Unlike most elections in the North, which tend to be largely predictable affairs with very few surprises, this election has the potential to be different.

In the 2017 general election, the unionist side had a 5% advantage to the nationalist side. However, the 2016 Brexit referendum produced a 12% advantage for Remain despite the DUP backing Leave. The big talking point in this election is whether electoral pacts designed to favour Remain candidates will be enough to flip traditional voting patterns on their head.

With Brexit such a dominant theme it will no doubt be the focus on the doorsteps. The North may have voted to remain within the European Union but when the DUP became the Kingmakers for Theresa May’s minority Tory Government they fought hard to maintain all links with the Union and were accused of ignoring the 56% majority of remain voters in the North.

In the interim, as the implications of Brexit have become clearer, many civic and business groups have come out strongly against Brexit.
The bitter debate on Brexit has led to electoral pacts across marginal constituencies, the likes of which we haven’t seen in the North since the IRA hunger strikes in the early 1980s at the height of the darkest days of the troubles.
As we watch this contest unfold will we be witnessing the end of the traditional voting patterns which have been a hallmark of Northern elections?

Could this lead to a longer term political change? With a young demographic increasingly choosing not to identify as unionist or nationalist this could be a watershed election which changes the course of Northern politics.

 

How will this manifest itself on election day?

Voters in a number of key constituencies will face a reduced slate of candidates because parties have stepped aside for anti-Brexit candidates. Here are the three constituencies where tactical candidate selection is going to be important:

South Belfast

South Belfast is shaping up to be one of the most interesting constituencies to watch and the biggest threat to the DUP. Former SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell lost this seat in 2017 so Claire Hanna and the SDLP will be keen to win it back.

Sinn Féin and the Green party have both withdrawn to give Hanna the best possible chance of winning here. With the UUP refusing to step aside there is a very real chance that the incumbent, Emma Little Pengally, of the DUP, could be in trouble as the unionist vote splits.

The advantage would appear to lie with Hanna given that this constituency voted to remain by 70%.
Prediction: Claire Hanna SDLP

North Belfast

In North Belfast, where Nigel Dodds (Deputy Leader of the DUP) is the sitting MP, there is strong competition in the form of Sinn Féin’s John Finucane, son of Pat Finucane, who is hot on the heels of Dodds.

The SDLP decision not to contest North Belfast for the first time in its history will aid Sinn Féin’s chances of unseating Nigel Dodds. They’ll need every vote to do it though given the 50:50 split in the Brexit referendum here.

In recent days posters attacking John Finucane and his family appeared in the area and had to be removed by Belfast City Council under Police protection. With a real possibility that these posters will damage Nigel Dodds, Finucane might just get over the line.
Prediction: John Finucane Sinn Féin

Fermanagh South Tyrone

Traditionally there has been a rough balance between unionist and nationalist voters in Fermanagh and South Tyrone meaning it’s always one to watch. As a consequence, Fermanagh and South Tyrone has repeatedly had the highest turn-out of any constituency in the North.

The DUP will continue with their policy of not contesting to bolster the UUP’s Tom Elliott as he takes on Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew. A unionist pact saw Elliott win the seat in 2015 but Gildernew took it back two years later. She is the bookies’ favourite for the election.

In 2010, Fermanagh and South Tyrone was one of the most closely fought elections in political history with Ms Gildernew defeating the unionist unity candidate by just four votes – illustrating just how tight this constituency is. The strong Remain vote (59%) and the farming concerns about Brexit may just help Gildernew hold on.

Another colossal contest is likely.
Prediction: Michelle Gildernew Sinn Féin

Of all eighteen constituencies, three others will be well worth watching.

Foyle

Foyle is a constituency steeped in history where elections are passionately fought. Sinn Féin won the seat by 169 votes last time – one of the closest results across the UK. The SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has vowed to win back this seat, which the SDLP hold so dear – it’s previous leaders Mark Durkan and John Hume having held it for a total of 34 years.

Eastwood is viewed as having a reasonable chance of retaking the seat but this is a high-profile battle for Sinn Féin and they will be desperate to hold on to it. The holding of the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in Derry might just give the incumbent the bounce she needs to hold on.
Prediction: Elisha McCallion Sinn Féin

North Down

Having lost the incumbent in Sylvia Hermon this race is open to a number of parties who will be hoping to win over voters.
The DUP has been challenging hard in North Down, falling just 1,200 votes short in 2017, they will be ferocious in chasing this seat for an important gain.
Prediction: Alex Easton DUP

East Belfast

In East Belfast, there was a shock in 2010 when Alliance leader Naomi Long unseated former DUP first minister Peter Robinson. In 2015 Gavin Robinson won this seat back but with a higher profile than ever Long would see herself as having a decent chance of regaining East Belfast.
Prediction: Naomi Long Alliance

The Others

Belfast West
A Sinn Féin stronghold Paul Maskey is set to be returned in a constituency which voted to Remain by 74.1%

East Antrim
Sammy Wilson, the DUP’s Brexit spokesman should retain his seat with ease. Steve Aiken, the new Ulster Unionist party leader, is a candidate here.

East Londonderry
Gregory Campbell, DUP, is the outgoing MP and is likely to be returned again having been 8,842 votes ahead of his nearest challenger, Dermot Nicholl, Sinn Féin.

Lagan Valley
Jeffrey Donaldson, DUP, is expected to be returned again having been 19,229 votes ahead of his nearest challenger, Robbie Butler, Ulster Unionist Party.

Mid Ulster
Francie Molloy Sinn Féin should retain his seat with ease.

Newry & Armagh
Mickey Brady Sinn Féin should comfortably retain his seat.

North Antrim
An interesting constituency given that the Outgoing MP, Ian Paisley, DUP, has been embroiled in a number of Westminster controversies. Despite these he should comfortably retain his seat. This is the highest pro-Leave constituency in the Brexit referendum at 62.2%.

South Antrim
Paul Girvan DUP is the outgoing MP. He was only 3,208 votes ahead of his nearest challenger, the outgoing Ulster Unionist MP Danny Kinahan.  If the Ulster Unionist party is to stage a comeback, this is the constituency. Danny Kinahan will be keen to win back the seat he lost two years ago.

South Down
A battle between the nationalist parties Chris Hazzard and Sinn Féin will be confident they will hold on to this seat.

Strangford
Jim Shannon, DUP, should comfortably retain his seat.

Upper Bann
Carla Lockhart, DUP, will contest the seat vacated by party member, David Simpson after his highly publicised affair. The DUP will likely hold on here.

West Tyrone
Órfhlaith Begley Sinn Féin should comfortably retain the seat she won in a by-election last year. The SDLP have been working hard here in the form of Daniel Mc Crossan MLA but are unlikely to make a gain.

Conclusion

Assuming most seats go largely to form and the electoral pacts ensure the election of Remain candidates there is a very real possibility that we will see a majority of Remain MPs returned to Westminster.

This would be a massive blow for unionism which would follow on from the loss of their Assembly majority in 2017.

Another political blow for unionism will deliver a boost for Sinn Féin and the SDLP and could see increased momentum for a Border poll.

With so much to play for it’s shaping up to be a very interesting election in Northern Ireland.