Never before have Northern Irish MPs had such influence in Westminster. Since 2017, the 10 DUP MPs have, somewhat precariously, held the balance of power. Come December 13th, the role of Northern Irish MPs could, once again, become a vital part of the parliamentary arithmetic. So, what are the close seats to look out for in the weeks of campaigning which lie ahead.
Arguably the most interesting contest. In 2017 the DUP took the seat away from the SDLP. In this year’s poll, it’s likely to be a three-way challenge, revolving round the incumbent Emma Little-Pengelly, Claire Hanna of the SDLP and Paula Bradshaw of the Alliance Party. In the EU referendum, Belfast South returned a Remain vote of 69.5%. With this in mind, the pro-European parties, SDLP and Alliance, are hoping for success. However, there is a risk of a split amongst remain supporting voters, giving the prize to the DUP. The result will also depend on whether students, towards the end of term, will stay around and vote in Belfast South, or vote back home.
In 2017, for the first time in the history of the Foyle constituency, the seat changed hands from the SDLP to Sinn Féin, only by a whisker of 169 votes. This year, the well-known SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, will be on the ballot paper against the incumbent Elisha McCallion. Could Sinn Féin’s abstentionist policy be a turn off for voters who may wish to see their MP in the House of Commons? Furthermore, for the first time, Aontú will be standing in Foyle with People Before Profit hoping that they can also improve upon their 1377 votes in 2017. These smaller parties could play a vital role in such a tight seat, possibly taking crucial votes away from Sinn Féin.
In 2017, the SDLP had held this seat for 30 years. This all changed with the election of Chris Hazzard for Sinn Féin. He overtook the SDLP’s Margaret Ritchie with an 11.4% increase in his vote share. Like Foyle, the SDLP are likely to campaign under the message that they, unlike a potential abstentionist Sinn Féin MP, will voice the opinions of constituents inside the chamber, and not outside it.
Fermanagh and South Tyrone
Over the years, this seat has flipped between Sinn Féin and the UUP. It has also been the site of a strong unionist pact. This year is no different in that the DUP will not stand a candidate in the hope of electing Tom Elliott of the UUP. In the past, just four votes have been the difference between winning and losing. This seat really is up for grabs for either Sinn Féin or the UUP and is likely, to yet again, be a close one.
From 2010 to 2015, this was the seat of Alliance Party leader, Naomi Long, now an MEP. However, in 2015, Gavin Robinson regained the seat for the DUP and has been there ever since. The European and council elections earlier this year proved a boost to the fortunes of the Alliance Party. Nevertheless, with Gavin Robinson growing his majority to over 8000 votes, the Alliance Party will need a strong performance to succeed here.
At first glance, this may seem impossible. The Alliance Party winning South Antrim in 2019? In the last general election, they came fourth in behind the DUP, UUP and Sinn Féin, needing over 13,000 more votes for a win. However, back in September, a Lucid Talk suggested that the Alliance Party could see a surge in its vote and take the seat. Like Belfast East, the Alliance Party have a long way to go, but it is possible.
Maybe more likely is a win for the UUP who held the seat from 2015 to 2017. However, in the recent European elections, they performed poorly losing over 30,000 votes from its 2014 election. If this poor showing is anything to go by, it will be difficult for the UUP to win back this seat.
In the most recent Parliament, Lady Sylvia Hermon has been significant in being the only sitting Northern Irish MP, not tied in with the DUP. Despite her prominent position, the independent unionist is not safe, if she decides to stand again. In 2017, the DUP increased their vote share by 14.5% from 2015, reducing Hermon’s majority to just 1208. A strong showing in North Down could allow the DUP to overtake here and take the seat.
Currently DUP. Now that Steve Aiken has said the UUP will no longer stand a candidate here, the advantage is with the incumbent, Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s Westminster leader. It is not, however, impossible for Sinn Féin. In 2017, they lost by just over 2000 votes. The current mayor of Belfast, John Finucane, will be contesting this seat again, hoping to oust Dodds.
With a hung parliament still very much a possibility, what happens in these seats could prove crucial in Westminster. The DUP may well be in a confidence and supply agreement again. Any remain supporting MP could provide momentum for a second referendum. And the number of abstentionist Sinn Féin MPs always come into play when working out the number of 'Ayes' or 'Nays' required for a win during those all-important votes in the House of Commons. Merry Christmas and Good Luck...
Peter is a 22 year-student doing a Masters in Journalism at Ulster University. Hailing from Yorkshire originally, Peter has an interest in both British and Northern Irish politics. Peter graduated from Queen's University in 2019 from his degree in English.