If, as expected, the UK follows through on its Brexit Referendum decision and leaves the European Union, the 3 MEPs selected by Northern Ireland's voters will have a very brief posting in Brussels. Yet this European Election campaign is shaping up to be every bit as competitive as the previous eight.
11 candidates in total
Jim Allister (Traditional Unionist Voice); Martina Anderson (Sinn Féin); Clare Bailey (Green Party Northern Ireland); Amandeep Singh Bhogal (Conservative); Diane Dodds (DUP); Colum Eastwood (SDLP); Robert Hill, (UKIP); Danny Kennedy (UUP); Naomi Long (Alliance); Neil McCann (Independent); Jane Morrice (Independent)
Lie Of The Land
The constituency is the six counties of Northern Ireland. Turnout pattern is around the 50% mark (2014 52%); (2009 43%); (2004 52%); (1999 58%). This time it is a stand-alone contest – local or Westminster elections are not being held on the same day. The turn-out in Northern Ireland's local elections held on May 2nd was 52.7%
Outgoing MEP's: Martina Anderson (Sinn Féin), Diane Dodds (DUP) Jim Nicholson (UUP) retiring
It might seem perverse to be dusting down the boxing gloves and wearing out shoe leather in pursuit of a job that will disappear as soon as the UK leaves the EU. But,as Christy Moore observes about bears in the woods, politicians instinctively behave in predictable patterns. When there is an election taking place professional pride dictates that one must contest.
The tribal Orange V Green tension is invariably a factor in Northern Ireland elections. There is an ironic twist to the European contest on May 23rd. It offers the electorate an opportunity to revisit the Brexit Referendum result when 56% of Northern Ireland's voters sought to Remain in the EU but they were absorbed into the wider UK decision to leave.
Two of the three outgoing MEP's, Diane Dodds (DUP) and Martina Anderson (Sinn Féin) are seeking re-election. After an unbroken run of 6 successful elections – 30 years service – 74 year old Ulster Unionist, Jim Nicholson, has decided to retire.
In all 8 European elections to date Northern Ireland has returned 2 unionists and I nationalist (SDLP or Sinn Féin). One intriguing question is will the pattern change this time? Against the backdrop of Brexit, what is the possibility of a shift that would see the return of I pro Brexit Unionist, Diane Dodds (DUP) and 2 Remainers, Martina Anderson (Sinn Féin) and ANother?
Martina Anderson (SF) topped the poll in 2014 and with 25.5% of the vote she was the only candidate elected on the first count. She succeeded Bairbre de Brun who had served two terms and who was the Sinn Féin representative who took what had been an SDLP seat from 1979 until 2004 when John Hume retired from politics.
Sinn Féin performed poorly in Anderson's home base, Derry, in the recent local election - her niece, Elisha Mc Callion is the Sinn Féin MP. But Anderson's high profile and track record should see her returned..
Diane Dodds (DUP) switched from the role of Stormont Assembly member to the European stage in 2009 and retained the seat five years ago. She and her husband, Nigel, the DUP's leader in Westminster, figure prominently in the party's Brexit-related business.
She received 20.9% of the first preferences in 2014, coming second to Sinn Féin's Anderson. She had to wait until the 7th count and Jim Allister's elimination and transfers to get her elected. But her track record and the DUP's confirmation as the largest party in the recent elections suggest she is certain to retain her seat.
The battle will be for the 3rd seat. The first preference performance of Jim Nicholson (Ulster Unionist) slipped from 22.2% in 1989 to 13.3% in 2014. The decisive factor in his success five years ago was his ability to stay ahead of Jim Alister (Traditional Unionist Voice).
66 year old Allister is running again. His party performed poorly in the recent local elections – they received 2.2% of the vote and their number of councillors dropped from 13 to 6. But Jim Allister is, in many respects, a one-man brand. The former DUP leader, Peter Robinson, had a major say in selecting Allister to seek and successfully contest a European Parliament seat for the DUP in 2004 after Ian Paisley retired.
But he fell out with the DUP over its decision to enter power-sharing with Sinn Féin and he formed his own Traditional Unionist Voice party. He contested 2 European Parliament elections since but didn't make it (13.7% 2009, 12.1% 2014). He is as ardent a pro-Brexiteer as Nigel Farage and he couldn't resist the temptation to run in what is likely to be Northern Ireland's 'farewell to the EU' election.
Danny Kennedy is the candidate chosen by the Ulster Unionist party to try to retain the seat that Jim Nicholson is vacating. The party had disappointing results in the May 2nd local elections, continuing the pattern of Westminster and Assembly contests. It has an ongoing identity challenge – is it "DUP lite?" In the Brexit Referendum it seemed conflicted when deciding its stance – its then leader, Mike Nesbitt, was a remainer but he had very few colleagues actively backing the policy. Danny Kennedy follows the 'smoke but don't inhale' pattern. But the 59 year old is likable and there was genuine shock when he lost his Assembly seat in 2017.
Two party leaders, both Remainers, Colum Eastwood (SDLP) and Naomi Long (Alliance) are making a serious pitch for the 3rd seat. In the five European elections contested by John Hume, his lowest first preference share (in 1984) was 22.1%. The three unsuccessful SDLP candidates since then have been well shy of that total - Martin Morgan (2004 – 15.9%); Alban Maginness (2009 – 16.2%); Alex Attwood 2014 – 13%).
Colum Eastwood is an energetic committed performer. But the party's First Preference share in this month's May elections was 12%.
Alliance under the leadership of Naomi Long saw its representation rise from 32 to 53 in those same elections, an increase of 65%. Significantly it made advances in areas west of the Bann. But its vote share that had the party energised was 11.5% - slightly less than the SDLP. Naomi Long will be hoping she might attract support from pro Remain unionists to boost her numbers.
There are five other candidates ); Clare Bailey (Green Party Northern Ireland);Amandeep Singh Bhogal (Conservative); Robert Hill, (UKIP); Neil McCann (Independent); Jane Morrice (Independent). None is likely to figure in the final shake up.
The performance of Jane Morrice will be worth watching. A former founding member of the Women's Coalition party, she served as an Assembly member and once held the role of Deputy Speaker in the Stormont Assembly. She also worked as head of the European Commission's Belfast office and she featured prominently as a pro Remain supporter during media debates about Brexit.
Clare Bailey is leader of the Northern Ireland Green party. She won a South Belfast Assembly seat in 2016 and retained it in 2017. The Greens attracted 2.1% of the first preference vote in the recent local elections but their growth, from a low base, continues.
Transfers - after eliminations rather than distribution of surpluses – will decide at least one, probably two and a small possibility of all three seats. Staying in the race while others fall away will be crucial. Martina Anderson (SF) and Diane Dodds (DUP) are likely to be re-elected. The DUP could live with Danny Kennedy (UUP) retaining what was Jim
Nicholson's seat. Arlene Foster would be disappointed if pro Remain forces combined to give either Colum Eastwood (SDLP) or Naomi Long (Alliance) that third seat – it would require a lot of strategic transferring to facilitate it. But the DUP's worst nightmare would materialise if Jim Alister (TUV), once 'one of their own' and now their most belligerent critic, could at the third and final attempt, draw blood.
In keeping with Northern Ireland's unique status in not just the United Kingdom but the European Union, there will be no counting on Sunday. The ballot boxes will be opened at the count centre in Magherafelt Co Derry on Monday morning, 27 May. The following evening, Tuesday 28th, the count should be completed.
Once the European business is done, Northern Ireland's five main political parties and the British and Irish governments can concentrate on their efforts to restore power-sharing at Stormont.