The local parties fought the general election on relatively fresh battlegrounds. Welfare reform, same-sex marriage and attendance at Westminster were just a few. Ciarán Galway analyses the results.
With the impact of the latest election still reverberating, new fronts have opened up for parties and candidates ahead of the 2016 Assembly elections. Nationalist voter turnout is down across the board, unionism has bounced back in both Fermanagh and South Tyrone and East Belfast, and a resurgent Alliance Party has now exceeded its 1997 vote share.
This time, the King’s Hall Pavillions played host to all four Belfast constituency counts. At the close of polls on 8 May the venue came alive with bustling swarms of journalists, candidates and party hacks. Speculation swirled as the ballot boxes were cracked open, the exit polls were discussed in hushed tones and coy tellers began to scribble furiously. The atmosphere was initially congenial and, until some cutting victory speeches, rivals occasionally mingled and conversed. However, the bookmakers had reliably calibrated their odds and it soon became apparent that were would be no shock upsets as had happened in 2010.
Although Máirtín Ó Muilleoir did well to siphon off over 5,000 votes from Alasdair McDonnell, it was obvious from the bundled ballot papers that South Belfast would be a two-horse race between the DUP’s Jonathan Bell and the SDLP incumbent, with Alliance’s Paula Bradshaw performing strongly to take third place. West Belfast was retained by Sinn Féin as predicted. However, Gerry Carroll of People Before Profit managed to obtain an unprecedented 6,798 votes (a 19.2 per cent share), pushing Alex Attwood into third place. A 16.8 per cent decrease in Paul Maskey’s share of the vote, the largest of the election, will surely have set Sinn Féin alarm bells ringing ahead of the 2016 elections. In North Belfast, early indications suggested that Nigel Dodds had excelled as the single unionist candidate – he had in fact increased his vote by over 4,000.
A major focus on the night and indeed the entire campaign was on East Belfast where Gavin Robinson had been gifted a clear unionist field to retake the seat from Naomi Long. While successful in his task, Robinson’s 19,575 votes constituted a loss of 5,000 when compared with the combined 24,437 that the DUP and UUP received in 2005. Long, on the other hand, saw an increase of over 4,000 votes – undoubtedly, in part, a loan from liberal unionist and nationalist voters. As expected, votes in Belfast constituted 44 per cent of Alliance’s total share. However, in every constituency elsewhere, aside from West Tyrone, the party increased its support.
Comfortably securing two out of four Belfast seats, alongside assured victories elsewhere, provoked animated celebration among the DUP’s assembled support. Amid flag-waving and triumphant chanting, Gavin Robinson delivered a blistering victory speech and made no public attempt to build bridges with his Alliance rival. Likewise, Dodds was scathingly critical of Sinn Féin and declared the North Belfast campaign to have been one of the nastiest of his career.
DUP hopes of a hung Parliament soon faded as it became apparent that the Tories had secured a slim, though workable, majority amid a Labour collapse and an SNP upheaval in Scotland. While the first wholly Tory Government in 18 years has been formed, it is inevitable that the 12-seat majority will shrink over time.
The Conservative Party contested 16 local seats and lost its deposit in all except for Strangford. Intriguingly, the Tories did not stand candidates in either North Belfast or Fermanagh and South Tyrone thereby unofficially contributing to the unionist pact.
Whilst generating controversy, the pact proved to be as successful as hoped. The DUP comfortably held on to North Belfast, increasing its vote share there by 7 per cent, amid Sinn Féin’s negative campaigning. The UUP profited in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where without the pact, Sinn Féin would have likely retained the seat. In Newry and Armagh, unionism’s single candidate, Danny Kennedy, successfully overtook the SDLP to poll second place, 4,176 votes behind Mickey Brady.
The nationalist share of the vote took a significant 4.4 per cent dip (down to
38.4 per cent) when compared with the 2010 general election: the lowest combined Sinn Féin-SDLP share since 1992. Nationalism’s peak vote came in 2001 with a 42.7 per cent share. Several factors contributed to this trend, not least in a first-past-the-post election where seats can at times be perceived as foregone conclusions.
The UUP’s campaign was widely viewed as a success story with a net gain of two seats (one each from Sinn Féin and the DUP) to regain its place in the House of Commons. The election proved to be an enormous boost to the party which now appears galvanised under the leadership of Mike Nesbitt. Jo-Anne Dobson, a popular figure in Upper Bann, posed an impressive challenge to sitting MP David Simpson, but ultimately fell short by over 2,000 votes.
Regaining East Belfast enabled the DUP to break even on its total of eight seats after the loss of South Antrim to Danny Kinahan. Gavin Robinson’s vote share outstripped leader Peter Robinson’s 2010 effort by 16.5 per cent to regain his party’s political Mecca. Elsewhere, in six other constituencies, the party retained seats which were never really in doubt.
Margaret Ritchie and Sylvia Hermon became the only female candidates to be returned by the local electorate. Sinn Féin’s cohort of MPs now resembles an ‘old boys’ club’ of Pat Doherty, Mickey Brady and Francie Molloy, with Paul Maskey as a junior member. That being said, there were strong performances among the party’s relative newcomers, including the hitherto unelected Chris Hazzard, Catherine Seeley and Caoimhe Archibald. Sinn Féin’s electioneering appeared to be geared towards the impending Assembly election, and with a determined focus on the next Dáil election due early next year, arguably the general election slipped as a priority.
The election also saw the SDLP stubbornly retain all three of its seats, comfortably in both Foyle and South Down, but the party now faces an internal crisis with one commentator noting that it has moved “from civil rights to civil war” following a further 2.6 per cent drop.
Already the Assembly campaign is effectively under way. Looking ahead to 2016, a number of debates have forced themselves onto the agenda. The ‘legacy issues’ of the conflict will continue to have a pervasive presence but relatively new disputes are also beginning to emerge. Opposition to austerity, the result of the same-sex marriage referendum in the South, and the impending in-out vote on Britain’s EU membership are all likely to shape this upcoming contest.