long before the formation of the EU, and even during the Troubles remained so. Cross-border trade is worth around €3bn and any moves to restrict that will be strongly opposed by most in Northern Ireland. Parties will be pushing their abilities to make Westminster listen on this.

The more you burn the more you earn

It’s not all about identity. Northern Ireland has recently been gripped by issues of good old-fashioned corruption and incompetence. The Renewable Heat Incentive Scandal, or ‘Cash for Ash’; has engulfed the country and caused a constitutional crisis. Allegations of misspending of up to £500m has caused the downfall of one government and an inability to create a new one.

Purely social 

Social issues are also creeping in. Northern Ireland is more socially conservative than the rest of the UK. Same-sex marriage and abortion are both illegal. However, public opinion has shifted towards abortion reform and there were attempts made to legalise same-sex marriage in Stormont last year. Another brewing issue is that over the legal status of the Irish language, and by extension the status of Ulster-Scots.



“I’d like to thank the returning officer and I don’t agree with that in the workplace!”

The General Election in Northern Ireland saw:

Party Seats(+/-) Vote Share(+/-)
DUP (unionist)



SF (nationalist)



UUP (unionist)



SDLP (nationalist)



APNI (unaligned)



IND* (various)



*Their one seat was held by Sylvia Hermon, an independent unionist for North Down.

Overall, there was very little change. Sinn Féin lost Fermanagh and South Tyrone to the UUP. A closely divided seat, it was no surprise to see their whopping majority of four tumble. The UUP also benefitted from an agreement from the DUP to stand down.

The UUP had a surprise success in taking South Antrim from the DUP. Their capture of both seats meant this was their best performance since 2001. In vote share they also overtook the SDLP to take third.

The SDLP had a disappointing night seeing their vote share drop. They managed to hold onto all their seats, including Belfast South which they held with just 24.5% of the vote, the lowest anywhere in the UK.

The Alliance lost their one seat of Belfast East, which itself was a shock gain from the DUP leader Peter Robinson in 2010. They did however manage a modest increase in their vote giving them their best performance since 1992 on that metric.



2016 saw elections for the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont. Stormont elections are held using the same system as Scottish local elections, Single Transferable Vote (STV). STV is a preferential system that allocates seats for multi-member constituencies on a highly proportional basis. STV tends to see a more proportional outcome and smaller parties doing better.

Seats(+/-) First Preference votes(+/-)


















*Others includes Traditional Unionist Voice(TUV), the Greens and People Before Profit. None of these parties are in serious contention in the General Election.

There was again little change. The unionist parties and Alliance basically held their votes up. The UUP were disappointed to fail to make progress on their relative success of 2015. Sinn Féin and the SDLP lost a little ground to other parties like the Greens and People Before Profit, but again were broadly unchanged.

Under the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, ministerial positions in the Northern Ireland are allocated to parties based on their number of MLAs. Consequently, this means power is always shared between unionists and nationalists. Appointments for the First and Deputy First minister, must also garner ‘community-wide’ support.

The DUP’s Arlene Foster became First Minister and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness became Deputy First Minister in a power-sharing agreement that had been in place between the two parties since 2007.



I will, but you really need to improve your photoshopping.

Spare a thought for the Northern Irish. Since 2015 they have had a General Election, a referendum and two Assembly elections. McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister earlier this year in protest at the Cash for Ash scandal, causing a collapse of government. Failure to negotiate an alternative led to the calling of another election. The results were:

Seats(+/-) First Preference votes(+/-)


















It was a disaster for unionism as for the first time ever unionists no longer held an overall majority. The DUP suffered big losses, and only just managed to edge out Sinn Féin as the largest party. Falling below 30 seats was also significant. 30 MLAs can lodge what is called a ‘Petition of Concern’, a tool the DUP had used as an effective veto on same-sex marriage.

The results were possibly worse for the UUP. The UUP were hoping to pick up disaffected DUP supporters angry at the leadership and looking for a unionist alternative. Its leader, Mike Nesbitt, led a brave campaign calling upon moderate unionists to give their second preferences to the SDLP. The lack of success forced his resignation.

The Shinners were the big winners, seeing a big rise in their vote share. Though their seats went down, they came within a whisker of first place. Their nationalist competitors, the SDLP, failed to make any ground.

The Alliance clearly picked up some of those unionists the UUP were hoping for, but not enough to make seat gains. What probably happened is that unionist voters stayed home, unwilling to turn out to vote for an incompetent leadership and unconvinced by alternatives.

Nationalist voters however, would have turned out keen to give the DUP a good kicking. The results were more about differential turnout, not a shift towards a United Ireland.

A new power-sharing arrangement remains unreached as Sinn Féin refuse to do business with an Arlene Foster-led DUP. This means yet another round of elections could be round the corner or the suspension of Stormont altogether.

Northern Ireland is generally excluded from General election polling (most of the results you see are for Great Britain, not the United Kingdom). But the limited polling here as shown (changes from 2015):

DUP 29.1%(+3.4) SF 27.8%(+3.4) UUP 15.3%(-0.7) SDLP 13.1%(-0.8) APNI 10.0%(+1.4)

On Uniform National Swing that would result in:

DUP 10(+2) SF 5(+1) UUP 0(-2) SDLP 2(-1) APNI 0(nc)

That would be the DUP’s best ever result in seats and would reinvigorate the party. It would also be its best vote share since 2005. The UUP would be back to the drawing board and that vote share would be the worst since 2010.

Sinn Féin would be back to where they were in 2010 and their vote share would be their best ever. They would continue to stretch away from the SDLP who would have their worst result ever in both seats and vote share.

Alliance would fail to capture any seats but that vote share would be their best ever and would put them within touching distance of the SDLP.



“I’ve been Arlene Foster, you guys have been the best”

The bigger party of unionism, the DUP also represents its more hardline strand. The creation of Ian Paisley, the DUP was formed out of protest against the perceived excessive compromises and elitism of the Ulster Unionist Party. The DUP tends to have a more working class base and has close links to non-conformist Protestants like Baptists and Presbyterians.

Its unionist stance means it’s perceived to be closest to the Conservatives. That is partly true and the DUP generally take a right-wing view on most issues. It was also the onyl major party to support Brexit. However, its more of a populist party and often means it can be to the left of the Tories, such as with its opposition to the Bedroom Tax. Really, the DUP will work with the highest bidder.

Of course the DUP are still reeling from their recent electoral disaster. They will hope to steady the ship this election by exploiting a unionist backlash against the Sinn Féin success in the Assembly. Their current seats should be mostly safe, particularly as the UUP have agreed to stand down in Belfast North.

One area of concern will be Belfast East, where the Alliance’s Naomi Long is hoping to make a comeback. The DUP held this with only a 2597 majority and that was without the UUP who will be standing this time. Less risky is Upper Bann, a seat that was historically held by the UUP. They’ll be defending a 2264 majority here, but a lack of a UUP surge means this one is probably safe.

In terms of gains, the top target is the UUP-held South Antrim. The majority here is less than 1000 but the UUP vote has held up pretty well so it will be a tough fight there. Another is the SDLP-held Belfast South, won with the aforementioned 24.5% of the vote. They are only 906 votes behind here, but the target is complicated by the strong 17% won by the Alliance who are enjoying modest growth of late.



UUP Christmas Party

The UUP were the big dogs of Northern Ireland, forming every government here until 2007. Since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement though, the party has been in decline at Westminster, Assembly and at Local level. Always the party of the establishment, the Party is now even more so seen as the party of wealthier and middle class unionists who are either Anglican or secular.

The UUP are closely aligned with the Tories, indeed until 1973 their MPs would take the Tory whip at Westminster. Back in 2010, both parties even formed an electoral alliance with each other. The close relationship makes sense as the UUP take the orthodox centre-right position on most issues.

Led by new leader, Robin Swann, they will focussed on holding their two seats. As noted, they face a tough battle against the DUP in South Antrim. An ever tougher battle is the one for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. They hold this with a wafer-thin 530 majority and the previous Sinn Féin incumbent is standing again. They did receive a big boost by agreeing to an electoral pact with the DUP for this seat.

On the gains side they will be looking at Upper Bann and Newry and Armagh. In the former they’ll have to overhaul a reasonable DUP majority that looks a little out of reach. They enjoyed a big swing in the latter last time but that was without the DUP who are standing this time. With their entry, it is difficult to see them capturing this Sinn Féin seat.



“Not sure that’s how you shake hands Martin”

With roots going back to the original Sinn Féin founded in 1905, in its current form it was founded as the political wing of the Provisional Irish Republican Army in 1970. Supportive of the armed struggle, it was also firmly opposed to participation in any British-endorsed political system. Since the IRA ceasefire of 1994, Sinn Féin became involved in the peace process and renounced the use of violence. It has since eclipsed the SDLP as the largest nationalist party and has been in Government since 2007.

It has however, still firmly supportive of a United Ireland and is broadly the nationalist equivalent of the DUP. On other issues it takes generally a leftwing approach, with many of its members identifying as socialists.

It has also not given up its policy of abstentionism, no Sinn Féin MPs take their seats at Westminster as they believe the British Parliament is illegitimate. This means any increase in Sinn Féin MPs would decrease the number of seats needed to form a working majority.

Sinn Féin seats are generally held with large majorities so there aren’t any vulnerable this time. Their success last March also means leader Michelle O’Neill will be on the lookout for gains.

Naturally, their attention will be focussed on that knife-edge vote in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Good Assembly results in the SDLP-held South Down and Foyle will also put them in with a shout there but there are both still ambitious targets. If they really get going they might fancy themselves to make a play from third for the DUP-held Upper Bann.

Having fought four elections and a referendum in two and a half years, Sinn Féin could shortly face another with speculation about a snap election in the Republic of Ireland. Sinn Féin also contest elections there, making it the only political party in the world to have elected representatives in the national parliaments of two different countries.



Maybe if you improved your posters?

The SDLP are broadly the nationalist equivalent to the UUP. The SDLP has always been firmly committed to non-violence and active engagement in the political process. They were long the largest nationalist party and have close ties to the Catholic Church. Also like the UUP, the have also gone through perpetual decline since the 1990s.

As the name suggests, the SDLP is very close to the Labour Party and its MPs informally take the Labour whip at Westminster. Beyond the Border they take a centre-left view on most issues though the Party takes a conservative view on issues like abortion, reflecting a Catholic influence.

Their continuing stagnation means they will be more concerned about defences, such as that tough battle in leader Alastair McDonnell’s Belfast South. They are also vulnerable to a buoyant Sinn Féin in the seats of South Down and Foyle. Sinn Féin topped the Assembly poll in both seats in March.

However, large-ish majorities in these seats and long-held incumbencies mean they should be OK. This would still only be treading water for them though, and it must be worrying that they have failed to make a single gain since 1992.



Ah that’s derogatory

Formed in protest to the deepening sectarian divide in the early 1970s, the Alliance Party eschews identity politics. The Party is nominally in favour of the union on the basis of economic security, but is open to the possibility of a United Ireland should the people want it. It tends to compete with the UUP within the demographic of middle class unionists, but also has a history of support amongst the non-religious and non-Christians.

They have a liberal outlook on other issues, and consequently have a close relationship with the Liberal Democrats. Though former Alliance MP, Naomi Long did not sit with the Coalition.

Again like the Lib Dems, the Alliance struggle to distribute their votes efficiently under First-Past-The-Post rules, only ever winning one seat at Westminster.

Their primary aim this time will be retaking that seat of Belfast East from the DUP. Long is standing again and she made a fairly good name for herself as MP. This was reflected in her significant six-point vote share increase in 2015 and topping the poll here in the recent Assembly election. Just a three-point swing would be enough to take this and with the UUP standing this time, there is a good chance the DUP vote could split.

If you would like to keep up to date with Northern Irish politics during the campaign, look no further than Lucid Talk.

As we enter the final two weeks, polls have shown significant narrowing. Next time we’ll take a look at whether the race really is hotting up, what’s driving it and what it means for 8th June.



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