NI election: Westminster vote a big test for unionism

Is Arlene Foster right that unionism has awoken from its electoral slumber?

As the Westminster election slips into a faster gear in Northern Ireland, there will be much discussion of Brexit, reinstating Stormont, the colour of Michelle O'Neill's hair and other matters – but the pervasive issue will be the orange versus the green.

That’s because of the boost to Sinn Féin and the shock to unionism that followed the Assembly election in March.

Before that contest, the DUP was 10 seats – and about 36,000 votes – ahead of Sinn Féin. After the election the DUP was one seat and 1,168 votes in front.

The colour "blond" is also featuring after Arlene Foster – in an interview in the Sunday Independent – so described Sinn Féin's Northern leader, O'Neill.

Sinn Féin, noting the sometimes pejorative connotation of “blond”, complained that this remark was “sexist and disparaging”, while the DUP countered that this was “just another example of faux outrage” from Sinn Féin, and that “no insult was intended”.

The hair colour row got much print and airtime locally, but in essence it was all part of the interminable orange and green squabble.

Some may decry this as another dispiriting example of sectarian Northern politics, but the reality is that for many this election is part of a continuing existential confrontation between unionism and nationalism.

Arlene Foster has predicted a "marvellous result" for unionism after polling day

DUP leaders, such as Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds, described the March result as a "wake-up call for unionism". Foster says she now believes that unionism has indeed woken up to the Sinn Féin threat. And she predicted a "marvellous result" for unionism after polling day.

Sinn Féin, of course, has other ideas. In the last Westminster election, two years ago, it dropped a seat to the Ulster Unionist Party in Fermanagh-South Tyrone. This time it believes it can not only regain that seat, but has a good chance of ousting Nigel Dodds in North Belfast with its new candidate, John Finucane. It is also aiming to take a couple of SDLP scalps.

Gerry Adams and Michelle O’Neill will also be conscious that if the party can overtake or maintain the narrow difference between it and the DUP in terms of the overall vote, then issues that panic unionism will remain to the fore – such as a united Ireland, continuing demographic changes and republican demands for a Border poll.

More time for talks

Another big question is: what will happen after the votes are counted?

Northern Secretary James Brokenshire has provided additional time for talks after the election, giving the parties until June 29th to reach agreement to get the Northern Executive and Assembly back up and running. Right now, there isn't any great confidence a deal can be done by that deadline.

Ultimately, it is for Gerry Adams to decide whether to go back into government with the DUP. That may hinge on what the DUP and the British government are prepared to concede on issues such as the Irish language and dealing with the past.

It will also depend on whether Adams will insist on his pound of flesh: that Arlene Foster must stand aside as First Minister pending the outcome of the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme – an inquiry that could take up to a year to complete.

In the meantime, there is an election to be fought.

In the 2015 election the DUP won eight of the 18 single-seater constituencies, losing one in South Antrim; Sinn Féin won four, losing Fermanagh-South Tyrone; the Ulster Unionist Party won two – Fermanagh-South Tyrone and South Antrim – a gain of two; the SDLP held its three seats; and independent unionist Sylvia Hermon romped home in North Down.

That is 11 unionist and seven nationalist seats. The arithmetic is likely to change after polling day, and there is a possibility it could end up nine-nine between the orange and the green. There could even be bigger surprises, favouring nationalism or unionism.

Of the 18 constituencies, 10 appear predictable.

Sinn Féin should win its outgoing seats of West Belfast, West Tyrone, Mid Ulster, and Newry and Armagh.

The DUP should hold East Derry, North Antrim, East Antrim, Lagan Valley and Strangford.

Hermon will win North Down.

After that it gets interesting.

Former UUP leader Tom Elliott has a mother of a challenge to hold Fermanagh-South Tyrone against Sinn Féin's Michelle Gildernew, who was MP here from 2001 to 2015. Elliott has a free unionist run here and, while the SDLP is competing, Sinn Féin was the dominant party in the March Assembly poll.

In North Belfast, other unionists have also stood aside to give Nigel Dodds the best opportunity against the new Sinn Féin candidate, John Finucane, son of murdered Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane. The SDLP is running its press officer, Martin McAuley, who hasn't much of a profile in the constituency. Some have accused the SDLP leadership of standing a "paper candidate" to facilitate Finucane, although McAuley vehemently rejects this charge. In March the overall unionist versus nationalist vote was neck and neck.

SDLP leaders under fire

Sinn Féin is also eyeing the seats of two former SDLP leaders – Mark Durkan in Foyle and Margaret Ritchie in South Down. In March, Sinn Féin was more than 2,000 votes ahead of the SDLP in Foyle and 6,650 votes ahead of the SDLP in South Down. The pedigrees of Durkan and Ritchie, together with some unionist tactical voting, should assist the SDLP, but Sinn Féin will feel it has a chance, particularly in South Down.

South Belfast is one of the trickiest constituencies to forecast

In East Belfast in 2015 the DUP's Gavin Robinson won the seat that Alliance leader Naomi Long had taken from former First Minister Peter Robinson in 2010. Gavin Robinson and Ms Long are going head to head again this time – the difference being there is no unionist pact, as there was two years ago. Robinson would still appear to have the edge, but it could be a tight finish.

South Belfast is one of the trickiest constituencies to forecast. It's a four-way struggle between outgoing SDLP MP Dr Alasdair McDonnell – who was elected in 2015 with just 24.5 per cent of the vote – Emma Little Pengelly of the DUP, Mairtin Ó Muilleoir of Sinn Féin and Alliance's Paula Bradshaw. In March the DUP polled highest, about 650 votes ahead of the SDLP, while Alliance and Sinn Féin weren't too far behind. This is a big target for the DUP, with former First Minister and party leader Peter Robinson coming out of political retirement to assist in Ms Little Pengelly's campaign.

South Antrim is a constituency where the seat has regularly swung between the DUP and UUP. Two years ago, Danny Kinahan defeated the DUP's Rev William McCrea, and this time he is up against DUP MLA Paul Girvan. In March the DUP was almost 5,500 votes in front of the UUP, so this too will be heavily contested.

David Simpson has been the DUP's MP in Upper Bann since 2005, when he defeated former UUP First Minister David Trimble. He is favourite to hold the seat, but is facing opposition from the UUP and Sinn Féin, and there is an outside possibility that Sinn Féin's John O'Dowd could cause a surprise.

How it all unfolds ultimately is down to whether Foster is correct in saying that unionism has awoken from its political torpor, or whether nationalism is still on the march.