The people have spoken, whatever you now think of them, and the results of Northern Ireland’s first stand-alone Council Elections since 1997 are now in. What to make of them?
I wrote in my preview that Northern Ireland can be usefully divided geographically to identify electoral trends, as what happens in one area may not necessarily happen elsewhere. So what were the trends?
2014: Sinn Fein 29.2% (19 seats); DUP 19.0% (13); Alliance 11.4% (8); SDLP 10.0% (7); UU 9.0% (7).
2019: Sinn Fein 27.9% (18 seats); DUP 21.5% (15); Alliance 15.7% (10); SDLP 9.1% (6); UU 6.2% (2).
I always caution that too much of the media focus is on Belfast City Hall, but in fairness the broader story of the election was told as the count went on.
As in 2011, the story among the main parties in Belfast was of an Alliance rise with lots of poll toppers and of an Ulster Unionist collapse, only this time it was exacerbated. The Ulster Unionists’ recovery to seven seats in the first council under current boundaries five years ago proved to be something of a “dead cat bounce”, and even more so after a calamitous campaign. The Alliance Party in fact comfortably outpolled the Ulster Unionists and SDLP combined, running up big numbers even in parts of North Belfast.
At the top of the rankings, there was some disappointment for Sinn Fein as an astonishing gain in Black Mountain was undone by losses next door in Collin and in Titanic to the east. The DUP had reason for satisfaction, however, adding to the Ulster Unionists’ woes by taking them out of Balmoral while taking the seat effectively vacated by TUV in Court.
In many ways, much of the story here was the rise of the smaller, leftist parties. The Greens had a superb set of results, with an expected gain in Botanic added to by a relatively comfortable victory in Lisnasharragh and an extension north into Castle. People Before Profit also did well to the northwest, taking seats in Oldpark and Collin.
Outer Greater Belfast
2014: DUP 36.1% (52); UU 18.4% (29); Alliance 12.7% (18); SDLP 6.9% (8); Sinn Fein 5.9% (3).
2019: DUP 33.9% (43); UU 18.5% (28); Alliance 21.6% (26); SDLP 6.6% (7); Sinn Fein 6.2% (7)
For many, the story of the election was told in Outer Belfast – yet it was a curious one. That the “Other Unionist” vote in the three Councils around Belfast collapsed from 11% to 4% was not surprising; what was surprising was that the main beneficiaries were the Alliance Party. In practice, of course, what will have happened is those votes will mainly have gone to other Unionist parties, who then ceded them again to Alliance (and in some locations also the Greens).
The curious outcome that Alliance ended up with fewer seats than the Ulster Unionists across the area has a simple explanation. The party polled so well that it simply did not realise that it needed extra candidates to fill the seats its votes would have delivered. Most obviously in Antrim Town and Downshire West (the Hillsborough-Moira area), the Alliance total would easily have delivered and extra seat but, with transfers then available, the Ulster Unionists picked up a seat they otherwise would not have won on each occasion. In fact an Alliance candidate topped in every single one of the seven DEAs which make up Lisburn & Castlereagh Council (even the one in which it had previously never had representation), as well as in much of Ards & North Down and Antrim & Newtownabbey, with running mates elected immediately afterwards where they existed in each case – an astonishing feat but one which the party will not wish to repeat, as it will want more candidates and more seats in future!
There was also some evidence of localised campaigning paying dividends, with “Bangor before Politics” (in Bangor Central) and “Love Ballyclare” independent candidates elected comfortably.
One very specific geographical curiosity was that, such was the scale of the Alliance and Green surge along the “Gold Coast”, if North Down Borough Council still existed, it would likely no longer have a Unionist majority. Among many startling aspects of these results, that is right up there!
2014: Sinn Fein 28.4% (22); SDLP 21.5% (20); UU 19.7% (15); DUP 16.8% (17); Alliance 2.9% (2).
2019: Sinn Fein 27.7% (26); SDLP 18.1% (17); DUP 19.0% (14); UU 16.3% (14); Alliance 7.8% (3).
This was where I had previously said much of the story of the election would be told. The outcome was bizarre, as the Alliance surge spilled over unexpectedly into the north of the area.
As a result, there was indeed an SDLP to Sinn Fein and Ulster Unionist to DUP swing as expected (this was ground that had in fact already been ceded at elections since 2014). It was perhaps not as significant as the SDLP and Ulster Unionists may have feared. Much of the SDLP loss was indeed accrued within the South Down constituency, where the Westminster seat had been surrendered so heavily in 2017. Again here, however, the swing was not as severe as may have been anticipated.
What was remarkable was the Alliance Party surging to almost 8% (more than it has scored at any election bar one in Northern Ireland as a whole this century), taking three seats including one in Lurgan it regarded as such a low prospect that its candidate was the agent for the others.
So a story was told. It was an entirely unexpected one!
2014: Sinn Fein 39.0% (51); SDLP 17.9% (24); DUP 15.9% (21); UU 15.1% (18); Alliance 1.3% (0).
2019: Sinn Fein 35.6% (43); SDLP 17.1% (22); DUP 17.5% (21); UU 11.8% (17); Alliance 3.3% (3)
The story out west was one of Sinn Fein conceding ground to smaller parties rather than (as initially suggested) to the SDLP. In fact in terms of seats and vote share only the DUP and Alliance were up, as was the case across Northern Ireland.
It was in fact specifically in and to the south of Derry that Sinn Fein struggled to hold on, losing ground particularly to Independents and People Before Profit (with an almost direct swing of fully eight percentage points across Derry and Strabane Council area) and losing a seat in each of the three Cityside DEAs. Derry also provided the most bizarre count of the election, with an Alliance candidate emerging from bottom on the first count to be elected well over quota ultimately in Derry’s Waterside; this was made even more remarkable by the fact he will be joined there by a woman who only joined the party when she demanded to know directly from the Party Leader on Twitter where its female candidates were and so was offered the chance to be one herself!
In the West Tyrone constituency, however, it was the SDLP which struggled, even managing calamitously to lose both its seats in Omagh (one to an ex-SDLP Independent and the other to Alliance). In this sense, the areas around the Foyle went one way and the areas away from it went another, at least on the Nationalist side.
As noted also, in more southerly border areas the Ulster Unionist to DUP swing did occur. In Fermanagh a healthy Ulster Unionist lead over the DUP of eleven percentage points was cut to just two; in Tyrone the swing was slightly less marked but a position of near parity between the Unionist parties became a DUP lead of around five points. As was predictable (and predicted here) in advance, these were the biggest regional swings between the Unionist parties in Northern Ireland.
2014: DUP 30.0% (27); UU 17.9% (19); Sinn Fein 12.6% (10); SDLP 8.4% (7); Alliance 6.6% (4).
2019: DUP 31.1% (29); UU 16.7% (14); Sinn Fein 14.5% (11); SDLP 5.7% (7); Alliance 11.8% (9).
As was also predictable (and predicted here), the Alliance Party overtook the SDLP here – although it was perhaps less predictable that this would be by nearly 2:1. This four-point swing from SDLP to Alliance was consistent across the entire area, regardless of which party did or did not field candidates in the various DEAs.
However, in terms of seats it was the Ulster Unionists who seemed to lose out despite largely maintaining vote share, gaining one but losing six (five of which, perhaps notably, were town-based – in Limavady, Coleraine, Ballymena, Larne and Carrickfergus).
I also suggested before the count what we should look for.
Turnout was in fact relatively high, not least for a stand-alone Council election. This suggests to some degree a thirst for change – people were motivated to participate, despite political stalemate.
DUP and perhaps particularly Sinn Fein did not perform particularly well. The DUP gained vote share a little (but was fully 12 points behind its June 2017 share) but lost seats; Sinn Fein managed to stay even in seats but lost vote share slightly. This was the first election of any kind in the last five years where the DUP and Sinn Fein combined vote share fell short of 50%; perhaps that is now just what happens at Council elections, but it does hint at the very least that they have “maxed out”.
Far from being able to make any inroads into the two big parties’ leads, in fact the SDLP and particularly Ulster Unionists suffered a swing against them. Despite the higher turnout, this was the first Council election ever in which the Ulster Unionists failed to hit 100,000 votes and the loss of thirteen seats is concerning. The SDLP lost vote share consistently everywhere (even in places Sinn Fein was also losing it) and finished astonishingly just 3,000 votes ahead of the Alliance Party.
For the Alliance Party, of course, that hope that extra votes would turn into seats came true when the scale of the vote gain became apparent. Coming close to 80,000 votes for the first time since the re-alignment of Northern Ireland party politics upon the participation in it of Sinn Fein from the early 1980s, not far short of double the total number cast for it just five years ago, was astonishing. In Greater Belfast, the Alliance Party is firmly entrenched as the second largest party in terms of both votes and seats, but the real story of the election was its expansion to representation on all Councils bar one to become a truly Northern Ireland-wide party for the first time since the 1970s.
For other Progressives too it was a fine election – the total first preference vote share for candidates who were non-aligned to either Unionist or Nationalist “camps” almost doubled to close to 20%, a figure well beyond anything seen before in Northern Ireland’s modern political history. The Greens and People Before Profit remain urban (and occasionally suburban) parties, but they now have earned a role in several councils each. Conversely for anyone who may be described as an “Other Unionist” this was a poor election – the Unionist vote declined markedly overall, and that which was left consolidated behind the main two Unionist parties and particularly the main one.
This was not a short sharp “realigning election” of the kind commonly meant by the phrase, but it did rather confirm a realignment which has been coming all decade. Nothing is certain in politics, but it seems only a matter of time (potentially even this month) before the Alliance Party overtakes one or other of the SDLP or Ulster Unionists, or both, and that sort of shift (which is ultimately and fundamentally a shift away from sectarian politics) could prove to be generation-defining. What is sure is that we live in interesting times!