Two of the seats in the upcoming European Parliament elections in the Northern Ireland three seat constituency look predictable. Martina Anderson of Sinn Féin topped the poll last time and looks set to be returned, along with another incumbent – Diane Dodds of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
But an exciting tussle is looming for the final seat. Jim Nicholson, the sitting MEP of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), has decided not to contest the election and the party is running former member of the Northern Ireland Assembly Danny Kennedy as its candidate.
Kennedy will face stiff competition from Colum Eastwood, the leader of the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), as well as Naomi Long, leader of the cross-community Alliance party. Two other party leaders are also running in this heavyweight contest – Jim Alister of Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) and Claire Bailey of the Greens.
That two of the three seats are likely to be retained by incumbents reflects the general tendency in European Parliament elections in Northern Ireland to be characterised by continuity, both in terms of parties and personnel.
Remarkably, 16 of the 24 contested seats – in the eight elections for the three Northern Ireland seats between 1979 and 2014 – have been won by just three people (Figure 1). The Reverend Ian Paisley served for the DUP between 1979 and 2004, as did John Hume for the SDLP in the same period. And Nicholson was the UUP’s MEP between 1989 and 2019.
The 2004 election did inject some novelty, as Sinn Féin won a seat at the expense of the SDLP, a result that replicated the former’s eclipsing of the latter in the 2003 Assembly election as the leading nationalist party. And Jim Alister took on the Paisley mantle as successful DUP candidate in 2004, but dramatically left the party to establish a new one in 2007 – Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) in protest against the DUP entry into a power-sharing executive with Sinn Féin.
Alister failed to retain the seat for the TUV in 2009, however, as Diane Dodds stood successfully for the DUP and also held the seat in 2014. Bairbre de Brύn smoothly handed the Sinn Féin baton to Anderson, who won in 2014.
If Dodds and Anderson are elected in 2019 they will represent clearly opposed positions on both the constitutional and the Brexit question. Dodds’ views – which combine a hardline Brexit and a unionist position – are not dissimilar to those of her husband and DUP leader at Westminster, Nigel Dodds. In contrast, Sinn Fein’s Anderson holds a staunchly anti-Brexit and pro-united Ireland positon. So, whoever wins the third and final seat could swing the interpretation of the overall Northern Ireland result.
The UUP’s Kennedy voted Remain in 2016 and seeks support from Remainer unionists, while being committed to following through on the result of the referendum. Such a soft-ish Brexit message is more in tune with UUP voters than DUP voters – the former being less keen on a hard Brexit than the latter.
The SDLP combine a long-standing commitment to constitutional nationalism with enthusiastic Europeanism, and if Eastwood wins a seat it would illustrate anti-Brexit nationalist electoral success.
Eastwood argues that “this European election should be a referendum – the North’s People’s Vote”. His campaign message is to see the vote as an opportunity to voice a reaction against the poor state of governance in both Northern Ireland and the UK.
Alliance is ‘cross-community’ on the constitutional question, declaring as neither unionist nor nationalist, but is unambiguously pro-EU, and a victory for Long would buttress the pro-Remain majority in Northern Ireland. Long advocates a further referendum to deal with the ongoing Brexit crisis and to facilitate a potential reversal of the decision to leave.
The election will be held using the single transferable vote system – in contrast to the rest of the UK—in which voters rank order their preferences, meaning that seeking to attract second and third preferences is a crucial part of campaigning.
Whether significant numbers of pro-Remain voters from a Protestant community background will give an influential preference vote to the strongly pro-EU SDLP and contribute to its election will be an intriguing aspect of the contest.
The SDLP narrowly missed taking the third seat last time out. The European Parliament election is significant in terms of providing an electoral signal of Northern Irish views on the issue of Brexit.
Will two of the three seats be won by staunchly anti Brexit parties? If so, this will likely be read as a buttressing of the pro-Remain position of Northern Ireland, further manifesting the distinctive position of this part of the United Kingdom, and contributing to the picture of a UK whose component parts are pointing in different directions.
The election is also an important indicator of the state of Northern Ireland’s politics. The election will take place in the challenging context of the continued absence of a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, as the two main parties mutual distrust and acrimonious disputes continue and they focus on wider issues – Brexit at Westminster for the DUP and Irish unity for Sinn Féin.
Will there be a consequent reaction among voters, in terms of increased support for broadly middle-ground parties and a decline in the overall DUP/Sinn Fein vote share? If so, this may be read as a protest against the perceived dysfunctionality of the non-functioning executive.
By Professor John Garry, Brexit research leader at The UK in a Changing Europe. You can read the full report ‘European elections and Brexit’ here.