Vulnerable third European seat makes for mouth-watering contest
THE last European election in 2014 wasn't especially memorable.
Arguably, the most newsworthy element of the poll were comments made by DUP leader Peter Robinson at the count centre afterwards, when he made those now infamous remarks about trusting Muslims enough to send them to the shop.
Back then, politics was more predictable – an EU referendum was a Nigel Farage pipe dream, a border poll appeared at least a generation away, and Stormont's internal animosity had yet to cause its implosion.
The result – a seat each for Sinn Féin, the DUP and Ulster Unionists – was largely predictable and reflective of the status quo.
The UUP had enjoyed a comparatively successful local government election on the same day as the EU poll, and its long-standing MEP Jim Nicholson came home comfortably in the end, more than 40,000 votes ahead of nearest rival, the SDLP's Alex Attwood.
TUV leader Jim Allister put in a respectable performance to take fifth spot, though notably by his sixth count elimination he'd only gained around 11,000 transfers, whereas Attwood benefited from nearly four times that figure.
Political allegiences haven't shifted significantly in the past five years but the backdrop is very different.
We are almost three years on from the EU referendum but no less certain about the outcome of that divisive process, Stormont has been mothballed since early 2017, and there's at least 100,000 new voters on the electoral register.
These circumstances will undoubtedly feed into the outcome of next week's election though to what extent and to what end is the key question.
Stormont's two biggest parties enjoyed a mixed but broadly satisfactory performance in the local government elections and while direct comparisons between the two polls are unfair, May 2's results would indicate that Sinn Féin's Martina Anderson and the DUP's Diane Dodds are near dead certs to hold their seats.
However, a number of factors are converging which make the contest for the third, remaining seat the most open for decades.
Had the 74-year-old Mr Nicholson opted to run again, then perhaps the outcome would have been more of a foregone conclusion, however, it can be argued that even the Ulster Unionist incumbent's oft-cited record in Brussels and Strasbourg may not have been enough to reverse his party's steady electoral slide.
In choosing former Stormont minister Danny Kennedy, the UUP has gone with a candidate who represents its conflicting take on Brexit. In line with the party's adopted policy at the time, the former Newry and Armagh MLA voted to remain within the EU but as a unionist he subsequently believes the UK-wide result should be honoured – a view that doesn't necessarily chime with the entire UUP base.
Similarly, this mixed message is unlikely to prove attractive to any Remainer unionists who are so far undecided, while those voters eager to sever ties with Brussels will likely find other pro-Brexit candidates on the card more attractive.
Hoping to mop up any migrating soft unionist, pro-Remain votes is Naomi Long. In 2014, Alliance candidate Anna Lo recorded the party's highest ever number of first preference votes. However, her 44,432 tally was still more than 30,000 behind Jim Allister. In the intervening years, however, Alliance and the TUV have enjoyed contrasting fortunes.
Whereas support for the TUV's brand of anti-power-sharing unionism appears to be dwindling, centrist politics is on the rise, as demonstrated by the Alliance spring on May 2. Naomi Long's party added 21 councillors to its local government representation, a 65 per cent surge that took its total to 53 and broke new ground outside its traditional east coast doughnut.
The close proximity of the two elections means there's every chance Alliance will replicate its May 2 performance, while there's also strong potential for Mrs Long to attract a sizeable personal vote. As an articulate, high-profile female candidate, the East Belfast MLA is likely to prove very transfer friendly and if she avoids elimination could well take the lion's share of other candidates' surplus. If elected, Mrs Long will have the distinction of having served over the past decade as a councillor, MLA, MP and MEP.
Her SDLP counterpart Colum Eastwood is his party's most capable leader for some time and will no doubt be buoyed by his party's council election performance in Derry and other pockets across the north.
There's a sizeable core SDLP vote, however, his downfall may be that the Foyle MLA falls between two stools and is unlikely to pick up many surplus votes from his nationalist rivals Sinn Féin or from unionism.
Jim Allister is an outside bet who in order to secure a seat will largely be relying on unionist dismay with the DUP, which on the strength of May 2's results appears not to be particularly widespread at present. It would require a major bombshell over the next nine days to collapse Diane Dodds' vote and thrust the TUV leader forward.
Of the remaining runners in the field, only the Greens' Claire Bailey can inflict damage on her rivals – or conversely help other candidates over the line with transfers.
European elections are ordinarily rather dull, inconsequential affairs but the race to secure that vulnerable third seat will make for an interesting contest.
2014 Result Percentage share
Sinn Féin Martina Anderson 25.5
DUP Diane Dodds 20.9
UUP Jim Nicholson 13.3
SDLP Alex Attwood 13.0
TUV Jim Allister 12.1
Alliance Anna Lo 7.1
UKIP Henry Reilly 3.9
Green Ross Brown 1.7
NI21 Tina McKenzie 1.7
Conservatives Mark Brotherston 0.7
TUV Jim Allister
Sinn Féin Martina Anderson
Green Clare Bailey
Conservative Amandeep Singh Bhogal
DUP Diane Dodds
SDLP Colum Eastwood
UKIP Robert Hill
UUP Danny Kennedy
Alliance Naomi Long
Independent Neil McCann
Independent Jane Morrice