The story of the Northern Ireland election, in terms of overall trend, was the remarkable decline of the overall Nationalist vote to just 38.7%. It has risen by 2010 to 42% but had fallen markedly at last year’s European Election and this trend was confirmed on Thursday. It cost one seat and made another clearly vulnerable.
It also confirmed the general regional trends within Northern Ireland, even though this confirmation comes with a health warning because pacts and withdrawals skew outcomes.
In the four Belfast constituencies, the general decline of both Nationalist parties as well as the slight overall SDLP-to-Sinn Fein swing is masked by the Sinn Fein withdrawal from Belfast South in 2010; the Ulster Unionist decline is more dramatic than it is in reality due to its withdrawal in both North and East in 2015, but the general decline is still marked. The Alliance Party has gained from this decline on both sides (reflected also in its rise to third place on the City Council).
In what I have termed the “Belfast Loop” – the five constituencies around the four inner Belfast ones (namely Lagan Valley, North Down, Strangford, East Antrim and South Antrim), there is a similar trend in all senses, but it is less marked (again, the Ulster Unionist withdrawal from North Down means the decline is more marked than it actually is, but it is still apparent and consistent).
Away from Belfast heading north, relative stability is the norm. In the five North Coast and North West constituencies (namely North Antrim, East Londonderry, Foyle, West Tyrone and Mid Ulster), the only significant change in the past decade has been a marginal loss of votes by Mainstream Unionist parties to smaller rivals such as TUV.
Time will tell whether this becomes more typical of outer Belfast constituencies (with perhaps the Alliance Party emerging to challenge at least at Assembly level too), or whether it becomes more in line with other rural constituencies to the south of Lough Neagh.
However, the four Border and rural constituencies (Fermanagh/South Tyrone, Newry/Armagh, Upper Bann and South Down) are markedly different. It shows a clear swing within Nationalist to Sinn Fein (as well as an overall loss of Nationalist votes), and an even clearer swing from the DUP to the Ulster Unionists. This was inflated in 2015 by the pact but was already apparent by 2010 (despite both parties’ withdrawal from one constituency). Since 2011, Upper Bann is the only one of these constituencies where the DUP has any claim to be ahead of the Ulster Unionists, and even there the overall trend is against it.
As I established on this blog some time ago, the Ulster Unionists are stronger and growing in areas of traditionally English settlement (their gain in South Antrim bucks the trend somewhat, but there were local and personal issues in play there). Were constituency boundaries to remain roughly similar, we may expect a further gain in Upper Bann from the DUP (even though Fermanagh/South Tyrone is bound to be lost in due course to demographics, despite ongoing lower Nationalist turnout). While growing, there is no hint of a serious Alliance challenge here.
However, in Belfast, the story is not quite so good for the smaller mainstream party on each “side”, with some last-gasp Council seats in 2014 perhaps marking merely a stay of execution for the Ulster Unionists and perhaps even in due course the SDLP, whose vote declined sharply in the three constituencies it does not hold. Here, the Alliance Party has come from almost nowhere a decade ago (one Assembly seat in all four constituencies, and even that on the last count, in 2003) to challenging for multiple seats in several constituencies next year.
In between, in the constituencies on the edge of Belfast and along the coast, the trends fall in between the above. In rural Antrim in particular, TUV and/or UKIP are perhaps the real story.
It will be interesting to continue to watch these trends develop.