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Early election could hurt the SDLP while taking a few big scalps

A fresh election would leave five SDLP seats vulnerable. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire

The SDLP and People Before Profit have most to lose from fresh assembly elections in the new year, analysis of May's poll result shows.

Another Stormont election just eight months from the last could also claim some big scalps due to a reduction in the number of MLAs.

Arlene Foster's refusal to stand aside as first minister over her role in the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) means Sinn Féin could walk away from the executive in January, triggering elections within six weeks.

But under the terms of last year's Fresh Start agreement, the number of seats in each of the north's 18 constituencies has been cut from six to five, leaving the Assembly reduced to 90 MLAs from the present 108.

Figures based on which MLAs were elected on the final count in each constituency in May show nationalism could be hit hardest, with both Sinn Féin and the SDLP in danger of losing five seats each.

While such a result would be a significant blow for both, it would be especially devastating for Colum Eastwood's party, which could lose almost half of its 12 seats.

Sinn Féin's total seats could be cut to 24, while its DUP partner in government would also be in danger of losing five MLAs, leaving it with 33.

The Ulster Unionists would be least damaged, losing just one of its 16 seats, while Alliance would also be down one MLA.

A fresh election would arguably most damage People Before Profit, Stormont's new kids on the block, whose representation on the assembly's blue benches would be halved should all 18 MLAs elected in the last seats be lost in a fresh election.

The Trotskite party would lose veteran writer and campaigner Eamonn McCann, were we to see an rerun of last May's election result.

Other high profile figures whose seats would be under threat include former Sinn Féin education minister John O'Dowd, former employment and learning minister Stephen Farry of Alliance, and the SDLP's one-time environment minister Alex Attwood.

An election early in the new year could spell terms in the assembly of less than 12 months for newcomers Colin McGrath, Justin McNulty, Nicola Mallon and Richie McPhillips, as well as the DUP's Christopher Stalford and Keith Buchanan alongside Sinn Féin's Caoimhe Archibald and Philip McGuigan, and the UUP's Philip Smith.

Ulster University politics lecturer David McCann said a fresh election would hurt some parties more than others.

"No party is safe from taking a hit from the electorate but some are more vulnerable than others," he said.

"Take the SDLP for example, two of its MLAs – Richie McPhillips and Alex Attwood – are on wafer thin margins in their respective constituencies. It would not take much in an election to see the party returned with 10 seats or less," he said.

Mr McCann said the Ulster Unionists would struggle to hold to its two seats in Upper Bann, while the executive parties also have "vulnerabilities".

"Sinn Féin hold marginal seats in constituencies such as Upper Bann where it was a close call between Dolores Kelly and John O’Dowd earlier this year, likewise with the DUP, South Antrim, East Derry and East Antrim all pose challenges for the party," he said.

"In a likely five seater race, 18 of our sitting MLAs will be receiving their P45s and an early election could spell more trouble for the opposition parties than the Executive at this stage of the political cycle."

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MLAs ELECTED TO THE LAST SEAT

Foyle: Eamonn McCann (People Before Profit)

East Derry: Caoimhe Archibald (Sinn Féin)

North Antrim: Daithi McKay – replaced by Philip McGuigan (Sinn Féin)

East Antrim: Oliver McMullan (Sinn Féin)

South Antrim: Trevor Clarke (DUP)

North Belfast: Nichola Mallon (SDLP)

East Belfast: Robin Newton (DUP)

South Belfast: Christopher Stalford (DUP)

West Belfast: Alex Attwood (SDLP)

North Down: Stephen Farry (Alliance)

South Down: Colin McGrath (SDLP)

Strangford: Philip Smith (UUP)

Newry & Armagh: Justin McNulty (SDLP)

Upper Bann: John O'Dowd (Sinn Féin)

Mid Ulster: Keith Buchanan (DUP)

Fermanagh South Tyrone: Richie McPhillips (SDLP)

West Tyrone: Declan McAleer (Sinn Féin)

Lagan Valley: Brenda Hale (DUP)

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