Northern Ireland

General Election: Sinn Féin and DUP prepare for close battle as polls open

The race is on to secure the greatest number of seats in the north

general election
PACEMAKER, BELFAST, 4/7/2024: Taking a morning stroll past the polling station at Seagoe Primary School in Portadown this morning where the local electorate cast their votes in the General Election. PICTURE BY STEPHEN DAVISON

The polls have opened in the north for a General Election involving several constituency battles that remain too close to call.

A total of 136 candidates are standing in 18 constituencies.

All eyes will be on the race for the greatest number of seats, with the potential of Sinn Féin cementing its position as the largest party, having come out on top in the last Assembly and local council polls.

Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill
Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill (Liam McBurney/PA)

Sinn Féin, which ran a relatively low-key campaign, could secure top spot by retaining the seven seats it already holds, if the DUP drops down from the eight seats it won in 2019.

The two main parties traded relatively few hard blows during the last six weeks, reflective of the fact that relations between them have been fairly good in the five months since they resumed joint leadership of Stormont’s restored devolved coalition government.

While most of Sinn Féins seats are safe bets, it will face the usual arm wrestle to hold off the challenge of unionists in the ever-close Fermanagh and South Tyrone race.

In that constituency, former RCN general secretary Pat Cullen, who led nurses across the UK in strike action last year, is up against UUP councillor Diana Armstrong.

DUP leader Gavin Robinson
DUP leader Gavin Robinson (Liam McBurney/PA)

The DUP is under pressure in a number of constituencies, most significantly in East Belfast where its leader, Gavin Robinson, is involved in a high-stakes contest with the Alliance Party leader Naomi Long.

Mr Robinson’s elevation to the leadership of his party came after the DUP suffered a seismic shock when former leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson quit after he was charged with a range of historical sexual offences in March – charges he denies.

Apart from the sudden departure of Donaldson from the political stage, the DUP has also been under fire from unionist rivals amid claims it oversold a British government package of measures on post-Brexit trading arrangements that the party used to justify the end of its two-year boycott on devolution at Stormont in January.

Defeat for Mr Robinson would surely raise questions about his fledgling leadership of the DUP; while a loss for Ms Long would prompt some to ask whether the Alliance Party’s surge of recent years has begun to subside.

The cross-community Alliance Party is walking a tight rope between having a really good night or a very disappointing one.

Alliance leader Naomi Long
Alliance leader Naomi Long (Liam McBurney/PA)

It is involved in three, razor-edge fights where it is in serious contention for seats.

The party goes into the election with one seat, deputy leader Stephen Farry’s in North Down. Mr Farry has been involved in a tough battle to hold that seat while his party is also hoping that Ms Long prevails in East Belfast and Sorcha Eastwood defeats the DUP in Lagan Valley, in the seat vacated by long-standing MP Donaldson.

While three victories could be secured; three losses would sting heavily for a party that has been on the electoral march in recent years.

The UUP were without an MP in the last parliament and the party is convinced that South Antrim represents its best opportunity of a return to the green benches at Westminster.

Doug Beattie, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party
Doug Beattie, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (Liam McBurney/PA)

Former UUP leader Robin Swann, whose profile soared when he led the north’s fight against the Covid pandemic as Stormont health minister, is trying to win that seat from the DUP’s Paul Girvan.

Success for the SDLP would be the retention of the two seats held in the last parliament by its leader, Colum Eastwood, and deputy leader, Claire Hanna.

Both are tipped for victory – in Foyle and South Belfast and Mid Down respectively – albeit with the prospect of returning with reduced majorities.

The TUV, which is an arch critic of the DUP’s decision to drop its protest boycott on devolution, did not stand in the last election.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood (Liam McBurney/PA)

While its entry into the fray this time round is highly unlikely to deliver it any seats, the votes it could potentially take from DUP candidates could have major implications in some of the closest battleground seats.

However, the TUV campaign suffered a major blow last month when Reform UK leader Nigel Farage personally endorsed two DUP election candidates, despite his party having an official electoral alliance with the TUV in Northern Ireland.

That has led to a highly usually situation in Mr Allister’s own North Antrim constituency, where he is running on a joint TUV-Reform UK platform, even though Mr Farage has personally backed the DUP candidate in that area, Ian Paisley.