20th April 2022
Following the 2017 Northern Ireland Assembly election, the Assembly did not return with a unionist majority for the first time in its history. It took two years after this election to form a functioning Executive, which was brought down in February 2022 by the resignation of the First Minister Paul Givan in an act of opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol. May’s Assembly election has been described as “the most important in a generation” by DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who added that the election will “decide the future direction of Northern Ireland.”
After a series of LucidTalk polls that did not go favourably for Sir Jeffrey’s DUP, his party appears to have adjusted its aims for this election from growing in seats to maintaining, by running less candidates in areas it previously would have been seeking to gain additional seats, such as East Antrim, North Down and Lagan Valley.
Every seat will be important for each of the parties when the votes are counted on 6th May, but there are a number of constituencies that will make for particularly interesting watching for political anoraks…
When he became leader of the DUP, Sir Jeffrey expressed his desire to lead his party from Stormont as opposed to from Westminster. Despite the opportunity for co-option presenting itself, Sir Jeffrey has not yet stood down from his position as Lagan Valley MP, instead he has opted to remain in post and throw his hat in the ring for election with running mate Paul Givan, hoping to maintain the two seats the DUP currently has.
In 2017 Lagan Valley was one of the shock results, as the SDLP’s Pat Catney gained a seat at the expense of sitting DUP MLA Brenda Hale. The SDLP will be fighting to keep this hard-won seat, and the UUP will be fighting to gain back a second seat they lost, the transfers from which helped the SDLP secure this seat.
Since the 2017 election, the Alliance Party’s Lagan Valley MLA Trevor Lunn left the party to sit as an independent. He has since decided to retire, and following a massive surge at the 2019 Westminster election, the Alliance Party will be confident of winning back this seat with high-profile councillor Sorcha Eastwood, and the possibility of a second MLA with Cllr David Honeyford.
With both sitting DUP MLAs deciding not to run for election this time, the UUP’s Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston will fancy her chances at gaining this seat for her party. Julie-Anne, a former PUP councillor, will hope to maintain both the UUP vote and her existing vote from her time in the PUP to gain a seat at a time when the DUP is North Belfast is going through a change in personalities.
Additionally, the Alliance Party’s Nuala McAllister was c. 500 votes behind Sinn Féin’s Carál Ní Chuilín for the final North Belfast seat in 2017, so this should be an interesting constituency to watch.
Following SDLP leader Colum Eastwoods’ roaring success in winning the Foyle Westminster seat in 2019 with 57% of the vote, his party is seeking to gain an additional Assembly seat by running 3 candidates. It will be hoping that the balance of two sitting MLAs and a high-profile councillor will be sufficient to gain a seat from one of two electorally untested Sinn Féin MLAs, who were co-opted following a party personality shakeup just a few months ago.
People Before Profit lost their MLA in 2017 due to the reduction of seats from six to five, and they’ll be hoping that local councillor Shaun Harkin can regain this seat.
The UUP is also hopeful of making a gain here with “Action Man” (Belfast Telegraph’s words, not mine!) Ryan McCready. Ryan, a decorated former soldier, left the DUP for the UUP in 2021, and has since opened a party office in Derry / Londonderry. Ryan, who was deployed to train the Ukrainian army in 2015, was prominent in the press in February as he organised aid deliveries to Ukraine from Northern Ireland.
Strangford is the only constituency in which the DUP is fielding three candidates and it will be fighting tooth and nail to retain the three sitting MLAs. The SDLP have been the runner up in Strangford in every Assembly election since 1998, and in 2017 the candidate fell short to the DUP’s Peter Weir (who moved from neighbouring North Down) by only 225 votes. Newcomer Conor Houston is in with a good shout to bring an SDLP MLA to Strangford for the first time.
Known for being a diverse constituency, in 2017 South Belfast returned 1 x Sinn Féin, 1 x DUP, 1 x SDLP, 1 x Alliance and 1 x Green MLA.
DUP stalwart, Agriculture Minister and former party leader Edwin Poots is his party’s sole candidate in South Belfast, moving from the Lagan Valley constituency he represented since 1998. Despite being new to South Belfast, Edwin should easily retain this seat for the DUP.
The SDLP will be hoping to gain an additional South Belfast MLA following Claire Hanna’s thumping victory in the 2019 Westminster election with 57% of the vote, but it won’t be easy to translate this vote for Claire Hanna into votes for two Assembly candidates.
The Alliance Party will also be hoping to grow their representation in this constituency, adding current Lord Mayor of Belfast, Kate Nicholl, to the ballot paper with sitting MLA Paula Bradshaw. As a popular and well-liked local councillor, the addition of Kate to the Alliance sweep of candidates presents the best chance of growth for the party here, but it will be very tough for any party to gain a second seat.
Sinn Féin’s Deirdre Hargey should easily retain her seat, and Green Party leader Clare Bailey will be hopeful of retaining her seat against the UUP’s Stephen McCarthy, after beating the previous UUP candidate in 2017 at the longest count of the election.
There might also be a few surprise results west of the Bann in constituencies such as Fermanagh & South Tyrone where Sinn Féin will be fighting to keep their 3 incumbent seats; and West Tyrone where the Alliance Party has gained ground in the last few elections.
It is likely that things will remain “as you were” in constituencies like North Antrim, East Belfast and Newry & Armagh, but a week is a long time in politics and two weeks is even longer!
By Lindsay Millar