DUP – Diane Dodds
Sinn Féin – Bairbre de Brún
UUP/Conservative – James Nicholson
SDLP – Alban Maginness
TUV – Jim Allister
Alliance Party – have not yet confirmed whether they will stand a candidate
Green Party – Steven Agnew
Issues will, of course, play little or no part in this election. Most voters do not know and do not care where the parties stand on 'Europe', or on the multitude of issues that their MEPs deal with. The election will be a simple headcount both within the two blocks, and between the two blocks.
There are four main areas of interest in the election:
1. the overall unionist-nationalist balance,
2. the break-down of the unionist vote,
3. the break-down of the nationalist vote,
4. the vote for 'other' candidates
These are looked at in more detail below, but first it is useful to put this election in its historical context.
The trend for the unionist vote since the first elections to the European Parliament in 1979 has been downward. From around 59% in 1979 the unionist vote has dropped steadily to the 49% they received in 2004. The evolution of the nationalist vote has been less smooth, but in general it has been upwards, from 31% in 1979 to 42% in 2004. It significantly exceeded its trend in 1999 when a large part of the Alliance Party and 'other' vote went to the SDLP's John Hume in an attempt (which failed) to top the poll. In 1999, while the nationalist vote jumped above its trend, the 'Alliance and other' vote tumbled to 2.3%. In 2004, with Hume gone, the 'Alliance and other' vote recovered, and the nationalist vote reverted to its historical trend.
Much used to be made of Ian Paisley's vote-winning ability, but during his time as an MEP the unionist share of the vote declined constantly, as it did in other elections – local, regional, Westminster. Ironically, the DUP's greatest share of the vote since 1984 came in 2004 when Paisley had retired from Europe and his now nemesis, Jim Allister stood for the DUP, winning 32% of the vote.
There are three seats available, and since the combined votes of the 'Alliance and other' candidates has never exceeded 9.5% – well short of a quota (25%+1) – these votes must be considered to be the core 'neither unionist nor nationalist' vote in Northern Ireland, around 8% on average. Three seats divided amongst four big parties (in the past) must leave one party disappointed. Since the unionist block has always outvoted the nationalist block, and transfers usually stay within blocks, two unionists were elected and only one nationalist. The gap between the two blocks is now much closer, and although unionism will still get more votes than nationalism in 2009, the breakdown of those votes, and the level of transfers will be crucial to deciding whether – in a historical moment – nationalism might snatch a second seat.
The unionist-nationalist balance
The breakdown of the vote in June's European Parliament election between the unionist block and the nationalist block will probably not differ much from the breakdown in other elections. The graph above shows how the two blocks have been approaching parity since the first EP election in 1979, but they have not yet got there.
On the basis of the most recent elections – the Westminster and local elections in 2005, and the Assembly election in 2007 – the relative strengths of the two blocks are approximately: Unionist 50%, Nationalist 43%. The unionist percentage has a downward trend, and the nationalist vote an upward trend. However, the period of time between 2007 and 2009 is too short for any significant change to take place, so it seems inevitable that the unionist block will again outpoll the nationalist block. If there are a high proportion of transfers between the unionist candidates (see below), this should translate again into two unionist seats and one nationalist seat.
The break-down of the unionist vote
One of the most interesting aspects of the election will be the impact of the two major events within unionism since 2004: Jim Allister's breakaway from the DUP and subsequent formation of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), and the common-law marriage between the UUP and the English Tory Party.
Initially derided as a mere flash-in-the-pan by the DUP, or as a temporary usurper of the 'rightful' DUP seat, Jim Allister, by sheer persistence and good timing, has managed to remain a serous threat to the DUP. While few expect him to hold his seat, the DUP are concerned that he will steal their more extremist voters and consign them to an ignominious scramble for the third seat. Allister is playing the same role vis-à-vis the DUP that the DUP itself played vis-à-vis the UUP – that of constantly challenging the other party from a more extreme unionist standpoint. Such a role worked well for the DUP so it is justifiably worried by Allister. The DUP has left such a long string of hostages to fortune in its climb to the top that Allister has a rich seam to mine. And he is mining away, eroding the confidence that extreme unionists used to have in the DUP, and providing them with an alternative. The by-election in Dromore in 2008 showed that while it was still relatively small, the TUV could inflict serious damage on the DUP.
The Paisleyite wing of the DUP is reportedly angry about the manner in which Ian Paisley senior was deposed in 2008, and still hopes to get Ian Paisley junior elected as MP for North Antrim as his father's replacement at the next Westminster election. If the DUP candidate for the EP is identified with the 'modernist' (or non-Paisleyite) wing, some of the Paisleyite voters may vote TUV instead of DUP.
If the TUV manages to steal even 20% of the DUP vote (in Dromore it took 40% of the combined TUV/DUP total; but this was the only election so far in which both parties have competed, so it is not a good basis for predicting the outcome of their next competition), then the DUP might fall below a quota (for the first time ever in a European election). If Sinn Féin poll well, they might top the poll. The DUP may then suffer the double indignity of failing to keep Sinn Féin from topping the poll and having to depend on transfers from minor party candidates, which might not come. When the DUP candidate is eventually elected, he or she may have lost considerable face in the process.
The not-quite marriage between the UUP and the Conservative Party is being talked up incessantly by both sides. However, the 'joint' candidate is none other than the same old UUP candidate whose popularity has been constantly waning for years, and was only barely ahead of the SDLP in 2004. The UUP are desperately hoping for a 'bounce' from their not-quite marriage, but they may be severely disappointed. If a lot of TUV votes do not transfer to the UUP – a party most TUV voters heartily despise – the UUP risks losing its seat to the SDLP. Such an outcome would serious damage the credibility of the UUP-Tory link-up.
A second and less often cited ambition for the UUP/Tory link-up is the hope that it will make James Nicholson more attractive to Alliance Party voters. The eventual winner of the third seat is likely to be decided on the transfers from the 'Alliance and other' voters, and so anything that can make Nicholson less repellent to the centre can only help him. Positioning the UUP candidate (for, despite the hype about the nearly-a-marriage, that is what Nicholson is) as a part of a resurgent soft-right movement may be enough to earn him some extra Alliance transfers, and to keep him ahead of the SDLP's Alban Maginness.
The break-down of the nationalist vote
Another party hoping for a bounce is the SDLP, though their chances are worse than the UUP. Their candidate, the unsuccessful Alban Maginness, lacks any particular appeal – even in his own North Belfast constituency he has been losing ground over the past few years. Although Sinn Féin's Bairbre de Brún is hardly a dynamic MEP she is guaranteed a sufficient vote to get elected – and possibly to top the poll, to the DUP's anger. The SDLP vote should hold steady, though, and if other circumstances went their way, they could just sneak past the UUP for the third seat. Again, much depends upon the transfers of the Alliance Party voters.
The vote for 'other' candidates
In 2004 the assorted 'neither unionist nor nationalist' parties and groups coalesced around a 'unity' candidate – John Gilliland. The novelty of such a candidacy ensured publicity, and some of the more gullible 'centrists' started fantasising about winning a seat. Gilliland got 6.6% of the vote and promptly disappeared back into well-deserved obscurity. But it seems to have led to an expectation of a centrist candidate in 2009, combining the Alliance Party and other disparate groups. So far no such candidate has appeared, and the Alliance Party are keeping their intentions a well guarded secret. The only 'unity' name to have been leaked is Eleanor Gill, whose qualifications for the job are as small as Gilliland's were. She seems to be 'acceptable' to the centre groups because she is (politely speaking) a non-nationalist Catholic.
The Green party have already broken with the 'unity' candidate idea by naming their own candidate, the utterly unknown and unelectable Steven Agnew. He can expect to equal the Greens 2004 total of less than 1%. Hopefully they will not waste too much of the earth's resources on his hopeless campaign.
Historically the 'Alliance and other' vote has tended to be around 8-9% in EP elections, and this time should be no different. The real interest is where their votes transfer to. In 2004 it is likely that more of Gilliland's votes transferred to Nicholson (UUP) than to Morgan (SDLP), but a lot did not transfer at all (it is hard to be sure, as Gilliland's votes were combined with the Greens and Eamon McCann's). In 2009, if the 'Alliance and other' votes go slightly more to the SDLP, if the TUV achieve a reasonable score (say 6% of the total vote), and if the TUV votes fail to fully transfer, this could put the SDLP ahead of the UUP for the final seat.
A possible vote and transfer scenario (not a prediction) might be: