13 November 2003 Edition
Assembly Election 2003 Constituency overview - Part II of III
BY ROBBIE SMYTH
In the second part of a three-week series, An Phoblacht tracks the Sinn Féin vote share across the 18 constituencies and the state of play between the other political parties.
The big question in this constituency is what the SDLP polling power will be without John Hume, who is not running in this election. An MEP since 1979 and MP in Foyle since 1983, Hume has been the SDLP's strongest electoral performer, though in recent elections Sinn Féin's vote has grown as the SDLP's has stood still.
In 1997, Hume took the Westminster seat for the fourth consecutive time, with 52.51% of the vote. In the 1998 Assembly election, the SDLP vote share fell to 47.84% but was enough to win three Assembly seats.
In the 2001 Westminster elections, Hume's vote slipped to 50% and the party will find it difficult to repeat their 1998 vote share under PR this time around.
Sinn Féin recorded just under 24% of the Foyle vote in 1997 and in 1998 this rose to 26% as the party elected two MLAs, Mitchel McLaughlin and Mary Nelis. The duo are standing again this time, with Raymond McCartney the third candidate in the running for a seat.
The unionist vote in Foyle won one assembly seat out of six for the DUP's William Hay in 1998. Hay was elected on the eighth and last count without reaching the quota. The DUP polled 12.53% of first preferences in 1998, rising to 15% in the 2001 Westminster elections and look safe to hold the seat this time around. The UUP vote in 1998 was 9.57%, falling to 6.87% in 2001.
This is possibly one of the key constituencies to watch in the election, not just for increased voting performance from Sinn Féin but for the intra-unionist battle.
The Lagan Valley Sinn Féin vote has recorded steady growth in this constituency. In 1997, Sue Ramsey took 1,110 votes, 2.5% of votes in this constituency. Paul Butler nearly doubled this for the party in 1998, winning 2,000 votes, 4.3% of first preferences.
In the 2001 Westminster elections, the Sinn Féin vote surged again, with nearly 6% of the vote and 2,725 votes. In the intervening years, the SDLP vote has stood still. The SDLP won 7.75% of the vote here in 1997, rising slightly to 8.68% of the vote in 1998, but falling back to 7.5% in 2001.
Patricia Lewsley won a seat here for the SDLP on the last count in 1998, a substantial number of Sinn Féin transfers making the difference, even though she didn't reach the quota.
So what of the unionist contest in this constituency? The core issue is what impact Jeffrey Donaldson will have on the UUP vote. Donaldson, as a sitting MP, was not allowed stand as an Assembly candidate in 1998, under election guidelines implemented by David Trimble. Donaldson's exclusion seemed all the more Machiavellian given that Ken Maginnis and John Taylor, also sitting MPs at the time, were allowed stand in the Assembly poll.
Donaldson is one of four UUP candidates this time around. In 1998, with challenges from Alliance, the DUP, UKU and UDP, the UUP still took 30.83% of first preferences. In the previous year's Westminster election, with only the DUP and Seamus Close of the Alliance taking on Donaldson, he won 55.43% of the votes, a performance he bettered slightly in 2001, when he won 56.52% of the vote.
In 1998, the UUP took two Assembly seats, with one for the DUP, UKU and Alliance. How the UUP and Donaldson perform this time around will be crucial for both him and the party.
This is another constituency where SDLP retirements pose significant challenges. Former Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon is standing down. Mallon won the Westminster seat here in 1986, when the mass resignation of unionist MPs triggered 15 by-elections across the Six Counties.
The gap between Sinn Féin and the SDLP in terms of vote share has been decreasing steadily in recent elections. In 1998, the SDLP won two Assembly seats with 35% of the vote. Sinn Féin also won two seats, with nearly 26% of the vote.
In the 2001 Westminster election, Mallon held the seat while Sinn Féin's Conor Murphy closed the gap significantly as the party breached the 30% vote mark. Murphy, a sitting MLA, is running again along with Armagh's first Sinn Féin mayor, Pat O'Rawe, and Newry councillor Davy Hyland, who has only recently finished his term as chair of the Newry and Mourne District council.
It was one seat apiece for the UUP and DUP in 1998. The UUP won 18% of first preferences, with 13% for the DUP. In the 2001 Westminster elections, the party positions were reversed, with the DUP polling 19.4% of the vote compared to 12.28% for the UUP.
The DUP have dominated elections in this constituency since the party was formed in 1970. Ian Paisley won 46.5% of the vote here in 1997, and nearly 50% in 2001.
In 1998, with transferable votes and multiple seats, the DUP could only manage 37.6% of the vote, which gave them three Assembly seats compared to the UUP's two with 22.26% of the votes. In 2001, the UUP vote share held up well, with nearly 21% of votes cast.
The SDLP's Sean Farren won an Assembly seat here in 1998 with 16.93% of the vote. However, the party's vote share has stood still while the Sinn Féin vote continues to grow. In 1997, Sinn Fein won 6.27% of votes, rising to 8.14% in 1998 and 9.8% in 2001.
This time around, the Sinn Féin candidate is Ballymoney councillor Phillip McGuigan.
In no other constituency is vote share and transfers as vital as North Belfast, which in 1998 elected six MLAs from six different parties. Sinn Féin had the marginally highest vote share at 21.34% compared to 21.31% for the DUP and 21.06% for the SDLP.
The UUP, who had the sitting MP and no other unionist challengers in 1997, saw their vote share collapse from 51.81% to 10.89% in 1998. There were seats in 1998 for Sinn Féin's Gerry Kelly, DUP's Nigel Dodds, SDLP's Alban Maginness, UUP's Fred Cobain, PUP's Billy Hutchinson and independent Ulster Unionist William Agnew.
Within unionism, voter support is clearly drifting towards the DUP, shown most significantly by Nigel Dodds winning the Westminster seat with just nearly 41% of the vote in 2001.
The Sinn Féin vote also grew in the Westminster election, with Gerry Kelly winning 25.24% of the vote compared to 20.99% for the SDLP's Alban Maginness. It is clear that some of the six sitting parties are going to lose seats this time around. The big challenge is who can land two.
This was one of the few constituencies without a Sinn Féin candidate in the 1997 and 1998 elections. The Sinn Féin candidate in 2003 is Maria George.
In terms of the unionist vote, North Down used to stand out as the only constituency to elect a unionist who wasn't part of the UUP/DUP hegemony. UK Unionist Robert McCartney won this seat after the death of Independent unionist MP James Kilfedder. However all that changed in the 2001 Westminster elections, when Sylia Hermon, wife of former RUC chief constable Jack, won this seat decisively after the Alliance and DUP didn't run Westminster candidates.
In 1998, the UUP won three seats with 32.55% of the vote. One of these, Peter Weir, has since defected to the DUP, who with 6.89% of first preferences failed to elect an MLA.
The Alliance won 14.39% of the vote and an Assembly seat for Eileen Bell. Though McCartney's UKU had 22.41% of first preferences, they could still only manage one Assembly seat as Jane Morris of the Women's coalition took the last seat, even though she only had 4.85% of first preferences.