Arlene Foster said she'd prefer to focus on Brexit negotiations ahead of any election. However, she may also be conscious of the fact that her party risks losing its position as Westminster kingmakers—and several seats in Northern Irelandby Siobhán Fenton / September 3, 2019 / Leave a comment
As Prime Minister Boris Johnson looks set to plunge the UK into a fresh general election, the DUP have been among Brexit backers cheering him on. DUP MP Sammy Wilson has said he and his colleagues will vote for a new election. However, his party leader Arlene Foster has since undercut his enthusiasm with a note of caution: “We’re not afraid of elections, but we don’t believe it’s the right time.”
Foster cited a desire to focus on Brexit negotiations first. However, she may also be conscious of the fact that a general election runs the risk of her party plucked from its position of holding the balance of power at Westminster.
Not only is it unlikely that we would see a repeat of the exact mathematics of the 2017 election which enabled her party to enter a confidence-and-supply arrangement with the Conservatives, but the DUP may also lose seats.
Northern Ireland is divided into 18 constituencies whose seats are currently split along the following lines: the DUP holds 10 seats, followed by Sinn Féin with 7 seats and the independent unionist politician Lady Sylvia Hermon holds the final seat. As Irish Republicans, Sinn Féin do not accept the authority of Westminster and so abstain from entering the House of Commons.
The 2017 election represented historic highs for both the DUP and Sinn Féin who managed to nudge out their more moderate counterparts in the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) respectively.
Polling published this weekend by reputable Northern Ireland polling group Lucid Talk suggests that the DUP could be at risk of losing a number of seats if a fresh election happens now. This appears to be in part because pro-Remain unionists are turning elsewhere.
Recent elections in Northern Ireland suggests that the Alliance Party, a staunchly pro-Remain and pro-backstop party which advocates liberal and anti-sectarianism views, is surging. In the May local elections, the party almost doubled its vote share from 6.7 per cent to 11.5 per cent. Later that same month, the party’s surge continued and it managed to secure its first ever MEP.
It appears the party is breaking through Northern Ireland’s traditional ‘orange’ and ‘green’ boundaries, as younger, liberal voters consider Brexit above the age old ‘constitutional question.’
The Lucid Talk poll predicts that the DUP will lose their seat in south Belfast, currently held by Emma Little-Pengelly. The constituency, which includes Queen’s University Belfast and many leafy middle-class suburbs, is among the most liberal and pro-Remain areas of Northern Ireland.
In 2017, it was won with a small majority by the DUP, following tactical voting by traditional UUP voters. It is estimated that the seat could be won by the Alliance party in a new election.
Similarly, in East Belfast the DUP could be at risk of losing a seat currently held by Gavin Robinson. The area is a traditional heartland of unionist and loyalist communities—but some working-class voters have become frustrated with the DUP over feelings that not enough is being done to protect jobs and prevent socio-economic deprivation, as encapsulated by the threat of closure for Harland and Wolff shipyard.
In 2010, Alliance politician Naomi Long caused shockwaves throughout Northern Ireland’s political system as she unexpectedly won East Belfast. Although she lost the seat in the subsequent election following a DUP focus on the constituency, the 2010 result shows the seat has the potential to be flipped when DUP voters are sufficiently dissatisfied.
Long has since gone on to be the leader of the Alliance party, which has further increased her profile. After being elected as the party’s first ever MEP in May of this year, she mirrored her feat at the 2010 general election and proved the seat could be in contention again.
It is important to note that the Westminster election uses the First Past The Post system—rather than the proportional representation system used in local elections. By its very design, this makes it harder for smaller parties like Alliance to win. Their challenge will be to convince voters that a vote for them is not a wasted won, in order to create a self-fulfilling momentum.
In North Belfast, the DUP’s Nigel Dodds could also be vulnerable to a successful challenge by Sinn Féin’s John Finucane. Finucane is a young human rights lawyer and campaigner for the rights of victims of the Troubles who was recently appointed Mayor of Belfast. As a result, he is perceived by many nationalist voters as the more acceptable face of the party as he has no links to the IRA and is considered part of a new generation of Irish Republicanism.
In the Lucid Talk polling, prospective voters were asked which party they would vote for rather than individual names politicians—however, Finucane would carry a strong personal vote which could see his numbers increased further in the polling booth.
Finally, the DUP have been focusing in recent years on winning the seat of North Down, currently held by Lady Sylvia Hermon. The independent unionist MP, who is pro-Remain, saw her majority slashed in 2017. However, it appears that nationalists and moderate unionists alike may back her in a bid to keep the DUP out and deny them a seat gain here.
As political events escalate rapidly in the build-up to Brexit, it may be impossible to predict with certainty what any election results may be. As the country lurches between unexpected constitutional crises and allegations of game playing at Downing Street, an untold number of sudden political shocks could take place between now and polling day—rendering predictions moribund.
However, recent figures should be enough of a warning to the DUP that they should be careful what they wish for in backing a new election. Although such calls match their Brexiteer bluster and desire to back Prime Minister Johnson, the loss of just one or two seats could see their razor thin control of the House of Commons crumble and the party return once more to their pre-2017 impotence.