Northern Ireland Assembly election poll and odds: What to expect and who will win?

Ashley Kirk
A road sweeper van passes Stormont, Belfast, Northern Ireland  - Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

The Northern Ireland Assembly election will take place on Thursday 2 March, with the two dominant parties of unionism and nationalism - the DUP and Sinn Féin - expected to retain their seat at the table of government.

The election was triggered because of the collapse of the Assembly's power-sharing agreement, following Sinn Féin's refusal to respond to calls to replace Martin McGuinness as leader and deputy First Minister

Arlene Foster, the DUP First Minister, had previously rejected calls to step down while a probe into the Government's handling of a botched renewable energy scheme takes place.

Following the collapse of the power-sharing government, Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire announced a Stormont Assembly election will take place.

What to expect in the election 

There will be 228 candidates contesting the Assembly election contesting 90 seats across 18 constituencies.

The largest parties to contest the election are the DUP, Sinn Féin, the UUP, Alliance, the Greens and the Conservatives.

Polling by Lucid Talk currently suggests that the DUP will emerge as the largest party, and will likely have to once again share power with Sinn Féin - the second largest party.

Northern Ireland election polling

How does the Assembly work?

The election, due to take place on Thursday 2 March, will elect 90 MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) to represent 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland.

Elections are supposed to take place every five years - like Westminster elections - but the collapse of the power-sharing government means that it's been less than a year since the last one.

MLAs will be elected using a system called Single Transferable Vote (STV). It's a form of proportional representation that's also used in elections to the European Parliament and in the Republic of Ireland.

In the STV system, constituencies elect a set number of candidates - so each of the 18 constituencies elects five MLAs. 

Voters then rank the candidates in the constituency, with each party putting forward as many candidates as it likes.

They mark the candidates 1, 2, 3, and so on, in order of preference - with 1 for their first choice of candidate.

Seats are then awarded in proportion to the number of votes cast, with voters’ lower ranking preferences taken into account.

What has happened in previous Belfast elections?

The DUP emerged as the largest party in 2016 - securing 29.2 per cent of the vote and 38 seats. 

Sinn Féin emerged as the second largest party, with 28 seats at the Assembly after winning 24 per cent of the vote.

Northern Ireland Assembly Results 2016: 1st Preference Vote Share

 The 2016 election followed a similar pattern as 2016, with the DUP emerging as the largest party - at exactly the same number of seats. 

The two main parties refused to remove their claim on the lion's share of the seats at the Assembly, although both the DUP and Sinn Féin saw their vote share decline between 2011 and 2016.

Northern Ireland Assembly Results 2016: Seats

Northern Ireland Assembly odds

For those who have lost faith in polling to educate political predictions, there is another way: ask people who are prepared to put their money where their mouth is.

After Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the 2015 General Election, many now believe that political betting markets can better predict elections, relying on the wisdom of a crowd of punters to sort and weigh all the probabilities.

Betting odds suggest that the DUP will be the largest party in Northern Ireland after Thursday's election, with Sinn Féin being the next most likely party to emerge victorious.

The latest Paddy Power odds for the election are:

  • DUP: 1/4
  • Sinn Féin: 11/4
  • UUP:  33/1
  • SDLP: 66/1
  • Alliance: 200/1

What will happen after the election?

It looks likely that the Northern Irish people will return the DUP and Sinn Féin as the Assembly's two largest parties, forcing the two main parties of unionism and nationalism to return to power sharing. 

But the disputes that caused the government to collapse haven't gone away, and a bitter election campaign won't help the chances of such a deal working.

The new Assembly will need a meet within one week of the election. A further two weeks on from that, an executive has to be in place - with first and deputy first ministers nominated,

If the leading parties decline to do so within the timeframe, UK laws states that Northern Ireland Secretary Mr Brokenshire would have to call another election. This would be an extreme step to take, with the suspension of devolution and a return to direct rule a possibility.

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