Skip to main content
Where I Live
A-Z Index

BBC News

BBC Election 2005

Watch the BBC Election News
  • Election news alerts
  • Email services
  • Mobiles/PDAs
  • News for your site
Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 May, 2005, 16:28 GMT 17:28 UK
Bookies 'influencing beauty contest'
Mark Devenport
By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

With Westminster and local council campaigns closing, Northern Ireland again finds itself in what looks more like two beauty contests for separate nationalist and unionist audiences, than a detailed appraisal of parties' rival programmes for government.

Ballot box
All eyes will be on the results of Thursday's poll

It is not that voters do not care about so called "bread and butter" issues.

Accompanying candidates around the doorsteps, I found people raising topics like the changes to council waste collection brought in by EU regulations, improvements to local sports facilities and the inadequate provision of bus shelters.

When the BBC's Newsline programme took its election bus round Northern Ireland they ran an unorthodox "sweetie jar" poll to test people's concerns.

The hot topic of water charges narrowly beat the orange/green divide into second place.

But ask the local politicians about water charges and you will find they will all tell you they are against them.

Then they will debate in excruciating detail who said what on the topic when the old executive was up and running.

With no polls, and a muted policy debate, could the bookies odds end up being self-fulfilling prophecies

You can ask them whether they support the "can't pay - won't pay" approach (most of them don't).

But you can't ask them whether they will press ahead with the implementation of the charges or not.

Why not? Because none of the 18 victorious politicians this week stands the least chance of being the next Northern Ireland secretary.

Even when the executive was in existence, the d'Hondt system of apportioning ministries made it difficult for voters to attempt to ensure that a particular policy on health, education or water charges was put into practice.

So we are left with the beauty contests, and, here, Northern Ireland's bookmakers have been playing an increasingly influential role.

In some constituencies, such as South Belfast, the campaign seems all about which candidate is the front-runner.

The rival unionists, the DUP's Jimmy Spratt and Ulster Unionist Michael McGimpsey, spend much of their time telling voters the other is out of the running.

The SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell reckons he can win what he originally termed a "three-horse race".

The NI electorate will vote in both Westminster and council polls
The NI electorate will vote in both Westminster and council polls

The bookmakers had to set their odds in the absence of any detailed independent opinion polls.

Perhaps because they were sceptical of some past polls, the local papers did not commission any during the campaign.

But bookmakers' odds require just as many, if not more, health warnings as opinion polls.

That's because they reflect the amount of cash put down on individual politicians.

Many of those bets will come from members of the public guessing who is likely to win.

But as the bookmaker Adrian Eastwood freely admits - without naming names - in this campaign, as in the past, certain candidates have backed themselves.

So, in a small society like Northern Ireland, the odds are potentially wide open to manipulation.

A lot of the early betting went on to DUP candidates.

In South Belfast, Eastwoods rated the SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell as an early favourite.

However, they took a lot of money on the DUP's Jimmy Spratt and he is now established as the favourite.

As Adrian Eastwood says: "In the absence of anything else, money talks. If we do receive cash we'll amend the odds accordingly."

The Ulster Unionist Basil McCrea - challenging the DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson in Lagan Valley - attracted a surprising amount of cash early on.

Over the last weekend of the campaign some heavy sums were also placed on South Belfast Ulster Unionist Michael McGimpsey.

There have also been substantial bets - a couple for 5,000 each - on Sinn Fein's Foyle candidate Mitchel McLaughlin.

The bookmakers are happy to take the cash, whoever it comes from.

But with no polls, and a muted policy debate, could the bookies odds end up being self-fulfilling prophecies?






The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites