Northern Ireland

General election campaign: Are they ready to rumble?

Rishi Sunak’s election announcement took many people by surprise, so how prepared are Northern Ireland’s parties for the July 4 poll? John Manley reports...

Sinn Fein Vice President Michelle O’Neill (left) and President Mary Lou McDonald have hailed their party’s success in the local government elections (Liam McBurney/PA)
Sinn Fein's Michelle O’Neill (left) and Mary Lou McDonald. PICTURE: LIAM MCBURNEY/PA

In terms of political priorities, they don’t come more important than elections. All a party’s human and financial resources are dedicated to campaigning and ensuring the best possible result.

But elections are a complicated business. They demand lots of administration and logistical organisation. Candidates must be chosen, posters and manifestos printed, and weeks of door-knocking undertaken.

The announcement of a July 4 election was unexpected, with most observers assuming the poll would be scheduled for the autumn. Has it caught our political parties out, or are they hitting the ground running?

:: Sinn Féin – Arguably no political party is better organised and better resourced than Sinn Féin. At present, its efforts are focused on the European and local government elections in the south on June 7. That could be regarded as a handicap but being able to simply re-orientate the party machine and adopt a similar strategy north of the border could easily be turned to Sinn Féin’s advantage.

It has yet to declare a number of key candidates, including Michelle Gildernew’s replacement in Fermanagh-South Tyrone and new faces to take the baton from retiring veterans Francie Molloy and Mickey Brady in Mid Ulster and Newry and Armagh, respectively.

Only Foyle, where former Derry and Strabane mayor Sandra Duffy is seeking to unseat SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, presents a significant electoral challenge for Sinn Féin, so the party will be largely unconcerned by having a mere six weeks to campaign.

Readiness rating 9/10

:: DUP – The recent history of the DUP means it’s difficult to nominate a specific annus horribilis but by any standards so far this year has been bad. While the charges facing Sir Jeffrey Donaldson aren’t of a political nature, it has political ramifications. The party’s greatest difficulty is finding a candidate to replace the departed leader in Lagan Valley, as both front runners – Emma Little-Pengelly and Paul Givan – are executive ministers.

Jeffrey Donaldson is facing 11 chares including rape and indecent assault
The historic charges against Sir Jeffrey Donaldson have created electoral headaches for the DUP. PICTURE: BRIAN LAWLESS/PA

Taking a minister out of office to run in an election they may lose is a big risk and one that is bound to be giving the DUP strategists headaches - but expect an announcement shortly.

To add to its woes, the DUP is facing a three-way challenge from the Ulster Unionists, Alliance and the TUV, with backing from the cash-rich Reform UK. Interim leader and East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson ranks among the party’s most vulnerable incumbents and his defeat would create all sorts of difficulties for a party that’s already on the ropes.

Readiness rating: 4/10

:: Alliance – Naomi Long’s party’s surge in support has grabbed the headlines in recent elections but as campaigning in the run-up to July 4 gets underway, the justice minister’s apparent indecision around standing in East Belfast is becoming the focus of media attention.

Already selected as the party’s candidate when the institutions were down, February’s restoration of devolution has created a dilemma for the Alliance leader, who is widely believed to be the only candidate capable of mounting a serious challenge against Gavin Robinson.

The sudden resignation last month of South Down MLA Patrick Brown, who was earmarked to contest the constituency’s Westminster seat, is another problem the party could do without.

Elsewhere, however, Alliance is in buoyant mood and hoping it can at least double its representation on the green benches.

Readiness rating: 6/10

:: Ulster Unionist Party – Doug Beattie’s unorthodox leadership style suggests no matter how much notice he had of an election he’d still be ill-prepared. In naming Tim Collins as the party’s North Down candidate, the UUP was out of the traps early but it also gave the former soldier more time to mess things up, which he duly did with remarks claiming welfare benefits would discourage people from voting for Irish unity and that Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry belonged to a party that was “vaguely if not broadly pro-nationalist”.

Retired British Army colonel Tim Collins is to run for the Ulster Unionists as their North Down candidate in the next general election.
Col Collins is best known for his role in the Iraq War in 2003.
The last time an MP from the party was elected to North Down was 2010.
The current MP for the constituency is Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry, who first won the seat in 2019. following the retirement of independent unionist Lady Hermon. Pictured with UUP leader Doug Beattie 
Talks were reportedly taking place among unionist parties in a bid to find an agreed single unionist candidate but the UUP leader Doug Beattie says his party "does not do pacts".
UUP leader Tim Collins with his party's North Down candidate Tim Collins. PICTURE: PACEMAKER

Health Minister Robin Swann’s early declaration as his party’s candidate in South Antrim has also attracted adverse publicity, with critics questioning his commitment to Stormont.

There’s little realistic chance of the UUP taking seats elsewhere, so its aim will be to ensure it doesn’t lose ground in what may well be a field crowded with unionists.

:: Readiness rating: 5/10

:: SDLP – On paper, the SDLP holds two of the safest seats in Westminster. The party won’t be complacent, however, and is likely to direct the majority of its resources to leader Colum Eastwood’s seat in Foyle and a reconfigured South Belfast and Mid Down, where Claire Hanna is the incumbent.

Ms Hanna already has her posters up in readiness. The SDLP faces a candidate selection difficulty however in Newry and Armagh, where ordinarily Justin McNulty would be expected to stand. However, he’s had the whip withdrawn since taking on the Laois GAA football manager’s job.

The party has an outside chance of regaining South Down, where it came within 1,620 votes of an upset for Sinn Féin in 2019. It has again yet to choose a candidate, though Colin McGrath is most likely to receive the nomination.

:: Readiness rating: 5/10

:: TUV – It was meant to be a joint TUV/Reform UK campaign but administrative problems for the latter mean Jim Allister’s party will have to go alone, albeit with substantial backing from Reform UK’s millionaire leaders. The party is keeping its powder dry in terms of where its leader will stand, with sources insisting it could be a surprise constituency – watch this space. Elsewhere, the TUV has given a commitment that the electorate in each of the north’s 18 constituencies will have an opportunity to vote for an anti-protocol candidate.

It will therefore seek assurances from unionist independent Alex Easton before giving him a free run in North Down.

Readiness rating 4/10