Foyle Assembly Election 2016: Sixth seat up for grabs in Foyle

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After an entirely predictable one-horse race to Westminster last year, this week’s Assembly poll in Foyle promises to be a different beast, entertaining for onlookers and nerve-wracking for many of the candidates.

Of several talking points, Sinn Féin’s attempt to eclipse the SDLP in its North West stronghold will perhaps be the most interesting.

Sinn Féin wants to wrest a third seat from its nationalist rival and in order to do so has enlisted Martin McGuinness, the figurehead of the party’s northern command, who has returned from Mid Ulster to lead the charge against the new leader of the SDLP, Colum Eastwood.

The SDLP has reason to be nervous. Its share of the vote in Foyle has been in steady decline over the past several years, belied though that was by Mark Durkan senior’s 47.9 per cent share in the Westminster poll in 2015. But that impressive first-past-the-post performance, equal to similar romps in 2010 and 2005, was of course, aided and abetted, not just by a strong personal poll, but also by unionist loan votes.

These loan votes, as much against the Sinn Féin candidate as for the SDLP candidate, have tended to help raise the SDLP’s share in Foyle between 10 and 15 per cent above what is its natural high water mark these days.

And these loan votes just aren’t there for the SDLP when it comes to PR polls, at least not to the same extent, and they won’t be there in very great numbers on Thursday.

Given the three-way-split within red-white-and-blue unionism this year, it will be a surprise to say the least if a unionist is elected on the first count through exceedance of the quota, although such an outcome isn’t completely beyond the realms of possibility.

The consequence of all of this, whatever way the unionist vote pans out, is that the SDLP will be unlikely to get as many unionist transfers as it has been accustomed to.

The consequence of all of this, whatever way the unionist vote pans out, is that the SDLP will be unlikely to get as many unionist transfers as it has been accustomed to.

With the unionists split, not only will the SDLP not get as many unionist transfers, it will not benefit from the top-polling unionist getting over the line first and transferring to it immediately thereafter.

Over 500 of poll-topper Willie Hay’s transfers went to Pat Ramsey in 2011; over 400 went to Mark H. Durkan and over 100 to Colum Eastwood.

That won’t happen this time unless two of the unionist candidates have absolute nightmares. Unionists, as mentioned, elsewhere, have greater choice this year than they have been recently used to. With Conservative Alan Dunlop and Alliance Candidate Chris McCaw, complementing the three “traditional” unionist candidates, Gary Middleton (DUP), Julia Kee (UUP) and Maurice Devenney (UUP), unionist electors are likely to vote unionist right down their ballot papers to boxes five or six or even beyond, before considering favouring a nationalist candidate in the SDLP.

This means there will be a frantic race, most likely between Mark H. Durkan and Martin McGuinness to get first over the line, the prize, the opportunity to distribute their second preferences to their running mates as soon as possible. The bigger the surplus the better and if the leading candidate can attract a significant number of first preferences this year they are likely to have a lot of largesse to hand out.

That’s because turnout has declined between every single Westminster and Assembly election in Foyle over the past decade, reflecting a pattern replicated right across Western Europe. It was down from 63.9 per cent in 2007, to 58 per cent in 2010, to 57.8 per cent in 2011, to 53.6 per cent in the Westminster election last year.

That’s an average dip of 3.43 per cent and if that’s repeated this year it could push turnout to just above the 50 per cent mark, leaving a quota hovering just below 5,000. This will matter a lot for all of those scrambling for the last seats in this constituency, including the SDLP and Sinn Féin.

The main comparator for what might happen is the last Assembly election in 2011 and there are several big differences to take account of this time round.

First of all there were far fewer candidates back then, 12 as opposed to 16 this time out.

Given all the candidates, Independent Kathleen Bradley, Conservative Alan Dunlop, Green Mary Hassan, CISTA John Lindsay, Alliance Chris McCaw and Independent Anne McCloskey, there are bound to be more exclusions than last time.

So where are all their transfers going?

Another difference is that the SDLP ran four candidates rather than three this time, and there was only one proper unionist in William Hay.

The combined SDLP poll in 2011 was 13,699 compared with 13,200 for Sinn Féin, which was really close.

Martin McGuinness has previously put up big numbers in the Mid Ulster constituency, which is roughly comparable size-wise to Foyle: between 8,000 and 9,000 on average, far in excess of anything the party’s ever done in Londonderry: Martina Anderson’s 6,950 in 2011, has been the zenith sofar.

If the Deputy First Minister improves on this, with the quota around 5,000, it will have the effect of pulling Raymond McCartney and Maeve McLaughlin along in his slipstream.

The reverse side of this is that the SDLP is trying to do exactly the same. Dividing its 13,699 by three rather than four gives a tally of 4,566, which would put all three of its candidates, Colum Eastwood, Mark H. Durkan and Gerard Diver, close to the finishing line. The votes, will,of course, not break like this, and it will be all about vote management to see who wins the battle within nationalism this year.

Outside the main parties, Eamonn McCann, of People Before Profit is the most likely to take a seat but it remains to be seen how the proliferation of candidates will affect his total. In 2011, McMcCann polled 3,120. That was more than the lowest polling Sinn Féin candidate Paul Fleming, and the two lowest polling SDLP candidates, including the current party leader, Mr Eastwood.

He narrowly trailed two ultimately successfully elected MLAs Pat Ramsey (3,138) and Raymond McCartney (3,638) on first preferences, but they were far more successful in attracting transfers from their running mates.

Mr McCann got the vast majority of his transfers from independents and the Alliance Party last time.

This year, the performance of Independent Anne McCloskey, and the destination of her second preferences, may be pivotal in deciding who takes the final seat.

She, of course, will say she is intent on taking that seat herself.