Another year, another election: This time it’s Westminster

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2015 will be just over four months old by the time local electors, for the eighth time, return an SDLP candidate to the safest of safe SDLP seats.

Mark Durkan is a cast-iron certainty to retain his Foyle seat for a second time having first been elected to Westminster in 2005 following the retirement of John Hume.

The former SDLP leader, will this time be challenged most closely by former Mayor of Londonderry, Gerry O’Hara, who is a sitting member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board and a well-known Irish language lobbyist.

As has always been the case in the constituency since its creation in the 1980s, a unionist cannot win, by simple dint of the demographics of the city.

The main unionist candidate in Foyle this time out will be Foyle DUP MLA Maurice Devenney, who will contest the Westminster elections for the second time in May.

The DUP candidate will be faced with an uphill battle in trying to arrest the apparent decline of the unionist vote, which was ostensibly down to 15.6 per cent in 2010.

Mr Devenney accounted for the vast majority - 11.8 per cent - of that total.

Both David Harding, who occupied a disastrous Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force (UCUNF) candidacy for Reg Empey’s UUP, and Keith McGrellis, who was on a hiding to nothing for Alliance, lost their deposits.

It’s clear from these poor showings and other recent election results that a factor of Londonderry unionism is voting tactically to ensure the SDLP advantage over Sinn Féin doesn’t diminish any further.

That’s because, although the SDLP vote under Mark Durkan has held up in Londonderry better than anywhere else in Northern Ireland, the Sinn Féin vote has risen substantially at the same time.

This was especially the case when Mitchel McLaughlin stood here in the noughties.

This was arrested somewhat last time out - under Martina Anderson - when Sinn Féin’s share of the vote fell by 1.4 per cent.

Next May expect hundreds of Londonderry unionists to vote for Mark Durkan for a variety of reasons.

Some will accept the analysis of North American anarchist, Noam Chomsky, that whilst your woman or man has no chance of getting in, you can always find someone to vote against.

Some will vote against Gerry O’Hara because he was a former leader of the Fianna in Londonderry and has been a recognisable figure within the republican movement in the city since the early 1970s.

Some liberal unionists may vote for Mark Durkan because of his voting record.
The vast majority of unionists, however, will vote for the DUP.

Mary Hamilton and Julia Kee recently increased the UUP vote by 60 per cent in the Waterside in the inaugural Derry and Strabane Council elections, so it may attempt to build on this in May.

A campaign could be used as a profile-push in advance of upcoming Assembly elections and, more realistically for the UUP, the next Derry and Strabane local run out further down the line.

UKIP helped crowd the field and split the unionist vote somewhat in the Council elections last year. Will it invest £500 here in an attempt to further raise its profile locally?

And don’t forget Eamonn McCann, who in the last two Westminster elections, received more votes than the the two non-DUP unionist parties combined.

Over the past decade he has contested several Westminster and Assembly elections, both as a Socialist Environmental Alliance (SEA) candidate, and more recently, as a People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA) candidate.

His performances in these elections suggested he would have been easily elected to Derry City or the new Derry and Strabane supercouncil had he stood.

The Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which was the driving force behind the SEA and is the driving force behind PBPA, needs the high profile McCann to run again or the PBPA percentage share of the vote will fall against the 7.8 per cent the group achieved in Londonderry in 2010.

Incidentally, although a unionist pact allowing a clear run would only save some parties the £500 deposit if applied in Foyle now, the DUP used to receive between 20 and 30 per cent of the vote when it was the only unionist contestant on the ballot paper in the 1980s and 1990s.

Another interesting benchmark to look out for in May will be how far turnout is up, or more likely, down.

In the inaugural Foyle election in 1983 almost 80 per cent of the electorate turned out. Less than 60 per cent of voters turned out last time, the lowest engagement ever.