If the foreign minister is to be believed, it’s starting to look like an election. Chris Heaton-Harris has been singing the same song for a month.
he prospect of going to the polls while people are putting up their Christmas trees fills our parties and politicians with dread. Not one I’ve spoken to welcomes the prospect of knocking on doors and asking for votes on a cold December evening.
But if the DUP doesn’t agree to form a new board within 12 days, Heaton-Harris says that’s exactly what will happen.
The party least afraid of a Christmas election is the one with the most clout. Sinn Fein’s financial and human resources far exceed those of its competitors, but it’s not all about money and members.
The narrative of an election couldn’t be better suited to Michelle O’Neill’s party. In the referendum five months ago, it was well ahead of the DUP – 29% to 21%.
O’Neill has a clear mandate to fill Stormont’s prime position. The denial of democracy, the blockade of the very first nationalist First Minister gives Sinn Féin an incredibly strong hand. That would be a crocodile election on stilts for the party. It would secure a mammoth vote and the SDLP would be wiped out. Even ultra-moderate nationalists would switch to Sinn Fein to give the DUP the bloodiest bloody nose of all.
Support for Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s party is likely to rise in December’s general election. LucidTalk’s opinion poll in August showed a three-point rise to 24% with its tough stance on the protocol, which is popular with the union base. Although the cost of living crisis and the chaos in the Truss government since then are negative factors for the DUP to factor in.
With 25 seats in the assembly versus Sinn Féin’s 27, some still believe a few thousand votes returning to the party in key constituencies could mean it is inches ahead and returning to Stormont as the front runner. Michelle O’Neill doesn’t enjoy a single day as First Minister.
The DUP lost three seats: North Antrim, North Down and Strangford.
It has a good chance of winning back the first one. Patricia O’Lynn overtook Mervyn Storey in the final count with 288 votes. It was the party’s most prominent defeat and he would have to be the favorite to reverse the result. North Down is a whole different perspective. Alex Easton, who left the DUP last year to run as an independent candidate, led the poll with almost 10,000 votes – more than Sir Jeffrey’s two candidates combined. Even with some sort of resurgence from his former party, it’s hard to see it taking the seat from him.
It’s also a tough ask – though not entirely out of the question – for the DUP to recapture the seat that Peter Weir lost to Alliance’s Nick Mathison in Strangford.
This constituency would be intriguing with TÜV’s Stephen Cooper – who finished a very strong sixth place last time out – with a shout of success and UUP’s Mike Nesbitt potentially in jeopardy.
But whatever gains the DUP might make could easily be wiped out by fresh Sinn Féin victories.
The party could well take a third seat in the South Down at the expense of Colin McGrath of the SDLP.
A second seat in East Derry would also be likely as SDLP’s Cara Hunter loses to Kathleen McGurk.
In Upper Bann, Sinn Fein’s Liam Mackle would be hoping to oust Alliance’s Eoin Tennyson.
Hot on the heels of the census results and being beaten to second place twice in six months by Michelle O’Neill’s party would not be a good sight for the DUP or the labor movement. It would be a very challenging choice for the UUP. No winnings are on the cards. Ryan McCready became very close to Gary Middleton at Foyle in May but with disillusioned DUP voters likely to return to the party Middleton should be safe this time.
The SDLP lost four seats in May and is in danger of losing two more – South Down and East Derry. Returning to Stormont with just six seats would be humiliating for the party and would make their fight in the 2024 Westminster election even more challenging.
The Alliance’s trajectory was all up at Stormont, where the party has never lost a seat.
But it knows it would be under serious pressure to stick with North Antrim and Upper Bann and would likely focus additional resources on those constituencies.
The Secretary of State is required by law to call an election if an executive is not formed by October 28. However, in Northern Ireland time limits have traditionally proved to be elastic and primary legislation can be passed at Westminster to avoid an election.
The electoral office has checked the availability of staff and premises. Some schools that are traditionally polling stations could hold nativity plays or Christmas services on election day.
Regardless of what Heaton-Harris says, I still believe we won’t be going to the polls in December.
But if we do, it will be Sinn Fein to rock the Christmas tree when the results roll in.
https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/opinion/columnists/suzanne-breen/dup-could-make-gains-but-a-ni-assembly-election-before-christmas-will-be-a-gift-for-sinn-fein-42069609.html Suzanne Breen: DUP could make gains but a NI Assembly election before Christmas will be a gift for Sinn Fein