Northern Ireland's Key Constituency Battles in the 2024 General election. With pictures of the author Clare Rice and a footbridge in Belfast.

Northern Ireland’s Key Constituency Battles in the 2024 General Election

Published: 24 June 2024

By Clare Rice

Northern Ireland is usually a relatively insignificant part of any General Election picture. The recent exception to this was in 2017, when Theresa May’s gamble failed to deliver, and a Confidence and Supply arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was the only way that sufficient numbers could be secured for steering her Brexit deal through the Commons. Or at least that was the plan; the rest, as they say, is history. 

This time, Northern Ireland has been returned to the sidenotes of the General Election story, with the focus mainly being on the tussle between the Conservative Party and the Labour Party – what has been happening within the diverse landscape of wider UK politics has been subsumed by this macro-level perspective. 

Just as in Wales and Scotland, Northern Ireland has its own internal election campaigns in progress, with its political battles primarily drawn along specific constitutional lines, and parties within and between them. 

In 2019, Northern Ireland’s 18 seats were filled by 8 DUP representatives, 7 from Sinn Féin, 2 from the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and 1 from the Alliance Party. In 2017, the vote swung decidedly to the extremes of the political spectrum, squeezing out the SDLP and Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) in favour of only the DUP, Sinn Féin and one independent unionist winning seats, a response to Brexit tumult that hit acutely hard in Northern Ireland.

It is perhaps of little surprise that Brexit, while noticeably scant in election discourse elsewhere in the UK, is very much present in Northern Ireland’s campaigns. Unionist parties have foregrounded arguments about the need for representation in Westminster in seeking to protect Northern Ireland’s place within the UK, and to remove Brexit-related trade frictions associated with the ‘Irish Sea Border’. The DUP – the largest unionist party – is facing a challenge on this front from the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), a party that until recently had a formal partnership with Reform UK. This arrangement has been complicated by that party’s new leader, Nigel Farage, now declaring support for two DUP candidates, including one contesting the same seat as the TUV leader in North Antrim. 

The DUP has also had a challenging few years internally. Most recently, it saw an unexpected change in leadership when Lagan Valley MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson vacated the post in the wake of being charged with alleged historical sexual offences – a case that will return to court on the eve of the election. Now, their new leader, Gavin Robinson, is fighting hard to retain his seat in East Belfast in what is set to be a fierce battle with Alliance Party leader, Naomi Long, who previously held the seat between 2010-2015. 

Meanwhile, the UUP is mounting a challenge against the DUP for a number of key seats, not least in South Antrim, where they hope that former Health Minister Robin Swann will unseat Paul Girvan, who has held the seat since 2017. In North Down, the UUP is also battling with independent (and former DUP) candidate, Alex Easton, to take the seat from Alliance’s Stephen Farry. A similarly intense fight is also happening in Lagan Valley for Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s former seat. The DUP remains in contention for this, but both the Alliance Party and the UUP are running tough campaigns in the constituency. 

While the term ‘pact’ is being vociferously shied away from, strategic decisions have been taken by the unionist parties in terms of where they have chosen to field candidates. In the UK’s most marginal seat in Fermanagh & South Tyrone, the DUP and TUV have opted to support a ‘unity candidate’ in the form of the UUP’s Diana Armstrong. This is not an unusual occurrence in this constituency. So fine are the margins here (57 votes in 2019, and previously even single figures) that the parties recognise splitting the unionist vote could lead to another Sinn Féin victory, so their aim is to consolidate through uniting behind a single candidate. This is what led the UUP’s Tom Elliott to victory in 2015, before the seat was regained by Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew, who is not seeking re-election this time. 

In North Belfast, the UUP has opted not to run, clearing the path for the DUP to attract the wider unionist vote with the aim of unseating Sinn Féin’s John Finucane, who won the seat from the DUP’s longstanding MP, Nigel Dodds, in 2017. 

While it is not the intention of this piece to examine the unionist parties, it is undeniable that the most interesting contests in this election centre on these parties. Within nationalism, the contests are comparatively mundane. The primary difference between the main parties is found in Sinn Féin’s abstentionist policy which means that those elected do not take their seats in Westminster, in contrast with the SDLP who do. The Foyle constituency is likely to be the closest fight between the two parties, where the SDLP’s leader Colum Eastwood is aiming to retain the seat he recovered in 2019 from Sinn Féin’s Elisha McCallion. In the new South Belfast and Mid Down constituency, the SDLP’s Claire Hanna is being rivalled by the Alliance Party’s Kate Nicholl for her seat. In other once-competitive constituencies, such as South Down, the SDLP have lost the foothold it once held such that there is a sense of almost inevitability that Sinn Féin will top the poll – a demonstration in itself of a changing landscape in Northern Ireland’s politics. 

For both unionism and nationalism, there is pressure emerging from the centre-ground Alliance Party, whose flagship policy is that it does not take a position on the constitutional question. The party has risen to new levels of prominence in recent years through a succession of electoral successes at all levels, and has ambitions not just to retain its current North Down seat in Westminster, but to increase this number. This election presents a prime opportunity for this to happen in at least two other constituencies – Lagan Valley and East Belfast – with vote shares expected to increase in several others. 

So, when you are watching the election results roll in, keep an eye also on what is happening beyond the big picture. There will be shockwaves across Northern Irish politics in any scenario that emerges on 4 July, potentially a reshaping of its representation in Westminster, as well as political earthquakes locally. 

It might be a sidenote, but Northern Ireland will certainly be one worth watching.

Dr Clare Rice is a political analyst and researcher, specialising in Northern Ireland, power-sharing, Brexit and identity. 

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