Alliance Surge – Is Lagan Valley an exception or an indication of the future?

The dust has barely settled on the much anticipated general election which saw the Labour Party returned to power, after fourteen years, with a whopping Parliamentary majority of one hundred and seventy-two seats. As much as it pleases me to see the Conservatives hammered and consigned to the opposition benches for hopefully a long time, I’d like to look a bit closer to home. Namely what happens now for the local parties given the shock win of both Sorcha Eastwood in Lagan Valley for Alliance, and the bolt out of the blue victory of the TUV leader Jim Allister over Ian Paisley Jnr in North Antrim. 

I’ve known Sorcha, albeit not well, for some time now. Her sights, and those of the Alliance Party, were set firmly on Lagan Valley even before the 2019 general election, however it was always seen, during my time in the party, as a DUP/Unionist stronghold. That notion has been firmly disabused, similar to what Naomi Long achieved in East Belfast in 2010, by the hard work and determination of former MLA, now MP, Sorcha Eastwood. Whilst I am personally delighted to see Sorcha take the seat, not least because of the personal struggles she has been so open about with her husband Dale’s ongoing illness, for which I am sure we all wish he and Sorcha the best of fortunes and grace, but also because of what Lagan Valley represented for the DUP.

DUP MLA Paul Givan and party colleague and former leader, Edwin Poots MLA

At one point in the not too distant past it was the seat of both the First Minister Paul Givan, and erstwhile DUP leader Edwin Poots, now Speaker of the Assembly. Granted, it is still a DUP stronghold with both the Deputy First Minister Emma Little Pengelly and current Education Minister, and former First Minister, Paul Givan both representing the constituency in the Assembly, and the DUP and other unionists still holding a majority in Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council.

It was likely a combination of factors that pushed Sorcha’s victory over the line in Lagan Valley. A local Cllr on LCCC since 2019, then swept into the Assembly in 2022 on the back of the Alliance surge, Sorcha is a savvy political operator, able to speak well, knows her brief, and isn’t afraid to challenge both Unionist and Nationalist political platforms in the constituency which garnered her media appearances, headlines, and social media clout. Sorcha’s passion and dedication to the constituency has been evident even before she was a local councillor, and her ability to connect with people and offer them something new, alongside what I no doubt was a mammoth amount of hard work, was what ultimately, in my mind, clinched her the victory on July 4th.

Alliance Cllr Alderman Amanda Grehan

With a vacant seat in the Assembly now in Lagan Valley with Sorcha taking up space on the opposition benches in Westminster, it remains to be seen who will fill that gap. I myself postulated that Alliance may co-opt Stephen Farry, who lost his North Down seat to Independent, and former DUP MLA Alex Easton, but he’s not from the constituency and may himself refuse. I suspect Alliance may want to co-opt one of their more noteworthy local representatives, perhaps Councillor Amanda Grehan who has been on LCCC since 2014, and was Sorcha’s campaign manager. Amanda knows the constituency and already has those local relationships built within Council, and would be an excellent asset to Alliance in Stormont. Plus another woman would look good for both Alliance, and be a welcome addition to the Assembly.

What Stephen Farry does now is up to both him and Alliance to discuss, but I have no doubt he will be back in the debating chamber of Stormont, North Down council, or some other body soon. I had been convinced that Farry would hold the seat, however, the agreed unity candidate of Alex Easton, a well-regarded local representative for the area, former Cllr and former DUP MLA who was deselected and then ran as an independent against his former party in the 2022 Assembly elections proved to be too much of a mountain for Alliance to conquer.

One out, one in: former MP Stephen Farry with incoming MP Sorcha Eastwood

Back to Lagan Valley, however, and as DUP candidate and MLA for Upper Bann Jonathan Buckley made clear in his concessions speech, he was asked to run in the election under some very difficult circumstances. With former DUP leadeir Jeffrey Donaldson, MP for Lagan Valley since 1997 currently awaiting trial for a number of sex crimes, alongside his wife Eleanor, and the clouded history of the DUP in Lagan Valley in recent years, it was always going to be an uphill battle to retain the seat. With the blink-and-you-’ll-miss-it tenure of Edwin Poots as DUP leader, the co-option of Emma Little Pengelly to replace Jeffrey Donaldson in the Assembly, the similarly brief time of Paul Givan as First Minister, and the moving of Edwin Poots from Lagan Valley to South Belfast, all must have played a hand in diminishing their core vote.

Buckley was gracious in his concession speech, wishing Sorcha and her husband well, but the victory was not his to savour, unfortunately. A combination of three Unionist candidates with the UUP Deputy leader and local MLA Robbie Butler securing over eleven thousand votes, and the TUV’s Lorna Smyth a hair under three thousand, it’s impossible to say in a First Past The Post Election if those same voters would have voted for the DUP had the two candidates stood aside. Robbie is an incredibly popular local MLA with a reputation for his faith, his passion for Unionism, and a media-ready persona. It’s likely that had the UUP selected another candidate then Buckley may well have narrowly clinched the seat for the DUP, but we’ll never know. Sinn Fein didn’t run in the constituency, but I would wager that decision had a negligible impact on the overall outcome, as Nationalists had a clear choice in Simon Lee of the SDLP (former Green Party), and only secured over a thousand votes.

Centre: Danny Donnelly MLA on the campaign trail

Target seats for Alliance now will include the former, and I use that term lightly, DUP strongholds of East Antrim, Strangford, and most likely South Belfast. Alliance managed to increase their vote share in Upper Bann, Foyle, and marginally in North Belfast but I can’t see Alliance pouring much resources into those seats as they would have a Hell of an uphill battle unseating the Sinn Fein incumbents in Foyle and N.Belfast, and DUP MP Carla Lockhart increased her majority on July 4th. The outlier here is East Belfast, where Alliance leader and current Justice Minister Naomi Long MLA stood against DUP leader Gavin Robinson for the fourth time and wasn’t successful. Naomi is a very popular MLA in East Belfast, and nominally across Northern Ireland, however the recent headlines regarding sex offences legislation, her snubbing of an Ireland’s Future event, and the fiasco with Alliance’s West Belfast candidate being in the USA for the entirety of the campaign may have cost her the win.

In fact at this round, Naomi’s vote share decreased behind that of her 2015, and 2019 performances, and personally I can’t see Naomi contesting the seat for a fifth time. My hunch would be that Naomi will want to focus her time in the Assembly into the Department of Justice, and building upon Alliance electoral successes at the next Assembly election. Who Alliance put up against Gavin Robinson (should he run again) is unknown, but five years is a long time in politics. I can only see the seat changing hands to Alliance again if Robinson was to opt not to run, and an incumbent Alliance MLA could use an established profile to get the edge over a DUP unknown, but alas. I actually think, personally, that should Alliance try and retake North Down they would be better placed to select Naomi Long herself to contest the seat. It’s a relatively liberal constituency, having elected Independent and Alliance MPs in the last clatter of elections, and her style of politics could lend itself to an easy Alliance win in 2029.

DUP leader Gavin Robinson MP with Alliance leader Noami Long prior to the election

Regarding East Antrim, Alliance’s Danny Donnelly, another well-known name in the constituency, chased the DUP’s Sammy Wilson’s majority down from nearly sixteen thousand in 2017 to just over thirteen hundred in 2024. Without a doubt that majority can be overturned, and I would be surprised if the DUP don’t ask for an electoral pact with other Unionist parties in the run-up to the next general election. Suppose the DUP can’t form pacts or ask certain parties to stand aside. In that case, Danny Donnelly MP will be a reality come 2029, as will Michelle Guy MP in Strangford, who only managed to increase Alliance’s vote share marginally, but Jim Shannon’s fell by half a percentage point. That might not seem much but in what is now a marginal seat, a half a percentage point could mean the difference between an Alliance surge, or DUP wipeout, in Westminster.

It will all depend on the outcome of the next Assembly election, scheduled for May 2027, as to whether the DUP can turn their fortunes around in these constituencies, and if Alliance can capitalise on the increased vote-share and pull off another 2010 East Belfast, or 2024 Lagan Valley moment.

Discover more from Slugger O'Toole

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

Recent posts

We are reader supported. Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger. While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated. 

Give a monthly donation Give a one-off donation