Northern Irish political parties gear up for July election with Sinn Féin seeking to overtake DUP

The DUP has eight MPs, while ‘abstentionist’ Sinn Féin has seven

When the starting pistol was fired in London, it was heard loudly in Belfast.

The shock announcement by the UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak, on Wednesday that he was calling a general election on July 4th – rather than, as had been widely expected, some time in the autumn – means the Northern parties are now in the starting blocks of an election campaign.

Northern Ireland returns 18 MPs to Westminster; the current tally is eight DUP, Sinn Féin on seven, two SDLP and one Alliance.

In the crude numbers game that is often Northern politics, Sinn Féin will be seeking to overtake – or at least draw equal – to the DUP, ideally by adding to their current tally or simply holding steady and hoping the DUP fail to do the same.


This would give the party the “hat trick”, as Jon Tonge, Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool, puts it; currently on two out of three, it would make it the largest at council level, in the Assembly, and Westminster.

Expect Sinn Féin to throw significant resources into Foyle, though the 17,000 majority of the SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, is quite the summit to climb; equally, the SDLP will want to hold on to its two seats – Foyle and South Belfast, now renamed South Belfast and Mid Down following boundary changes – at all costs. It has already made the pitch – a reference to Sinn Féin’s policy of abstention – that voters should back candidates who are “ready to turn up”.

Remember also that Sinn Féin is the only one of the Northern parties simultaneously facing elections in two jurisdictions – the local and European in the South, and Westminster in the North; while not ideal, it will calculate that it has sufficient resources that it can pull out all the stops in the Republic in advance of June 7th, then focus on Northern Ireland for the last four weeks of the Westminster campaign.

For the DUP’s part, it will also want to keep its eight seats, and knows it is facing battles in a number of constituencies, not least in east Belfast, where its leader, Gavin Robinson, is the current MP, and in Lagan Valley, where the former leader Jeffrey Donaldson – who stood down after he was charged with historical sexual offences – remains the MP.

Here, the scheduling will not favour the DUP; the party would no doubt have liked more time to allow the controversy to fade from the minds of the voting public; in court earlier on Wednesday, a date for his committal hearing was set for July 3rd – the day before polling day.

Indeed, it was only on Wednesday that Donaldson’s solicitor, John McBurney, speaking to RTÉ outside the court, confirmed his client would not seek re-election but intended to continue as an MP in order to see to “various” constituency and administrative matters.

It is not yet clear who will replace Donaldson. The Minister for Communities, the DUP MLA Gordon Lyons, said the party had not yet selected all its candidates and would make an announcement in “due course”; whoever gets the nod, Alliance’s Sorcha Eastwood will fancy her chances.

Meanwhile, the UUP will be keen to get back on the scorecard, where their best chance may be in South Antrim, where the Minister for Health, Robin Swann, is to stand, presumably against the incumbent, the DUP’s Paul Girvan.

Northern politics has enjoyed a rare period of calm since the restoration of the Assembly and Executive after a two-year hiatus in February; whether this can continue amid the cut-and-thrust of an election campaign remains to be seen.

Yet among those who had their statements ready and waiting to be issued on Wednesday evening, there was a rare moment of unanimity.

“It has been clear for some time that this [UK] government is fast running out of steam,” said the DUP leader, Gavin Robinson.

“It has taken 14 years but I’ve finally found something that I agree with this Tory government on – it is time for an election,” was the take by the SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood.

A general election, said the Alliance leader Naomi Long, “has been a long time coming and finally presents a real opportunity for people to remove the failing Conservative government from power”.

Political parties, all on the same page? Once the race really gets going, don’t expect it to last.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times