|Mid Ulster by-election, 2013 Resignation of Martin McGuinness Turnout: 37,208 (55.7%) -7.5||Sinn Féin hold Majority: 4,681 (12.6%)||Francie Molloy||Sinn Féin||17,462||46.9||-5.1|
|Nigel Lutton||Unionist Unity||12,781||34.4||+1.71|
This is compared, in percentage terms, to the combined vote at the 2010 General Election of the Democratic Unionist Party, Ulster Conservatives and Unionists and Traditional Unionist Voice. NB Although in percentage terms this vote increased from 2010 to 2013, in terms of actual vote numbers this total Unionist vote declined.
The result provided something for everyone. Sinn Fein held the seat--which was no surprise; while, compared with the 2010 Westminster and 2011 NI Assembly elections, both the percentage vote and actual vote numbers for the SDLP and Alliance parties increased. The percentage vote for the unionist unity candidate also increased: although it’s important to note that his actual vote declined when compared to the combined Unionist vote in previous elections.
While both percentage vote and actual vote comparisons are important, the actual vote number comparisons (i.e. to previous elections) are the most meaningful indicator of performance. This is because a candidate’s percentage score is affected by the performance of other candidates, whereas an actual vote count compared to previous elections isn’t. In the case of Mid-Ulster Francie Molloy’s vote (Sinn Fein) fell by 5%, so his percentage share compared to previous elections also fell, and therefore all the percentage shares of the other candidates went up.
The actual vote numbers for each candidate, and comparing this figure to previous election performances for that candidate or party, are not affected in the same way as percentage results: i.e. not affected by the performance of other candidates.
However, even though the Unionist Unity candidate’s vote went down (compared to previous elections), his percentage vote increased and this gave enough material for unionist unity supporters to claim that the cooperation, and single candidate strategy was justified by the outcome.
LucidTalk carried out an extensive tally operation at the count, monitoring all 76 ballot boxes. Each ballot box covers a specific identified small area of the constituency e.g. 4-5 streets or a cluster of townlands, so each box provides a ‘drill-down’ analysis of factors such as turnout in specific areas.
Some interesting points emerged from our analysis:
- Turnout in Unionist areas averaged between 59-62%; the highest turnout being 64% in Donaghey Primary School (PS), closely followed by Coagh PS (63%).
- Orritor PS and Stewartstown PS also turned in good figures for Lutton at around 60%.
- There were also some good turnouts in nationalist areas e.g. St. Mary’s PS, Maghera, at around an average of 62-65%.
- However it was noticeable that turnout in the Coalisland area, which is a staunchly nationalist/republican area, was only between 40-45%. It would have been assumed that there would have been a much higher turnout here as this could be viewed as Francie Molloy’s home patch as he lives in the Dungannon area! This contrasted to St. Mary’s PS in Maghera (see above) and also St Mary’s PS’s in Clady and Draperstown which are both staunchly republican areas and had turnouts of 55-60%.
Therefore the Unionist Unity campaign should be congratulated in terms of running a good campaign, and particularly it seems running a very good GOTV (Get-Out-The-Vote) operation on the day of the election.
However, it should be expected that the concept of unionist unity candidates will be more successful in the west of NI. Nothing could exemplify the difference between the east and west of NI, in electoral terms, more than the performance of the Alliance party. In Mid-Ulster the Alliance candidate polled 487 votes (out of a total electorate of 67,000), and yet 55 miles away an Alliance candidate in a Westminster election polled nearly 12,000 votes and was elected MP!
Of course it’s always difficult, and indeed dangerous, to draw too many hard conclusions from a First-Past-The-Post election, particularly in a safe seat situation such as this--when everyone knew who the winner was going to be.
However more questions than answers arise from this result. Did apathy creep into the Sinn Fein voter base? Is the Sinn Fein electoral machine, once the envy of other political parties, losing a bit of its efficiency? In terms of the Unionist Unity candidate experiment we will have to wait and see how far the Unionist Unity band-wagon will roll. Will it be rolled into other seats? Will it be tried in the east of N. Ireland, which as can be seen from the Alliance comparison mentioned before, is an entirely different world when compared to constituencies like Mid-Ulster?
The few answers that the Mid-Ulster by-election produced were predictable e.g. Sinn Fein holding the seat. It’s the questions that the result produced that are more interesting!
The UUP and DUP will be happy enough with this result. Okay, it may not have delivered in terms of increased votes, but there is evidence that in some unionist areas it may have ensured that the vote didn’t fall as much as some people feared. In other words, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the strategy was, at the very least, partially successful. But the backroom strategists behind the campaign will be aware that ‘partial success’ won’t deliver seats at future elections. That said, it looks as though what Mike Nesbitt described as ‘an experiment’ will be deemed to have been successful enough to justify agreed candidates in other seats---and in both PR and First-Past-The-Post elections.
The remarkable thing about this by-election was the sheer lack of political change recorded after three months of bitter political debate, protests, and street violence about the flying of the Union Flag. Mid-Ulster was affected by the protests, with a particularly angry demonstration in Cookstown in the second week of the dispute which saw local DUP MLA Ian McCrea barracked by angry loyalists.
Despite this, the changes in the share of the vote for any of the parties was not dramatic. Perhaps that isn’t surprising in this most conservative of constituencies, with a heavily rural electorate and even the larger market towns smaller than their counterparts elsewhere in Northern Ireland. Mid-Ulster has yet to see any change in representation since the first Assembly election in 1998, and this by-election confirms that no change is likely in the near future.
However, the fall in the Sinn Féin vote, at 5%, is certainly worthy of comment. Some voters always plump for the big name, and part of that fall will be that Martin McGuinness’ name was not on the Mid-Ulster ballot paper for the first time since the Forum elections of 1996. McGuinness polled nearly 9,000 votes in the 2011 Assembly election for example, of which almost 1500 transferred to Patsy McGlone or his SDLP running mate ahead of any other Sinn Féin candidate, while 39 Mid Ulster voters gave their first preference to McGuinness and their second preference to the TUV’s Walter Millar! - though that was probably because they were beside each other on the ballot paper.
On the other hand, some people have wondered whether or not Sinn Féin’s once feared election machine is now atrophying. Certainly their once unparalleled capacity to ‘balance’ candidates in STV elections is not what it was, and low turnout by-elections were traditionally favourable to Sinn Féin’s excellent data management and capacity to get out their supporters on the day.
The SDLP will have been helped by a candidate with a long track record as a local MLA in Patsy McGlone, and not least that only McGlone and Alliance’s Eric Bullick turned up to a TV debate which both the Sinn Féin and Unionist candidates bizarrely ducked. The SDLP have long been fighting conventional wisdom that their decline is inevitable and irreversible. It’s too much to read Mid-Ulster as a sign of an SDLP revival, but it does at least show the party can win some lost votes back with good local candidates.
Unionism will also be happy with the first outing of a Unionist Unity candidate, with turnout falling less in Unionist parts of the constituency and a modest uptick of 1.7% of the overall Unionist vote percentage. How well the same model will play East of the Bann and especially in Greater Belfast is an open question. Given the success of the initial experiment, however, we can probably expect to see more Unionist Unity candidates at the next Westminster election, perhaps most likely in North and East Belfast.