6 November 2003 Edition
Assembly Election 2003 Constituency overview - Part I of III
BY ROBBIE SMYTH
With over a million voters across 18 constituencies, electing 108 Assembly members and at least eight political parties seeking support, the 26 November Assembly election is going to be the most hotly-contested ballot ever in Six-County electoral history.
A combination of intense discord within the unionist political spectrum and Sinn Féin's vote share pushing past that of the SDLP in the 2001 Westminster election means that this poll will provide the first opportunity in two-and-half years to gauge the political strengths of parties across nationalist and unionist electorates.
What is clear is that with Sinn Féin contesting each constituency, this Assembly election offers the party new challenges to continue on a decade of growth at the polls.
The 1993 local elections saw Sinn Féin bounce back from the loss of a Westminster seat in 1992 and spurred a growth in vote share and electoral representation in the 1994 and 1999 EU elections, the 1996 Forum elections, Westminster elections in 1997 and 2001 with district council elections in 1997 and 2001.
In 1998, Sinn Féin had one TD, two MPs and elected 18 members to the Assembly. The intervening years have seen the party elect two new MPs, giving the party four, while last year in the Leinster House elections one TD became five. Across the island, Sinn Féin is winning new support and new voters.
In this first of a three-week series, An Phoblacht tracks not just the Sinn Féin vote share across the 18 constituencies but considers too the state of play between the other political parties.
Key to this constituency will be the vote share between the four unionist parties and Alliance. In the 1998 Assembly election, which used a single transferable vote form of proportional representation rather than the first past the post of Westminster voting, the UUP took 29.62% of the vote, leaving 22.15% for the DUP, 8.05% for the UK Unionists (UKU), 4% for the PUP and just over 20% for the Alliance Party.
In the 2001 Westminster ballot, the UUP vote share rose to 36.39%, giving Roy Beggs the seat with slightly less votes than the nearly 39% he recorded in 1997. In 2001, the DUP's Sammy Wilson ran Beggs close also winning a 36% share just 128 votes behind Beggs. The UKU and PUP didn't field a candidate, while the Alliance vote fell to 12.45%.
In 1998, the UUP took two of six seats with one each for the Alliance, DUP, UKU and SDLP
Sinn Féin polled just over 2% of the poll in 1998, up from 1997. In 2001, Jeanette Graffin took 2.51% of the poll. This time around the candidate is Sinn Féin Councillor Oliver McMullan.
Again another battle within the unionist vote where in 1998 Peter Robinson, deputy leader of the DUP, took nearly 31% of the vote and two out of six seats, with Sammy Wilson having to wait until the 12th count to get elected. It must have been difficult for the DUP to reconcile themselves to the UUP also winning two seats here, with only 24.3% of the vote.
In 2001, running without the better known Reg Empey, the UUP still took 23.22% of the vote, just over 2% on their 1997 vote share.
The PUP's David Ervine was elected on the seventh count here in 1998, with 13.6% of the vote. The PUP didn't run in the 1997 and in the 2001 Westminster poll, a difficult type of election for a small party like the PUP, Ervine only polled 9.96%. The party needs a repeat of the 1998 vote to hold this seat.
The Alliance won 23.8% of the vote in 1997, falling to 18% in 1998 and 15.84% in 2001. This time around the focus will be on whether the party can stem this vote erosion. The UKU didn't run here in 1997. In 1998 they polled 3.44% of the vote and in 2001 didn't contest the Westminster poll, so it's unclear where UKU support stands in the constituency this time around.
The Sinn Féin vote in this constituency is growing, with the party electing a councillor here in 2001. Joe O'Donnell is contesting his third election for the party in East Belfast. Party vote share has grown from 2% in 1997 to 3.36%, with the Sinn Féin vote pushing decisively ahead of the SDLP in 2001
The Sinn Féin vote in this constituency has already shown a more than 50% growth between 1998 and 2001. Malachy O'Kane and John Mclhenny won just under 10% of the vote here in 1998. In 2001, the vote share grew to 15.6%, with Francie Brolly recording an impressive 6,221 votes for Sinn Féin. The Limavady councillor is again standing, this time with Cliona O'Kane.
Brolly's wife and fellow councillor Anne made history earlier this year when she was elected the first SF Mayor of Limavady.
The SDLP polled 23.72% in 1998, falling to 20.81% of the vote in 2001. This time around, further growth in the Sinn Féin vote will intensify the contest for seats in this constituency.
The unionist contest in this constituency will also merit attention. In 1997, William Ross held this seat for the UUP with 35.58% of the vote. Gregory Campbell took 25.63% for the DUP.
In 1998, the UUP and DUP vote share slipped to 25.21% and 23.57%, respectively. The UUP took two seats in 1998, as did the SDLP. However despite their large first preference share the DUP's George Robinson lost the last seat to independent unionist Boyd Douglas on the last count.
However in the 2001 Westminster election, the DUP vote surged to 32.14% and Gregory Campbell took the seat for the party. The UUP in the constituency also had to suffer the loss of support from Assembly member Pauline Armitage, who resigned the party whip. The unionist seat breakdown this time will offer insight into where overall voter support across the Six Counties is going.
Sinn Féin was the largest vote winner in this constituency in 1998 and 2001. In 1997, the UUP's Ken Maginnis was given the field by the other unionist parties and won the Westminster seat.
In 1998, Sinn Féin won 26.87% of the vote, with Gerry McHugh and Michelle Gildernew both elected as MLAs. In 2001, Gildernew took the Westminster seat as polling stations were kept open with a stream of nationalist voters. Sinn Féin won 34.13% of the vote here in 2001.
The SDLP vote in 2001 had fallen for the third consecutive election to 18.67%, down from 21.56% in 1998 and 22.9% in 1997.
The DUP and UUP shared three Assembly seats in 1998. In that election, the UUP won two seats with 24.63% of the vote. The DUP had 13.87% of the vote. The DUP didn't contest the Westminster seat in 2001.
However, the UUP's James Cooper only polled 34% of the vote in 2001 as independent Ulster Unionist Jim Dixon split from party ranks and stood against him. Dixon polled 13.17% of the vote. Where the UUP-DUP stand off is this around will be worth noting.
Sinn Féin's MLAs Michelle Gildernew and Gerry McHugh are standing again for election this time around, with councillor Thomas O'Reilly the third member of the Sinn Féin team.