Northern Ireland: what you need to know about the election

The when, where, who, why and what of the upcoming general election

Northern Ireland voters will cast their ballots on Thursday for the seventh time in three years (one council, one EU referendum, one European, two Assembly and two general elections).

This week’s general election is, of course, the most important in the history of Northern Ireland. That’s because each election is always the most important – the politicians tell us so.

The basics

The general election will be held this Thursday (June 8th), with polling stations across Northern Ireland open from 7am to 10pm. There are 1,242,698 adults eligible to vote in the 18 constituencies – with the electorate ranging from a low of 62,423 in Belfast West (why is it not called West Belfast?) to a high of 80,168 in Upper Bann.

Voting system

The simple, familiar (to Northern Ireland voters) first-past-the-post format is used to elect MPs in Northern Ireland and Britain. Voters just put a great big “X” beside the candidate they dislike the least. The candidate with the most votes wins. It’s not rocket science, or PR-STV (Proportional Representation by Single Transferable Vote) as rocket science is known as in the Republic. PR-STV is, of course, also used in Northern Ireland for other elections, such as the recent rerun of the Assembly election.


Dr Alasdair McDonnell, in retaining his Belfast South seat two years ago, set a Westminster parliamentary record, by winning with just 24.5 per cent of the vote. The SDLP man broke a record previously held by Liberal Democrat Russell Johnston who won Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber in 1992 with 26 per cent of the vote. Only eight politicians have won a House of Commons seat with less than 30 per cent of the vote.

Counting of votes

The 619 polling stations will close at 10pm on Thursday night, with 1,380 ballot boxes then divided between the seven count centres.

 - Seven Towers Leisure Centre in Ballymena (North Antrim and Mid Ulster).

 - Eikon Exhibition Centre in Lisburn (Lagan Valley, Newry & Armagh, South Down and Upper Bann).

 - Foyle Arena in Derry (Foyle and East Derry).

 - Valley Leisure Centre in Newtownabbey (East Antrim and South Antrim).

 - Titanic Exhibition Centre in Belfast (the four Belfast constituencies).

 - Aurora Leisure Complex in Bangor (North Down and Strangford).

 - Omagh Leisure Complex in Omagh (West Tyrone and Fermanagh & South Tyrone)

Counting will begin in these centres “as soon as practicable after 10pm”, which means after tea and cookies.

And when will the results be known?

Your guess is as good as ours. It will, most likely, be after 1am on Friday morning before the first MP is elected in Northern Ireland – most likely from Antrim North, Foyle or Lagan Valley.

By 3am, at least a half-dozen or so constituencies should be declared and, by 5am, nearly all 18 winners will be known.

Which constituency will be last to be declared?

Our money is on Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Though Upper Bann has made us wait impatiently on more than one previous occasion.

Either way, there’s always one . . .

The Irish Times coverage . . .

We will, as ever, bring you the latest news – from each constituency, as well as the overall picture (from Northern Ireland and the UK), reaction from politicians, and analysis from Irish Times reporters on the ground. A live blog on Thursday and Friday (through the night) will bring the latest news and results from each of the count centres. And, as candidates turn into MPs, our results hub will display the winners.

What to expect in Northern Ireland?

Well, as ever, the pervasive issue is Orange versus Green.

Before March’s Assembly election the DUP were 10 seats – and 36,000 votes – ahead of Sinn Féin. Afterwards, the DUP was one seat and 1,168 votes in front of their main nationalist rival.

Three seats changed hands after the last general election, in 2015. In Belfast East, the DUP retook the seat lost to the Alliance Party in 2010; in South Antrim, the UUP surprised the DUP by taking the seat; and in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the UUP took a seat from Sinn Féin.

So, the overall 2015 result was:
DUP 8 seats (no change).
Sinn Féin 4 seats (down 1).
SDLP 3 seats (no change).
UUP 2 seats (up two).
Independent 1 seat (no change).
Alliance 0 (down 1).

This time around, Sinn Féin are targeting several seats, from the DUP, UUP and SDLP.

Electoral pacts

Pacts in Northern Ireland are fiercely controversial – and usually serve to highlight the nationalist-unionist divide. The UUP are not running a candidate in several constituencies – most importantly North Belfast, where Nigel Dodds (DUP) is in a battle with Sinn Féin's John Finucane. In return, the DUP are not contesting the constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where Tom Elliott (UUP) is also in a tight contest with a Sinn Féin candidate – Michelle Gildernew. In the early days of the campaign, Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Green Party floated the idea of an "anti-Brexit pact", but no deal was reached.

Belfast East

DUP – Gavin Robinson
Alliance – Naomi Long
NI Cons – Sheila Bodel
Greens – Georgina Milne
Sinn Féin – Mairéad O'Donnell
SDLP – Séamus de Faoite
UUP – Hazel Legge
Independent – Bobby Beck

Recent Westminster elections
2010 – Naomi Long
(Alliance) defeated DUP's Peter Robinson (12,839 votes to 11,306).
2015 – Gavin Robinson (DUP) beat Ms Long (19,575 votes to 16,978).
2017? Too close to call between Mr Robinson and Ms Long.

Belfast North

DUP – Nigel Dodds
Sinn Féin – John Finucane
Alliance – Sam Nelson
Greens – Malachai George O'Hara
Workers' Party – Gemma Weir

Recent Westminster elections
2010 – Nigel Dodds
(DUP) defeated Sinn Féin's Gerry Kelly (14,812 votes to 12,588).
2015 – Mr Dodds again beat Mr Kelly (14,812 to 12,588).
2017? Despite the new Sinn Féin challenger, John Finucane, it will be a big surprise if Mr Dodds is unseated.

Belfast South

SDLP – Dr Alasdair McDonnell
DUP – Emma Little Pengelly
Alliance – Paul Bradshaw
Sinn Féin – Máirtín Ó Muilleoir
UUP – Michael Henderson
Greens – Clare Bailey
Cons – Clare Salier

Recent Westminster elections
2010 – Alasdair McDonnell
(SDLP) defeated DUP's Jimmy Spratt (14,026 votes to 8,100)
2015 – Mr McDonnell beat DUP's Jonathan Bell (9,560 to 8,654).
2017? Mr McDonnell has a huge battle to keep Ms Little Pengelly (and Ms Bradshaw and Mr Ó Muilleoir) behind him.

Belfast West

SDLP – Tim Attwood
WP – Conor Campbell
PBP – Gerry Carroll
Alliance – Sorcha Eastwood
Sinn Féin – Paul Maskey
DUP – Frank McCoubrey

Recent Westminster elections
2010 – Gerry Adams
(Sinn Féin) defeated SDLP's Alex Attwood (22,840 votes to 5,261).
2011 (By-election) – Paul Maskey (Sinn Féin) beat Mr Attwood (16,211 to 3,088).
2015 – Mr Maskey (Sinn Féin) beat PBP's Gerry Carroll (19,163 to 6,798).
2017? Mr Maskey to be re-elected easily.

East Antrim

Alliance – Stewart Clyde Dickson
Cons – Mark Logan
SDLP – Margaret Anne McKillop
Sinn Féin – Oliver McMullan
UUP – John Stewart
DUP – Sammy Wilson

Recent Westminster elections
2010 – Sammy Wilson
(DUP) defeated UCU's Rodney McCune (13,993 votes to 7,223).
2015 – Mr Wilson beat UUP's Roy Beggs Jnr (12,103 to 6,308).
2017? Anything other than another win for Mr Wilson would be a major shock.

East Derry

DUP – Gregory Campbell
UUP – Richard John Holmes
Alliance – Chris McCaw
Sinn Féin – Dermot Nicholl
SDLP – Stephanie Quigley
Cons – Liz St Clair-Legge

Recent Westminster elections
2010 – Gregory Campbell
(DUP's) defeated Sinn Féin's Cathal Ó hOisín (12,097 votes to 6,742).
2015 – Mr Campbell beat Sinn Féin's Caoimhe Archibald (14,663 to 6,859).
2017? Mr Campbell will surely easily retain his seat.

Fermanagh & South Tyrone

UUP – Tom Elliott
Sinn Féin – Michelle Gildernew
SDLP – Mary Garrity
Alliance – Noreen Campbell
Greens – Tanya Jones

Recent Westminster elections
2010 – Michelle Gildernew
(Sinn Féin) defeated Independent unionist Rodney Connor (21,304 votes to 21,300).
2015 – Tom Elliott (UUP) beat Ms Gildernew (23,608 to 23,078).
2017? Another battle royale between Mr Elliott and Ms Gildernew.


Alliance – John Doherty
SDLP – Mark Durkan
PBP – Shaun Harkin
Sinn Féin – Elisha McCallion
DUP – Gary Middleton

Recent Westminster elections
2010 – Mark Durkan
(SDLP) defeated Sinn Féin's Martina Anderson (16,922 votes to 12,098).
2015 – Mr Durkan beat Sinn Féin's Gearóid Ó hEára (17,725 to 11,679).
2017? A big Sinn Féin target, though Mr Durkan is favourite to hold the seat for the SDLP.

Lagan Valley

UUP – Robbie Butler
SDLP – Pat Catney
DUP – Jeffrey Donaldson
Alliance – Aaron McIntyre
Cons – Ian Nickels
Independent – Johnny Orr
Sinn Féin – Jacqui Russell

Recent Westminster elections
2010 – Jeffrey Donaldson
(DUP) defeated UCU's Daphne Trimble (18,199 votes to 7,713).
2015 – Mr Donaldson beat UUP's Alexander Redpath (19,055 to 6,055).
2017? No contest. Mr Donaldson win.

Mid Ulster

DUP – Keith Alexander Buchanan
UUP – Mark Glasgow
Sinn Féin – Francie Molloy
SDLP – Malachy Quinn
Alliance – Fay Watson

Recent Westminster elections
2010 – Martin McGuinness
(Sinn Féin) defeated DUP's Ian McCrea (21,239 votes to 5,876).
2013 (byelection) – Francie Molloy (Sinn Féin) beat Independent Nigel Lutton (17,462 to 12,781).
2015 – Mr Molloy defeated UUP's Sandra Overend (19,935 to 6,318).
2017? Mr Molloy will surely romp home again.

Newry & Armagh

Sinn Féin – Mickey Brady
Alliance – Jackie Coade
DUP – William Irwin
SDLP – Justin McNulty
UUP – Sam Nicholson

Recent Westminster elections
2010 – Conor Murphy
(Sinn Féin) defeated SDLP's Dominic Bradley (18,857 votes to 10,526).
2015 – Mickey Brady (Sinn Féin) beat UUP's Danny Kennedy (20,488 to 16,312).
2017? Mr Brady will almost certainly hold his seat.

North Antrim

TUV – Timothy Gaston
Sinn Féin – Cara McShane
UUP – Jackson Minford
SDLP – Declan O'Loan
Alliance – Patricia O'Lynn
DUP – Ian Paisley

Recent Westminster elections
2010 – Ian Paisley Jr
(DUP) defeated TUV's Jim Allister (19,672 votes to 7,114).
2015 – Mr Paisley beat TUV's Timothy Gaston (18,107 to 6,561).
2017? A safe seat for the DUP and Mr Paisley.

North Down

Greens – Steven Agnew
DUP – Alex Easton
Independent – Sylvia Hermon
Sinn Féin – Thérèse McCartney
SDLP – Caoímhe McNeill
Alliance – Andrew Muir
Independent – Gavan Reynolds

Recent Westminster elections
2010 – Lady Sylvia Hermon
(Independent) defeated UCU's Ian Parsley (21,181 votes to 6,817).
2015 – Lady Hermon beat DUP's Alex Easton (17,689 to 8,487).
2017? Lady Hermon appears to be in no difficulty.

South Antrim

DUP – Paul Girvan
Sinn Féin – Declan Kearney
Alliance – Neil Kelly
UUP – Danny Kinahan
SDLP – Róisín Lynch

Recent Westminster elections
2010 – DUP William McCrea
(DUP) defeated UCU's Reg Empey (11,536 votes to 10,353).
2015 – Danny Kinahan (UUP) beat Mr McCrea (11,942 to 10,993).
2017? Battle royale between Mr Kinahan and DUP's Paul Girvan. Unlikely to be more than a few hundred votes between them when the counting is over.

South Down

DUP – Diane Forsythe
Sinn Féin – Chris Hazzard
UUP – Harold McKee
Alliance – Andrew McMurray
SDLP – Margaret Ritchie

Recent Westminster elections
2010 – Margaret Ritchie
(SDLP) defeated Sinn Féin's Caitríona Ruane (20,648 votes to 12,236).
2015 – Ms Ritchie beat Sinn Féin's Chris Hazzard (18,077 to 12,186).
2017? Super close shootout between Ms Ritchie and Mr Hazzard.


Alliance – Kellie Armstrong
Greens – Ricky Bamford
SDLP – Joe Boyle
Cons – Claire Hiscott
Sinn Féin – Carole Murphy
UUP – Mike Nesbitt
DUP – Jim Shannon

Recent Westminster elections
2010 – Jim Shannon
(DUP) defeated UCU's Mike Nesbitt (14,926 votes to 9,050).
2015 – Mr Shannon beat UUP's Robert Burgess (15,053 to 4,868).
2017? Mr Shannon will retain his seat easily.

Upper Bann

UUP – Doug Beattie
Alliance – Tara Doyle
SDLP – Declan McAlinden
Sinn Féin – John O'Dowd
DUP – David Simpson

Recent Westminster elections
2010 – David Simpson
(DUP) defeated UCU's Harry Hamilton (14,000 votes to 10,639).
2015 – Mr Simpson beat UUP's Jo-Anne Dobson 15,430 to 13,166).
2017? Mr Simpson expected to hold off UUP's Doug Beattie. Sinn Féin's John O'Dowd has very small chance if unionist vote split down the middle.

West Tyrone

CISTA – Barry Brown
DUP – Thomas Buchanan
UUP – Alicia Clarke
Alliance – Stephen Donnelly
Greens – Ciaran McClean
SDLP – Daniel McCrossan
Sinn Féin – Barry McElduff

Recent Westminster elections
2010 – Pat Doherty
(Sinn Féin) defeated DUP's Tom Buchanan (18,050 votes to 7,365).
2015 – Mr Doherty beat Mr Buchanan (16,807 to 6,747).
2017? Sinn Féin (Barry McElduff) will be far ahead of Mr Buchanan again.

And when another election is done and dusted?

While Brexit negotiations will be the first item on the agenda for whoever walks through the door of 10 Downing Street next week, Northern Ireland parties have other priorities. The new deadline for restoring devolved government at Stormont is June 29th.

The main parties – but particularly the DUP and Sinn Féin – along with the British and Irish governments, will have less than three weeks to meet that date.

It will not be easy.

Damian Cullen

Damian Cullen

Damian Cullen is Health & Family Editor of The Irish Times

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