Can the DUP and Sinn Féin keep the momentum going?


ANALYSIS:Peter Robinson is likely to return as First Minister and Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister

THE CHALLENGE for the UUP and SDLP is to prevent Northern Ireland effectively becoming a two-party state, and to prevent Alliance joining them as minor league players in tomorrow’s election.

In the 2007 Assembly election, the DUP and Sinn Féin forged ahead of their respective main unionist and nationalist opponents, the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP. In the intervening years the DUP and Sinn Féin have reinforced that dominance.

The question is, will they surge further ahead after polling tomorrow? An additional factor is that the Alliance Party is convinced that this will be its year of dynamic growth. It points to how Naomi Long unseated DUP leader Peter Robinson in last year’s Westminster election to demonstrate that this is a real transforming time of opportunity for the party.

Irish Times journalists profiled each of the North’s 18 constituencies. Their overall predictions were: DUP 34; UUP 18; Sinn Féin 27; SDLP 16; Alliance 10; Traditional Unionist Voice (Jim Allister) 1; Independents 2 (Dawn Purvis in East Belfast; Alan McFarland in North Down).

This compares with the 2007 Assembly election outcome of: DUP 36; UUP 18; SF 28; SDLP 16; Alliance 7; Progressive Unionist Party 1; Greens 1; Independent 1.

Based on these predictions there won’t be any real issue of whether Sinn Féin could win most seats and thus be in position to take the First Minister post. But it is also a virtual given that Assembly and Westminster elections throw up surprises.

What makes forecasting difficult is the capriciousness of the proportional representation single transferable voting system, particularly in large six-seater constituencies.

Moreover, there is the real imponderable about whether people will be motivated to vote this time, and apathy tends to afflict more unionists than nationalists.

Still, it seems reasonable to suggest that the verdicts of the Irish Timeswriters will be reasonably close to the mark, and on that basis Robinson should be reinstated as First Minister and McGuinness as Deputy First Minister.

Constituencies to watch out for on count days over Friday and Saturday include North Antrim where Jim Allister of the Traditional Unionist Voice hopes to win a seat and Declan O’Loan of the SDLP is battling to save his; Strangford, West Tyrone and East Antrim where the SDLP sees opportunity for gains, and where Sinn Féin also believes it can win an extra seat or two; the hugely unpredictable North Down and East Belfast where anything could happen; Mid-Ulster where Sinn Féin is seeking a fourth seat; Foyle where Eamonn McCann has a chance of a first-time seat; and Lagan Valley where the DUP is hoping to gain a seat.

I think it will turn out like this: DUP 34; UUP 17; Sinn Féin 28; SDLP 17; Alliance 8; Traditional Unionist Voice 1; Greens 1; Independents 2.

This eve of Assembly poll predictions report was written before last night’s “midnight” leaders’ debate on BBC Northern Ireland.

“Midnight” debate is Robinson’s scathing description, and is reasonably fair: while the programme began at 10.40pm, it went beyond the bewitching hour.

Robinson was annoyed the programme was broadcast so late and generally has blamed the media for the lack of public interest in these elections which, as well as the Assembly poll, include local council elections and the proposed alternative vote (AV) Westminster referendum.