Thursday sees Northern Ireland’s second set of Local Council Elections under the current boundaries, with 462 Councillors to be elected from 80 District Electoral Areas (DEAs; each electing between five and seven) to 11 Councils.
Each of the 80 DEAs are effectively separate contests, but there are clear geographic distinctions across Northern Ireland.
I have noted before on this blog that the swing in Unionism from Ulster Unionist to DUP (often via “Other Unionist”) which started around the time of the Agreement was initially much more pronounced on the North Coast (broadly, areas of Scottish settlement) and in urban areas (obviously Greater Belfast and particularly the City Council area) than it was in the southern border areas (areas of predominantly English settlement).
It was only in the re-aligning Stormont and Westminster elections of 2017, clearly therefore after the last Council elections, that the DUP also became clearly the lead Unionist party across Down, Armagh, South Tyrone and Fermanagh.
As we come to understand the picture of the 2019 elections, therefore, it is perhaps this that we need to watch. As above, if you split the 2014 results into five geographical areas – what we might call Belfast City (the Belfast City Council area); Outer Greater Belfast (Antrim/Newtownabbey, Lisburn/Castlereagh and Ards/North Down); Down/Armagh (Newry/Mourne/Down and Armagh/Banbridge/Craigavon); Mid/West Ulster (Mid Ulster, Fermanagh/Omagh and Derry/Strabane); and Antrim/North Coast (Causeway Coast/Glens and Mid/East Antrim).
Council names are still extraordinarily silly, by the way. The difficulty arises from a requirement that no new Council name could incorporate any element of the past Council name except if all elements were incorporated. The result is daft. If we remove that requirement, something like Belfast; Sixmilewater; Clandeboye-Downshire; Clandeboye-Ards; Mourne; Armagh-Iveagh; Mid Ulster; Fermanagh-Strule; Foyle; Causeway-Glens and Mid-East Antrim would be much more straightforward.
When we look at the results (taking the five main parties) in those five broader areas, an intriguing picture of the first preference vote from 2014 emerges:
Sinn Fein 29.2% (19 seats); DUP 19.0% (13); Alliance 11.4% (8); SDLP 10.0% (7); UU 9.0% (7).
Outer Greater Belfast
DUP 36.1% (52); UU 18.4% (29); Alliance 12.7% (18); SDLP 6.9% (8); Sinn Fein 5.9% (3).
Sinn Fein 28.4% (22); SDLP 21.5% (20); UU 19.7% (15); DUP 16.8% (17); Alliance 2.9% (2).
Sinn Fein 39.0% (51); SDLP 17.9% (24); DUP 15.9% (21); UU 15.1% (18); Alliance 1.3% (0).
DUP 30.0% (27); UU 17.9% (19); Sinn Fein 12.6% (10); SDLP 8.4% (6); Alliance 6.6% (4).
In Greater Belfast broadly (so Belfast City Council and the three which surround it), there is no reason not to expect the line-up to remain more or less the same. The likelihood, given the trends over the past five years, is that versus 2014 the DUP, Sinn Fein and Alliance will strengthen a little and the SDLP and Ulster Unionists decline a little, but only in ways reasonably foreseeable.
Likewise in Antrim/North Coast, we may probably expect the same trend to the extent that Sinn Fein may end up roughly level with the Ulster Unionists and Alliance perhaps ahead of the SDLP. However, again this is reasonably predictable.
In Down/Armagh and the southern part of Mid/West Ulster it becomes much more difficult to predict anything with confidence, because here the Ulster Unionists were ahead (in fact, often well ahead) of the DUP. In Fermanagh in 2014, the Ulster Unionists outpolled the DUP by almost 2:1; across rural Tyrone the gap was much narrower, but the Ulster Unionists were still clearly ahead; the Ulster Unionists were the largest party by first preference vote in Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon beating the DUP almost 2:1 again in the DEAs of Armagh and Banbridge and largely holding their own elsewhere. This pattern was repeated, almost slightly more to the advantage of the DUP, in 2016 but then shattered in 2017 (when the Ulster Unionists lost their Assembly seats in South Down, Newry/Armagh and Mid-Ulster at Assembly level and clung on to seats in Upper Bann and Fermanagh/South Tyrone only after being outpolled 2:1 by the DUP in constituencies they had previously been polling almost level).
Therefore, while the media focus will be on Belfast (which will suit me as I expect Alliance to do rather well there) and perhaps on what happens to the SDLP after the Fianna Fail link-up, in many ways the story of the election will be in the southern border Council areas. If the Ulster Unionists can at least challenge to stay ahead in places such as Banbridge, Armagh and Fermanagh, then there may be some basis for a future revival at Assembly level; however, if the swing in the Council elections matches that at Stormont and Westminster, it will constitute an existential crisis.
The most interesting thing north of Lough Neagh is how many DEAs the SDLP will not be contesting – almost the entirety of the Mid & East Antrim council area and also the Ballymoney DEA, where it ran two candidates last time. These are complete withdrawals from places where the SDLP has won Assembly seats in the not overly distant past. Overall, the SDLP is running candidates in only 61 of the 80 DEAs (whereas even Alliance is contesting 72), meaning over a fifth of the population will have no SDLP candidate to vote for at all.
It will be interesting to see also if this is matched on the Nationalist side, where the SDLP had often held its own in areas where Ulster Unionists polled well (although this geographical link is inexact). In large parts of southern Co Down, from the Ards Peninsula down to the western Mournes (and most notably in Downpatrick, where the SDLP polled exactly half the vote in 2014) the question arises whether Sinn Fein’s gains will match those in 2017 (notably when it took the South Down Westminster seat so comfortably).
In many ways, therefore, it is to the south of Lough Neagh where the real story of these elections will be told.