Maps by Conal Kelly and Nicholas Whyte
Lagan Valley is one of the five constituencies that form the suburban ring around Belfast. It consists of 26 of 30 wards of the City of Lisburn, and 4 of 17 wards in Banbridge District.
Lagan Valley contains some areas that most people would think of as being integral parts of Belfast, yet extends to include isolated communities like the highland village of Dromara. The biggest centre of population is in Lisburn, recently crowned a city, whose limits include smaller towns and villages such as Dromara, Drumbo, Drumbeg, Glenavy, Hillsborough, Maghaberry, Moira and Maze. Towards Belfast, this constituency takes in Derriaghy, Dunmurry, Lagmore and Seymour Hill, but not Twinbrook, Poleglass and Glengoland, which are over the border in West Belfast. The part of the constituency in Banbridge District consists of Dromore and the surrounding countryside, stretching to Kinallen and Waringsford, and almost to the edge of Banbridge Town itself.
As befits this booming suburban area, the level of deprivation on every measure is the second or third lowest in Northern Ireland. Levels of unemployment, benefit claims and ill health are low. School performance and incomes are high. The proportion of the population with a degree is above average, but not exceptionally so, at 19% as opposed to a 16% average across Northern Ireland.
There are pockets of deprivation, as anywhere, particularly on the Old Warren and Hillhall Estates in Lisburn. However, even many of Lagan Valley's Housing Executive Estates are more stable areas where many tenants have taken the opportunity of right to buy. By far the biggest concentration of these areas is in the southern half of Lisburn.
Indeed, some parts of Lagan Valley are among the most prosperous in the whole of Northern Ireland; most of the middle-class areas in North Lisburn are very well off indeed, with the prosperity reaching a particular pitch around Wallace Park and the Pond Park Road. Hillsborough, Drumbo and much of Moira are also particularly prosperous, and the countryside around Lisburn contains big houses belonging to some of Greater Belfast's wealthiest entrepreneurs.
Demographically, Lagan Valley is the fifth most Protestant constituency, with a hefty Protestant majority (75.0% Protestant, 20.6% Catholic). Across most of the constituency, the Catholic population is evenly spread, varying between 10% and 25%. Even areas perceived as being Loyalist heartlands, like the Old Warren Estate in Lisburn, have Catholic populations of up to 25% - although the Rathvarna Estate has only a tiny Catholic population of 3% and it is little higher on the Hillhall Estate (6%). There are a few pockets in Lisburn within this where the Catholic population is larger - it reaches 35% in the Tonagh Estate in South Lisburn, and 32% in the private estates off the Belsize Road in North Lisburn.
There are several more significant exceptions. Firstly, the rural area to the South of Lisburn, including Hillsborough, has not had a significant Catholic population since before the Plantation. Today it is still only around the 5% mark.
Secondly, on the Belfast fringes, there is more defined segregation. Of the two areas which most people would consider culturally part of West Belfast, Lagmore is almost entirely Catholic (97%) and the newish private estates around Black's Road are only slightly more mixed (91% Catholic). Dunmurry and Derriaghy proper are mixed, middle-class areas with roughly even populations from both main sections of the community, but the segregation returns in the Seymour Hill Estate where there is only a tiny Catholic population (4%).
Finally, Glenavy, while also mixed, has a hefty Catholic majority (75%). The removal of both Glenavy and Lagmore by the boundary commissioners after this election will have major implications for any Nationalist candidate that wins through this time.
In 2003, Lagan Valley returned 3 UUP, 1 DUP, 1 Alliance and 1 SDLP Assembly members. Nicholas Whyte's detailed figures, show how much Jeffrey Donaldson dominated the polling in 2003, and how much of his vote was a personal one which scattered towards any and every Unionist candidate in the field. The 2005 elections showed how much of that vote followed him to the DUP. One thing that can be guaranteed is that the party voting figures this year will be very different to 2003.
As well as the impact of Donaldson's political migration, Alliance's Séamus Close has retired, and Sinn Féin have been clearly ahead of the SDLP in recent elections. Lagan Valley has two wide open seats which make it probably the most difficult constituency in Northern Ireland to call.
Firstly, let's call the safe seats - in 2005, after Donaldson's defection, he polled a massive 54.7% in the general election under the DUP banner, and the DUP still managed 45.4% in Nicholas Whyte's local election figures, which are in turn probably a slight underestimate. That means three solid quotas and a fighting chance of a fourth seat.
The UUP, even after Donaldson's defection, managed 21.5% in the general and 25.9% in the local elections. That means one safe seat, and a fighting chance, maybe even more than that, of a second.
As well as that, Alliance polled 10.1% in the general and 9.4% in the locals, and clearly have a good shot of a seat. Sinn Féin polled 7.5% in the general and, on Whyte's figures 10.1% in the locals and are actively targeting a seat, while the SDLP polled 6.1% in the general election and 7.7% in the locals.
It should be noted that the local election estimates overstate the position for both the SDLP and SF. Nicholas Whyte treated Dunmurry Cross and Dromore electoral areas as if they were homogenous, when in both cases the parts of the area in Lagan Valley are markedly more Unionist than the parts outside the constituency - i.e. Twinbrook and Poleglass in one case, Ballyward in the other. The 13.6% recorded in the general election is a more accurate indicator of Nationalist strength in that election rather than the 17.8% estimate for the locals. In 2003, the Nationalist vote was quite a perky 15.5%, the best ever in a constituency based election, so 2005 represented something of a decline.
Whatever happens, the SDLP are doomed. They haven't beaten Sinn Féin without transfers here since 2001. They've lost a popular representative in Patricia Lewsley. Marietta Farrell, her substitue, only came into post about the New Year, and hasn't had time to sink local roots from far off Rostrevor. On the other hand Sinn Féin's Paul Butler has been a competent leader of the SF group on Lisburn City Council for a number of years, has a resultantly high local profile, and has nursed the constituency assiduously since 1998. Last time, Lewsley started the count 109 votes behind Butler, but was able to pick up 403 transfers to Butler's 36 by the crucial elimination point.
That was a net gain of 367 votes. Not only do I think that Farrell will be further behind Butler than that, she won't pick up as many transfers was Lewsley was able to. Last time, she was able to benefit from transfers from Ivan Davis, running on a moderate Independent UUP platform, including some which came on through after playing their part in electing Bell and Close. This year, it's difficult to see where the SDLP can pick up significant transfers from early in the count, especially with Alliance still likely to be in the hunt, fighting for transfers at that point.
Does that mean that Sinn Féin will gain a seat? That's another question entirely. It depends on two questions: is the total Nationalist vote big enough, given that many SDLP voters will transfer to Alliance in a place like Lagan Valley? And in exactly what proportions will those SDLP transfers benefit Alliance and Sinn Féin?
Let's start with the transfers; with Sinn Féin likely to clean up in Lagmore and the new Glenavy estates, the bulk of the SDLP vote will come from the Dunmurry/Derriaghy middle-classes, and predominantly Protestant parts of the constituency. While SF do very well from SDLP transfers in other parts of NI, Alliance still tend to have a narrow edge in the Belfast area; especially middle-class parts of the Belfast area, and even more in mainly Protestant parts of the Belfast area. I can't see Butler getting more than half of Farrell's transfers, if he even does that well.
He can probably scrape in with about 0.9 of a Quota after all transfers have been dealt with. If he did manage to get half the SDLP's transfers, he would need to poll 10% himself, and have a total nationalist vote of 16% to win. If he managed as few as a third of the SDLP transfers, he would need more like 11.5% to win.
I think even 10% will be a hellishly tall order for Butler. It's not impossible, because Sinn Féin are competent and well organised here, and there is still probably some room for them to grow in parts of Lisburn and Dromore they've never touched before. 7.9% is their best ever result here, in the 2003 Assembly election and they actually slipped back a little in 2005. I don't think they'll quite make it. But it will be very, very close.
For Alliance, it's simple. Get 8% and they are safe. Get 7%, and the dogfight for the last two seats here is open enough that they might fluke it. Get less than that, and they are toast. I actually think Alliance should do a bit better than that. Although they didn't benefit from the same uptick in 2005 that they did in other places, even in elections where Séamus Close's name wasn't on the ballot, they've never polled less than 10% here. Last time, almost 900 voters transferred directly from Ivan Davis to Close, which means the 10.7% 'base' from last time is probably a slight undercount. While Close clearly had some personal votes which will not pass on, Lunn is currently Mayor of Lisburn and has quietly built up a solid base in the north of the city. This isn't in the bag for Alliance, but it should be a relatively easy retention unless they have a catastrophic election across Northern Ireland.
If the Unionist parties do well and there ends up being a Lunn vs. Butler dogfight for the last seat, Lunn should win on transfers.
If that does happen - that is, either Alliance or SF slip up, then both of the Unionist parties could take that fifth seat. And talk of five Unionists shouldn't surprise anyone. There are often five Unionist quotas in Lagan Valley.
As with Unionists in many other places, reading the runes from 2005 is difficult because of differences between general and local election voting. The local election figures are a nominal DUP 45%, UUP 26%, which would see the UUP retaining a second seat. Propelled by Donaldson's personal vote, however, the DUP enjoyed a crushing 55% to 22% lead in the Westminster poll, which would see them win four seats easily, and probably see the Ulster Unionists' eliminations elect Alliance comfortably ahead of Sinn Féin.
Which of these scenarios is closer to the truth? With Donaldson's name on the ballot paper, the DUP should be polling at least 50%, which would keep the UUP down in the low to mid twenties. That would spell deep trouble for the UUP, but they do have a number of ameliorative factors.
Firstly, the tickets. The Ulster Unionist ticket is strong. Billy Bell and Ronnie Crawford both have deep roots in Lisburn politics, while Basil McCrea polled strongly in his first electoral outing in Downshire and is clearly a rising star in the UUP.
Donaldson and Edwin Poots give the DUP ticket a very strong top. Jonathan Craig and Paul Givan have both polled strong votes in North Lisburn in Council elections. The problem is that it all looks terribly, well, Evangelical. Many of the DUP's voters, especially in present circumstances, do not share the dominant religious views of the party. Is there a danger that a sizeable body of people vote for Jeffrey, feel they've made a suitably sceptical statement and then transfer on to 'their' type of people in the UUP?
And managing Jeffrey's surplus is a problem for the DUP. He pulls a huge personal vote and only managed to keep 62% of his transfers in the UUP camp last time. He even passed 16 papers onto Paul Butler! The DUP seem well aware of this problem and are actively trying to manage their vote. But undoubtedly Jeffrey will be elected on the first count and some of his surplus will leak.
To balance this, the UUP are running three candidates in a seat where only two can possibly hope to be elected. Again, there are the usual dangers of leakage.
Finally, Bob McCartney is running here. The fact that he's had to run himself indicates he has no real local base to work from. Jeffrey may be sceptical enough for all tastes. But it's another little niggling factor working against the DUP. I think that together, those niggling little problems amount to being enough for the UUP to win a second seat here if either Alliance or SF drop. I think Sinn Féin won't quite have the votes to win here. While Donaldson and Poots are the obvious DUP winners, it's harder to call the third DUP seat, especially with aggressive vote management in place. I'll give it to Jonathan Craig, who has a bit more of a base and the alphabet in his favour.
On the UUP side, I reckon Basil McCrea will lead the pack, and Billy Bell will just slip in, leaving Trevor Lunn to complete the sextet. But it's going to be damn close.
As for the rest, the Tories used to do quite well here, but Billy Bleakes had a personal base around Hillsborough; Neil Johnston may struggle a little bit. The Workers' Party will see their vote continue its gentle decline into double figures; the Greens will probably post the highest total of these three 'ideological' parties, but even that will be one in modest triple figures. The real interest here will be that fantastic final crush for the last two seats between Alliance, Sinn Féin, the second Ulster Unionist and the fourth DUP runner.
2003 vote - UUP 46.2%/3.24Q, DUP 20.5%/1.44Q, Alliance 10.7%/0.75Q, SF 7.9%/0.55Q, SDLP 7.6%/0.53Q, Con 1.0%/0.07, PUP 0.5%/0.04Q, Ind U 5.4%/0.38Q.
Candidates - UUP: Billy BELL*, Ronnie CRAWFORD, Basil McCREA. DUP: David CRAIG, Jeffrey DONALDSON*, Paul GIVAN, Edwin POOTS*. Alliance: Trevor LUNN. SF: Paul BUTLER. SDLP: Marietta FARRELL*. Cons: Neil JOHNSTON. Workers' Party: John MAGEE. UKUP: Robert McCARTNEY. Green: Michael ROGAN. (*=Sitting MLA)
Prediction: 3 DUP, 2 UUP, 1 Alliance.