There is a lot of talk around elections on either side of the Irish border about “transfers” – the votes which go to eliminated candidates or which are not needed by elected candidates which are then transferred to the next available preference.
“Transfers” are in fact a little like away goals; they do not really come into play if there are clear winners in terms of first preferences (as there were, for example, in North Down, West Tyrone and most notably Newry and Armagh, where the no doubt transfer-friendly Ulster Unionist Danny Kennedy was unseated simply because he was too far behind five other candidates on first preferences). “Look after the first preferences and the transfers will look after themselves”, is what I often tell candidates pre-election!
Nevertheless, the transfers did tell an interesting story, and there is no doubt that a significant direct Ulster Unionist to SDLP transfer (in line with Mike Nesbitt’s publicly stated view) was decisive in electing John Dallat in East Londonderry.
Studying transfers in the Greater Belfast constituencies (where all five main parties are traditionally major players and two other parties also hold seats), there is significant variation between constituencies. Very often voters are clear about their choice of party for first and perhaps second and third preference, but then consider individual candidates for later preferences.
Two early eliminations (but still late enough to involve several thousand votes) stand out. In East Antrim, the elimination of SDLP candidate Margaret McKillop saw 47% of her transfers go to Alliance, 32% to Sinn Féin, and 12% to the Ulster Unionists directly. Although those first two figures are typical for Greater Belfast constituencies over many years, that last 12% is notably high by historical standards and suggests that some SDLP voters did specifically vote for “Colum and Mike”. A similar story in reverse came in Belfast North, where the elimination of Ulster Unionist Robert Foster saw 45% of transfers go to the DUP, 24% to Alliance, and fully 17% directly to the SDLP (again, a markedly higher figure than the historical norm). Neither of these was outright decisive on this occasion, but both were helpful to the Ulster Unionists gaining a second seat in East Antrim and the SDLP successfully defending a vulnerable one in Belfast North, just as they were designed to be – loyalty to the Opposition trumped communal loyalty for at least an eighth of the electorate, and probably rather more.
Noteworthy also was the Sinn Féin surplus in Belfast South, 59% of which went to the SDLP but 15% directly to Alliance and 10% directly to the Green. There is no obvious comparison in any other constituency, but this is perhaps an element of loyalty to social liberalism trumping communal loyalty (as is perhaps to be expected in that particular constituency).
It is often said that Northern Ireland elections are essentially two separate polls – one Unionist and one Nationalist. Yet not only did around 120,000 people vote first preference for candidates who were neither of those, but even thousands of those who did then transferred to candidates from other designations, often in preference to other candidates of the same designation – to support the Opposition, or particular social policies, or perhaps for many other reasons.
This should at least be food for thought for those who seem set on taking us down a track which will lead to pure “50%+1” politics. It is not what hundreds of thousands of people want, and it is not what they voted for earlier this month.