News recently that deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness will contest the May 2016 Assembly election in the Foyle constituency has prompted a number of interesting responses. The SDLP who hold three seats in John Hume and current leader Colum Eastwood’s patch seem nonchalant, SF activists are brimming with glee and others are describing the move as a sign of SF seeking to consolidate a base in Foyle that has frequently failed to topple the SDLP’s big hitters.
Let’s take a look at the constituency.
At the 2011 Assembly election, Sinn Fein came within less than 500 votes of the SDLP which they claimed as a major victory despite holding their two seats to their rivals’ three, up 3.2% to a reduction of 1.7% for the SDLP.
Interestingly, the SDLP’s Mark Durkan reclaimed votes for the SDLP by the same percentage in the 2015 Westminster. SF’s candidate, Gearoid O’heara dropped the party’s vote by 0.4%.
Turnout in Foyle in 2011 was 57.8%, with a quota of 5,500.
Here it would be unfair to omit the DUP and leftist candidate Eamonn McCann. The DUP’s Gary Middleton is certain to take a seat in Foyle for Unionism. McCann’s share of the vote jumped from 5% in 2007 to 8% in 2011 (though it should be noted Mr McCann changed parties between these.)
Now to 2016. So far, the following candidates have declared:
- Julia Kee, UUP
- Gary Middleton, DUP
- Eamonn McCann, PBPA
- Anne McCloskey, Independent
- Gerard Diver, SDLP
- Mark Durkan, SDLP
- Colum Eastwood, SDLP
- Maeve McLaughlin, SF
- Raymond McCartney, SF
- Martin McGuinness, SF
Let’s look at this election rumble in context. The effective leader of SF in NI versus the newly installed leader of the SDLP. Both of these factors will, we predict, bring core voters out from both parties who may not have voted in the last two elections.
Transfers will be key in this constituency. SF are well known for robust transfer discipline, this has been a staple of each of their modern election strategies. The SDLP also has a good vote transfer strategy, with small numbers of transfers to other candidates.
McCann attracted transfers from even the DUP in 2011, with the majority of these coming from the other Independent candidates, 332 to be exact. The UUP did not field a candidate.
There has been considerable disquiet in areas of the constituency regarding the chances of local GP, Anne McCloskey who is a first time candidate. However, it is very difficult indeed to see where she will attract transfers from that would normally go to McCann. It is worth stating, of course, that as an unknown entity, she may attract some support depending on her overall voter profile, which we do not yet know – one thing we do know is that, as with Westminster elections, voters do not always stick with candidates or parties across local, Assembly and Europe.
Foyle will be a battle royale. The SDLP will want a bump for their new leader and to hold their three seats. SF will want to finally wrestle away a huge Nationalist constituency from the SDLP that has always eluded them. Two precision campaigns will be run, so high are the stakes.
For those who think SF have moved McGuinness to Foyle as a rearguard action, step aside – no party would risk their leader losing a seat, especially in the year that’s in it.
Five years is a long time. If the gap (499 votes) between SF and the SDLP has closed, and SF push as I think they will, then SF will secure three quotas.
The SDLP has a huge problem here. Given the backyards of Durkan and Eastwood, Diver, a Waterside-based candidate, will be left with most of the Moor ward, his predecessors loyal base. Unfortunately, no Waterside-based Nationalist candidate has been elected to the Assembly – Fleming in 2011 and 2007 as well as 1998.
Even if Diver holds all of Ramsey’s votes and adds to it, it’ll be an uphill struggle, a new MLA running alongside a leader and an Executive Minister.
Here we go, we predict, based on trends and local context, that the following will be elected:
Mark Durkan, SDLP
Colum Eastwood, SDLP
Martin McGuinness, SF
Maeve McLaughlin, SF
Raymond McCartney, SF
Gary Middleton, DUP
McCann and McCloskey will fight it out but it is likely that they will split a relatively limited voter base. McCann will get to the third count but with limited transfers, he will not make it this time. McCloskey as a first timer will, if luck is on her side, get to the second count but transfers will be hard to find beyond that. Kee for the UUP’s fortunes depend on the relationship between the two parties, without DUP transfers she will hollow out at around 1,800, and with she may make it to the second or third count, but no seat.
What do you think?