#LE19 Northern Ireland’s Council Elections – what to look for

The count takes place tomorrow morning for Northern Ireland’s Council elections, previewed here.

As ever in Northern Ireland, it is difficult even to agree what the key question of the election is. Some see it as “standing up” to the other side of the sectarian divide; others see it as an opportunity to give the big parties (or a particular big party) a bloody nose. The DUP argue they need the “strength to deliver”; Sinn Fein focused on “rights” and Brexit and the border; the Ulster Unionists tried some kind of “deliver change” narrative; the SDLP turned to Europe but also had to explain its Fianna Fail link-up; and the Alliance Party demanded change. What will the electorate make of this?

Given Northern Ireland’s preferential voting system (known as “Single Transferable Vote”), this is a test match rather than limited overs – the count will in fact likely take two days fully to complete. However, more than half of individual counts will be complete and we will have some idea of overall first preference vote share by end Friday (albeit including some which may go beyond midnight); tallies and some early results should in fact give us a clear indication of general trend by lunchtime.

So, what are we looking for?

Firstly, we already hear turnout being described as “low”. However, in fact it is not bad for what is the first standalone Council Election in Northern Ireland this century. Inevitably, however, the vagaries of turnout are important. We already have indications that turnout is comparatively lower in areas where it was higher in the General Election to deliver the DUP surge.

Secondly, Sinn Fein and particularly the DUP did not do particularly well last time, in 2014, as per performances in other elections around that time. At 24.0% and 23.1% respectively, both parties scored 4-5 points lower vote share in that election than in the most recent Assembly Election in March 2017. It is likely that their vote share will be lower than at the last Assembly or General Election in each case and this will be presented as evidence of “noses bloodied”. It is only really a story, however, if vote share heads below mid-20s towards the 2014 figures or even lower.

Thirdly, assuming there are at least some gains to be made from the big two parties, the question arises which parties will make them? The Ulster Unionists in fact scored a relatively healthy 16.1%, over 100,000 votes, in 2014; the SDLP did rather more poorly but 13.5% was still comfortably more than double what Alliance managed, with a then disappointing 6.6%. Depending a little on just how much ground there is to gain, holding ground is likely respectable but still sobering outcome

For the DUP, defending its 130 seats and maintaining its status as largest party in local government will likely suffice. However, the realities of Northern Ireland geography and of ground they have already gained in other elections south of Lough Neagh (notably in Down and Armagh) mean that it should expect to have a few more seats at the close of play versus 2014.

For Sinn Fein, there is a growing risk that its failure to deliver is beginning to cost it votes. Its total of 150,000 last time (rising subsequently to close to 200,000 in March 2017) is therefore unlikely to be surpassed. Again, however, a low turnout and ground already gained in South Down in particular mean that anything below last time’s total of 105 seats would be a severe disappointment, and ultimately gains are still to be expected.

For the Ulster Unionists, it will be extraordinarily difficult to defend what were excellent results last time notably in the Fermanagh, Banbridge and Armagh areas. 100,000 votes on a lower turnout would be some achievement; a rather lower total and vote share is probably to be expected, although this depends on exactly how the public has read the message of “change” on one hand but “Unionist loyalty” on the other. If the party emerges with anything like last time’s haul of 88 seats, it will be content enough; however, its performance is probably the hardest to predict (as it is often good at winning late seats on transfers).

For the SDLP, this campaign has been tough as it has had to explain the link with Fianna Fail, an apparently new stance on abortion, and in Belfast City the loss of three Councillors during the outgoing term. It that context, it too would probably be pleased with repeating last time’s 66 seats, a task made trickier by a subsequent clear swing away from it in areas where the SDLP previously held but no longer holds MPs.

For the Alliance Party, there is reason to believe its vote share will be higher, as last time’s 6.6% was the worst this decade. The difficulty will be turning more votes into more seats. Some of the best hopes for that are in Belfast City itself, but with a lot of ground to make up before seat gains become a serious prospect it will be important to watch early tallies to see if the improbable moves to probable. Elsewhere, the party will hope for a bit of luck in terms of late seats that it generally lacked last time when mustering a slightly disappointing 32.

For other parties, this may be an election of real opportunity although it is unclear whether they have been able to get key messages across. On the Unionist side, TUV did quite well in 2014 but is running fewer candidates this time and so may have a mixed day; UKIP will also wonder if Brexit plays in its favour among Leave-Unionists. The Greens in Belfast City will be looking to gain further seats, perhaps most obviously in Botanic and Lisnasharragh (again, early tallies will tell a tale). Some prominent Independents for one reason or another may feel that the public mood and relatively low turnout versus other elections may turn some seats their way.

There are, fundamentally, 80 separate races and it will be some time for the whole story to be revealed. It is probably worth avoiding the early social media excitement but taking a look at the score at lunchtime, as the trends in terms of actual votes counted begin to become clear.

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