With three days to polling day, the pressure is on for the parties - Chris Donnelly

Interest centres on the small number of constituencies where the result isn’t a foregone conclusion

Chris Donnelly

Chris Donnelly

Chris is a political commentator with a keen eye for sport. He is principal of a Belfast primary school.

An art installation from the Just Vote campaign featuring a giant ballot box at Glastonbury
An art installation featuring a giant ballot box at the weekend's Glastonbury festival urges people to vote this Thursday. The campaign in the north has been pedestrian so far (Yui Mok/PA)

We go to vote in three days and few will disagree with the sentiment this has been a particularly pedestrian campaign here, with most interest restricted to the small number of constituencies where the result is not already a foregone conclusion.

So what would constitute a successful outing for each of our parties, and what might the consequences be for each if the electorate’s message is a negative one?

Sinn Féin’s twin objectives are to remain the largest party and retain its seven seats, including the marginals of North Belfast and Fermanagh and South Tyrone rendered a closer call than necessary due to the presence of SDLP and other minor party candidates on the ballot paper.

The party will quietly hope to spring a surprise in the form of upsetting Colum Eastwood in Foyle or reducing Carla Lockhart’s majority in Upper Bann to the point where the constituency would be deemed a marginal next time around. A good election is important to kill off the idea recent disappointing election results in the south were carrying over in the north and establishing a worrying trend.

The SDLP must hang tough, hold its two seats and show promise in its former heartlands of South Down and Newry and Armagh. That’s a very challenging task, given the decisive advantage Sinn Féin established over the SDLP just two years ago in the Assembly election. Then, the republican party took 24,000 votes to the SDLP’s 9,000 in South Down and 27,000 votes to the SDLP’s 6,000 votes in Newry and Armagh.

Claire Hanna’s vote appeal is much larger than her party’s and, with Sinn Féin sitting this one out, she should be re-elected handily, leaving the party leader alone on a sweat, knowing he starts more than 1,000 votes behind Sinn Féin in Foyle on 2022 numbers but with a proven track record of building a tactical voting coalition to see off the challenge.

He’ll need to work the trick from 2019 again, only this time against a Michelle O’Neill-led Sinn Féin which has become adept at avoiding motivating their opponents’ voters to turn out to vote against them. Eastwood needs to keep the two seats to hold as leader, knowing it’s the party’s opposition role at Stormont, and capacity to prove a thorn in the side of a Stormont executive in the time ahead, that will offer the SDLP the best chance of clawing back support in the longer term.

The shadow of Jeffrey Donaldson looms large over this election for the DUP, with his leadership of the party through the Stormont boycott and subsequent deal casting an ominous shadow that has them worried.

The very fact once solid unionist seats like East Belfast and Lagan Valley are now precariously held and in the sights of Alliance tells us so much about the modern state of unionism. Elsewhere, the DUP’s decision to give a clear run to Alex Easton in North Down and the UUP in Fermanagh and South Tyrone is motivated by a desire to help secure a rare electoral win for unionism.

Anything other than a pair of triumphs for Gavin Robinson and Jonathan Buckley will be a disaster for the DUP, immediately calling into question Robinson’s continued leadership.

For the Ulster Unionists, the candidacy of Tim Collins has been the main talking point. He’s a journalist’s dream, ever willing to shoot from the hip and make or break party policy on the hoof. Of course, this ex-British Army colonel has yet to face media challenges to condemn Britain’s murderous campaign in Iraq, where he served, but that merely betrays the lingering bias in our local media that will take more time to resolve itself.

Doug Beattie will hope the campaign to demonise Pat Cullen will help Diana Armstrong’s chances, but nationalists are more likely to have been incensed by the former RCN leader’s vilification and motivated to turn out en masse to return her.

Robin Swann’s campaign in South Antrim has lacked spark. Whether his implicit appeal for tactical voting to oust the DUP’s Paul Girvan is heard outside of unionism remains to be seen. Beattie needs a win somewhere just to provide a sense that the UUP can be relevant once again.

Alliance must come back with at least the one seat they hold to have a good election. Naomi Long’s titanic East Belfast battle with the DUP leader should be a tight one, but a Sorcha Eastwood win would surely be a massive surprise given the electoral advantage the DUP hold in Lagan Valley.

Stephen Farry must hope Collins has not eaten into his core vote and that the succession of negative news stories plaguing the Alex Easton campaign will help Farry come through the middle. Returning empty handed will give oxygen to the narrative the Alliance surge peaked a few elections ago and has hit its ceiling.

We’ll soon know.