Category Archives: Politics

Suspension of Parliament – what now for the Opposition?

The Liberal Democrats earned headlines this week for its policy – but here it is vital to be specific – that it would revoke Article 50 (and thus “cancel Brexit”) in the event that it won a majority at a General Election.

The specific pledge, therefore, is dependent on the party winning a majority of seats in the House of Commons, in which case it would have won a mandate from the electorate for that pledge and thus to overturn that same electorate’s decision from three-and-a-half years ago.

Clearly, this is politics. The Liberal Democrats are not likely to win an overall majority, in which case it will still be mandated to negotiate its way into a coalition government offering, perhaps, a “Final Say” referendum.

The Labour Party has taken a stance of campaigning for such a “Final Say” referendum. The choice would be between a “sensible” or “workable” Brexit deal, and remaining in the EU. In principle, this is an extremely reasonable position – once the electorate sees what the UK’s future relationship with its large neighbour and chief trading partner would look like from outside, it should have the chance to decide whether that is what it really wants.

This stance will come under two main lines of attack. Firstly, it is simply unclear – what is this “sensible” or “workable” deal of which they speak and how do they know it is negotiable? Secondly, Leavers will argue that offering a “Remain” option in a subsequent referendum will mean the EU will not negotiate seriously.

The first of these will be effective, particularly if there is an election, because the voters rarely reward a lack of clarity on the big issue. The second, however, may not be quite as effective as Leavers think. It will only point to the reality that there are only two types of Brexit – calamitous or pointless. As Leavers accuse the EU of being likely either to offer a Brexit so soft that voters will reject it as pointless, or so hard that voters will reject it as calamitous, they only prove the pointlessness of the entire exercise.

For all of this, there remains the distinct possibility that the next General Election will take place with the UK already having left the EU, rendering these positions pointless.

The Conservatives will recognise this as being in their interests. Specifically, what is in their interests is to leave imminently with a deal, thus avoiding any immediate cliff-edge (in fact, leaving with a deal would probably see an economic boost as Sterling would likely gain value). Whether the current incumbent of No. 10 knows how to get a deal, and how to get it past Parliament, is another matter.

So, what could the Opposition do on 14 October? Here, we need to raise something which thus far too few are talking about.

Remember, the theoretical reason for the suspension of Parliament was for a Queen’s Speech (in other words, an outline of the Government’s proposed Programme for Government). However, the Government now lacks a majority. There is a fair chance that the Queen’s Speech will in fact be rejected. By convention, this would be regarded as a Vote of No Confidence, thus setting the clock ticking either to a change of Government or to the announcement by as early as (but no earlier than) 28 October of a date for a General Election.

There is, of course, always the potential for the Convention to be ignored, forcing an actual Confidence Vote during which the Opposition may yet decide to leave the Prime Minister to stew a little longer until he carried out the requirement of seeking an extension of the UK’s EU membership. The Opposition needs to be careful here, because it could soon be the side charged objectively with breaching Convention and good faith.

Ultimately, this does mean that the chances of the Opposition being in effect forced to form a caretaker administration are higher than commentators currently seem to suggest. Opposition MPs all need to contemplate that.

So, if the Opposition were to form a caretaker administration, what policy would it pursue, given that some of the goals established here last week have already been accomplished and given the difference in policy of the two main (English) Opposition parties?

It seems to me that the policy most likely to unify the Opposition would be one closer to Labour’s, noting that this implies no loss of face for the Liberal Democrats as they have been clear that their policy of revocation applies only in the event of their gaining an absolute majority in Parliament. It therefore remains the case that the Opposition’s best bet is surely to take office, to recommend that the public should decide between seeking an EFTA-Association-style Withdrawal Agreement and remaining in the EU.

The EU has said it will not re-open the Withdrawal Agreement, but that position is predicated on the UK’s maintaining its current red lines. A new administration pledging to offer an EFTA-Association-style relationship would essentially be abandoning the red line that there should be no freedom of movement (of workers) in future, and thus enabling the rewriting of the political declaration of the Withdrawal Agreement sought by the EU to allow a transition period potentially to the end of 2022 without the backstop needing to apply. Since an EFTA-style relationship would maintain regulatory alignment in most areas, with divergence likely only in agriculture and fishing (for which there are already partial checks in the Irish Sea), maintenance of an open land border with Ireland would be relatively straightforward.

Nor does an EFTA-Association-style agreement necessarily require actual membership of EFTA. As noted last week, it may be preferable for the UK to do what Finland once did and operate as an associate. EFTA would continue as is, but could bring in the UK to its agreements (and vice-versa, for that matter) if it were mutually beneficial.

Thus, it would be perfectly possible for a new administration to put to the public in a referendum this strategy for withdrawal from the EU (it can have the referendum as early as possible in the new year with a withdrawal date of 30 April, the end of the current budgetary cycle – the details can then be worked out over a transition period lasting potentially up to two and a half years), in the knowledge that the EU and EFTA would surely be relatively content with it. This is, essentially, the “workable” Brexit of which the Labour Party speaks.

What happens if the Opposition does not act, and the Prime Minister remains in post with his hands tied? Then the money remains on an election around 28 November or even 5 December, although it is increasingly hard to see what purpose such an election would serve except if the UK has left the EU with a deal in advance. In the event of a genuinely chaotic Brexit, surely a national government rather than another five-week suspension of Parliament would be required? In the event of no deal agreed with the EU by 31 October, the next step from everyone’s point of view (including, Remainers should note, the Prime Minister’s) would surely be a referendum rather than an election?

This points to another potential difficulty for the Opposition. Either the Prime Minister will blame them for having his hands tied so he cannot get a deal, or in fact he will return to the Commons before the end of October with a deal agreed. If at least some of the Opposition agree to such a deal, he can then move to an election with a fair likelihood of success (as there will no or very limited immediate chaos and he will have delivered as he said); if they do not, he will be able to paint them all as closet Remainers and can then head into a “People versus Parliament” election (with or without a prior referendum) just as he originally planned. This is why a deal with the EU is so clearly in the Prime Minister’s strategic electoral interest.

Given all of this, it may prove better for the Opposition to force No Confidence and form a caretaker administration as soon as possible to move towards a referendum under which they set the terms as above. Leaving it to the Prime Minister to come back with a deal is high risk in every sense, leaving open a route either to an election or to a referendum on his own terms which could yet result in the very “No Deal” Brexit they are trying to avoid (plus five years of dangerously incompetent Populist-Conservative Government).

The stakes are high, but predict nothing with certainty!

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On bridges and Brexit

Shortly after the EU referendum in 2016, as Sterling plummeted, I received from Berlin the largest translation/editing contract I had ever received. The irony of being a Brexit beneficiary was not lost on me, but I set to work.

The translation concerned the environmental statements for a construction project known as the “Fehmarn Belt Fixed Link”. Why would I mention this? Because it is relevant to explaining just how fanciful, ignorant and idiotic the people currently trying and failing to run the UK actually are.

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The Fehmarn Link would cross from the Danish island of Lolland to the German island of Fehmarn, each themselves connected to the mainland respectively of Sealand (the island on which Copenhagen is located and thus also connected directly via the Oresund crossing to Sweden) and Continental Europe – marked yellow above. It is particularly important because the car ferries which currently cover the route cannot take Heavy Goods Vehicles, and thus freight traffic has no option but to head around via the island of Funen and the peninsula of Jutland to access mainland Europe from eastern Denmark (and thus most of Sweden) – marked red above.

While Denmark was busy building impressive bridges (not just across the Oresund but also across the Great Belt between Sealand and Funen – on the red route above) in the 1990s, plans began for the connection to Germany.

However, having even awarded provisional contracts, the bridge plan was changed in 2010 to a tunnel, largely because this would be less likely to be a victim of closure and also because it would be less disruptive to shipping. In 2015 the bill to proceed with construction subject to EU funding (supported by Germany and Sweden) passed the Danish Parliament. Tolls on the crossing would see the total cost recouped in perhaps 30 years.

Let us be clear about a few things here:

  • the total length of the crossing would be less than a quarter of that between, say, Scotland and Northern Ireland;
  • construction would be less than a quarter of the cost given the sea is not so deep so masts/pillars would not be so high, and even at that is now projected at €5.5 billion (itself surely an underestimate);
  • the connection benefits more than half of the population of Scandinavia (so, 12.5 million or so) linking them to German-speaking Europe, Benelux and beyond (100 million upwards);
  • motorway links (but for 25km the German side) already exist to either end of the proposed crossing;
  • there is a very specific benefit for freight traffic which literally cannot use the existing ferry service.

Despite this, and despite the proven aptitude of the Danes for such things, the project has inevitably become embroiled in legal wrangles and as we approach the 2020s, a generation after planning began and a decade after the current proposal was agreed, construction still has not started.

The population of the entire island of Ireland and Scotland combined is less than the 12.5 million just one the minority side of the Fehmarn Belt; the cost would be many times greater and never recoverable from the vastly lower amount of traffic using it (given it links such low and sparse populations); the crossing would connect a primary A-Road to a secondary A-road the latter two hours’ drive from any motorway; and in any case no constructor would take on the work as it crosses the site where unmapped munitions were dumped in 1946.

So tell me this, what kind of complete idiot would you have to be even to suggest such a thing?

It is fanciful nonsense borne of utter ignorance about the realities of finance, engineering, geography, history or frankly anything at all.

Is there any chance we could stop electing such idiots? (Oh, and could we now stop talking about it? Talking about it is exactly what the Prime Minister wants us to do to avoid discussion of his other crazed delusions.)

Suspension of Parliament – now what?!

Last week‘s update proved slightly more prescient than the previous week’s, with the Opposition rightly avoiding the trap of a pre-Brexit election and instead forcing the Prime Minister to wait for his election.

That, plus the passage of a Bill blocking a “no deal” Brexit on 31 October, led to the departure of two Cabinet Ministers from the Government and 22 Conservative MPs from the parliamentary party, leaving the Prime Minister well short of a parliamentary majority even with DUP backing.

This leaves us in uncharted waters, given that the Prime Minister needs a two-thirds majority from the total house for an election (when he tried this week and last week he did not even get half) or to lose a Vote of No Confidence. The Opposition parties are united, however, in their view that they want no such Vote until the Bill blocking a “no deal” Brexit is actually implemented – for fear of a default crash-out on 31 October during or immediately after an election campaign.

This is particularly clever by the Opposition, however, because it flushes out the Prime Minister’s “strategy”. Either he gets a deal and can leave as he said he would on 31 October, or he does not and is obliged to seek an extension of the UK’s membership of the EU into 2020. Since it is now evident the Prime Minister had no idea how to get a deal, his choice appears to be either to break his word on the date of departure or to be entirely responsible (and in fact criminally liable) for a crash-out Brexit on 31 October.

As was evident from a farcical trip to a police training college during the week, the Prime Minister had not reckoned on the Opposition being so clever. His ventures in public have clearly been the stuff not of a Prime Minister focused on the job, but of a Party Leader in full election campaign mode. However, he has been denied that election.

So, what now?

Firstly, ignore the nonsense that somehow the Prime Minister does not have to seek the extension if there is no deal by the end of October. He will have to. There is no way out of that. (That does not absolutely mean that he will, of course – but note again that he will be politically responsible and criminally liable if he does not). Note also that the Prime Minister cannot veto his own extension bid (that has to be one of the other 27 Governments, under the terms of Article 50). Politically, the extension will be offered, though conceivably to 30 April rather than 31 January.

Secondly, there will have to be an election at some stage reasonably soon, for the simple reason that no party is anywhere near a governing majority even with natural supporters. That said, it has been possible in the past for minority governments to stumble on even for a year – after the breakdown of the “Lib/Lab pact” in 1978, James Callaghan’s Labour minority government managed to do deals with other parties, including interestingly the Ulster Unionists, in order to stay in office for a further year. The issue currently is that Parliament is so sharply divided that this would likely be impossible even if the Prime Minister wanted to wait (which, evidently, he does not).

The Prime Minister is unpredictable and his best bet to enforce an election is in fact to resign. (The problem there is that he has to advise the monarch on who she should send for to form a government – he no longer has the right to recommend an election without the agreement of two thirds of MPs.)

His second best bet is to try to do a deal with the EU. However, since he has not been seriously trying, he has left it very late and the only deal available which is not identical to Theresa May’s would be the original one with the Northern Ireland-only backstop. As it is far from clear this would pass the Commons (given the alternative is an extension of the UK’s membership, more pro-European MPs are unlikely to feel it is a risk worth taking; and of course the DUP will vote against as well), the EU may well not even offer it openly. However, it is really the only route the Prime Minister can pursue to keep his word on the withdrawal date.

In other words, the Prime Minister has walked into a trap of his own making.

The question becomes what should the Opposition do now? There is surely a case for it seeking to take office prior to an election, even if only briefly, to do a few things; or at least to force legislation through for the following:

  • publish the “Operation Yellowhammer” documents outlining the likely impacts on the public (and proposed Government response) to a “No Deal” crash-out [this would ensure no nonsense from the Government on yesterday evening’s motion and it is unlikely any of the MPs in opposition to the Government would have a problem here];
  • as a consequence, pass legislation barring a “No Deal” Brexit in any circumstance [conceivable that one or two ex-Conservatives would be concerned about this but there is no doubt there would be a clear parliamentary majority for it];
  • as a further consequence, pass legislation for a referendum between leaving on EFTA-associate terms (similar to Finland’s relationship prior to joining the EU in 1995) and remaining in the EU [this would no doubt be more controversial among the Opposition parties, but it is a logical consequence of the previous two];
  • change the electoral system to PR-MMP (i.e. that used for legislative elections in Scotland and Wales) to avoid the nonsense of 35% being enough for an overall majority [Labour itself may oppose this because it denies Jeremy Corbyn the same opportunity, but it should at least be looked at].

I did not intend to do these weekly, but a week in an epoch in politics these days…

Suspension of Parliament – update

I wrote this last week on the likely next moves after the Prime Minister secured the Queen’s permission to suspend Parliament last week.

Somewhat contrary to what I wrote, it appears that the Opposition reckons it does have time to pass legislation designed to prevent a “no deal” Brexit (specifically, to prevent one any time before the end of January or perhaps in effect the end of April 2020). Of course, it remains to be seen if the legislation drafted is watertight and if there is time to pass it.

However, in many ways the effect of this legislation would be the same as a no confidence vote. It would, after all, specifically tell the Prime Minister that the legislature does not have confidence in his Brexit strategy. There is also little doubt that the Prime Minister himself will treat it that way, and so the next move will be for him to claim the Opposition is forcing him into an election on the assumption that he lacks the confidence of the House.

However, strictly speaking a “Vote of No Confidence” would not have been passed in such a context, so the procedures after one would not apply. There would be no countdown to an automatic election; instead, there would still be a requirement for two thirds of MPs to assent to an election (as happened in 2017).

(The Prime Minister could attempt to put confidence on the vote on the final Bill requiring an extension of EU membership to be sought, in which case the procedures would apply if this were allowed. This is very risky for all sides, however; for the Prime Minister it risks allowing the other side to form an administration without an election, and for the Opposition it risks an election too late to make any difference to Brexit.)

Remember, an election causes Parliament to be suspended anyway. Even if legislation is passed and receives Royal Assent (and even more so if it has not passed), it is a high-risk strategy to force the suspension of Parliament until close to 31 October, not least because it would be conceivable that no new Prime Minister would be in place by that date regardless of the date and outcome of the election. This again raises questions about just how watertight legislation can be, when it will likely in effect require action by the Prime Minister in the run-up to 31 October in any case. What happens, for example, if there is no Parliament sitting to ensure that he adheres to the law as passed? What happens if a Prime Minister, still in office post-election as the Opposition decides if it can form a coalition to remove him from office, or indeed reinvigorated by having won the election, simply ignores (or repeals) the legislation?

The Opposition needs to proceed, therefore, with caution here. It wants to stop “no deal” but it also has to be sure that, if it comes to one, the current Government carries the entire responsibility. An election close to 31 October, for all kinds of reasons, risks the UK falling out of the EU with no deal by default regardless of what legislation is passed and what the date or outcome of an election would be, with the added political consequence that the Conservatives could blame Opposition meddling for any resultant chaos.

The likelihood therefore is that, despite current overt denials, there will be pressure for an election from the Government. The Opposition (specifically the Labour Party) will still need to assent to one, however, noting that the Prime Minister then decides the precise date. The question then becomes whether the anti-No Deal side has the coherence and foresight to recognise that, in every sense, an election close to 31 October would likely merely add to the problem rather than provide a solution.

It is anyone’s guess what will happen now. For what it is worth my instinct is the Government, advised by people who think militarily rather than politically, will end up overplaying its hand.

NB: These blog posts are written for the purposes of analysis rather the political promotion. Obviously, with the latest Northern Ireland poll (DUP 29%, Sinn Fein 25%, Alliance 21%, UU 9%, SDLP 8%) means from a purely partisan point of view I quite fancy an election…!

How do we know what the Romans sounded like?

Last week’s piece on Classical Latin, particularly the phonology, triggered a reasonable and obvious question: how do we know what they sounded like?

Without recorded voices of any kind, of course, we cannot know absolutely precisely. However, because we can reconstruct languages from what came after (modern languages such as, in this case, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian and Romanian) and indeed what went before, we can merge this with direct historical evidence of what the Romans said about their own speech to gather a very accurate picture.

Alphabet

Firstly, the Romans were lucky because, although their alphabet mimicked Greek (and thus Phoenician), it was in fact designed specifically for Latin. No modern Western European language has that advantage – all of them use the Latin alphabet and then have to make it fit around a different language from the one it was designed for.

Initially, the Romans required just 18 letters – five litterae vōcāles (of voice; A, E, I, O, U) and 13 cōnsonantēs (with sound; B, C, D, F, H, L, M, N, P, Q, R, S, T). I and U could be semi-vocalic; in fact Q was used only before U as QU to indicate this was the case (versus CU, when it was not).

In time the Romans added G to distinguish from C; X for the combination CS or GS; and K, Y and Z for words borrowed from Greek (although some writers ignored K while others came to use it more widely to replace C even in native words in particular instances, such as frequently before A).

Fundamentally, however, the Latin alphabet remained one letter for one sound, with just the odd exception (notably X and arguably QU; with greater Greek influence this came to change a little more, but we will come to that). This makes it quite straightforward to work out, for the most part, how it was pronounced because there is no reason to believe that each letter would have been pronounced significantly differently from its modern equivalent, assuming such an equivalence can be made.

Indo-European

The contention that we can assume most letters were pronounced as today is backed up by studies of the Proto-Indo-European language from which Latin (and also Old Irish, Old Church Slavonic, Gothic, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit and others) was derived. However, comparisons across the language sets do tell us some things.

The plosives (B, C and P) were pronounced more softly probably even than in modern Italian (and considerably more so that in English or German); B frequently switched to F in Latin in certain environments, suggesting the sounds were not far apart. Furthermore, two distinct C (actually broadly /k/) sounds were inherited by Latin and it seems odd that these were merged only to de-merge again in Late Latin (and thus in all daughter languages) – hence my own contention that C (and subsequently G) was always pronounced slightly differently before a high vowel than before a low vowel (before a high vowel I suggest it was slightly palatalised, with a hint of a y-glide; that some chose to distinguish in writing between K and C may provide further evidence but most speakers probably did not think about it for long enough to consider there was a distinction, in the same way English speakers do not consider the ‘c’ in ‘care’ to be any different from that in ‘scare’).

The letter D was pronounced much more briefly than today (just a short flap), as we know it was unstable – converting initially to B in some instances (even now ‘dual’ versus ‘binary’) and being lost altogether finally except in the most common words (e.g. classical ablative mēnsā or fundō were originally mēnsad, fundod).

H was also destined to be unstable right from the start, deriving from a complex series of Indo-European laryngeals. It was already clearly lost in all but the most careful educated speech well before the time of Christ. (Note that it is conceivable that it came and went; /h/ was lost from English entirely by Shakespeare’s time but was then recovered in learned speech in the centuries after).

We know M and N were already nasal at the end of words as they emerged from Indo-European because they were often not preceded by a vowel; this changed in Latin, which placed vowels before final nasals.

S was likely pronounced as a brief tap (as in many modern Spanish dialects, see below) as it frequently developed into (and occasionally even from) R. This again was an Indo-European thing, as the S/R switch is common to many Indo-European languages (cf. English ‘was/were’, ‘lost’ but ‘forlorn’).

Given its confusion with B but rarely F, as well as other factors, V was pronounced as /w/ or at least somewhere between /w/ and /ß/ (so potentially close to modern Spanish [b] and [v] between vowels).

Indo-European tells us much less about vowels, which change much more through time. One thing we can note throughout the history of Latin is the instability between O and U and, to a lesser extent, between E and I.

Daughter languages 

We can tell much about Latin pronunciation by reconstructing it from daughter languages, most obviously Italian and Spanish.

Italian, based in conservative Tuscan, gives us many of the modern sounds as there is no reason for them to have changed. The most notable shifts are the loss of distinctive vowel length (vowel quality clearly came to be definitive in the Late Latin period as that is the case in all daughter languages) and the switch of the palatalised /k/ and /g/ (i.e. the aforementioned C or G before a high vowel in Classical Latin) to a new affricate sound (equivalent to English [ch] and [j]). Word stress has clearly shifted on some short words in Italian, but there is no reason to believe it is significantly different (even though, as the language is now more vocalic, its rhythm is somewhat different).

Notably, Italian also gives us the most likely location for pronunciation. Generally, the further south you go in Europe the further forward in the mouth pronunciation occurs (just compare a Dutch person or Dane speaking English versus an Italian or a Spaniard). There is no reason to believe this was notably different in ancient times – Latin was surely articulated towards the front of the mouth, thus lacking the lax vowels of Germanic languages.

Spanish in some ways is closer to Late Latin phonologically, and to many of the “errors” Romans themselves noted. It frequently displays [e] where Latin had I just as was apparent in colloquial or lower class speech even by the time of Christ; thus Latin and Italian lingua are Spanish lengua; Latin vices (note Pompeian graffiti veces) is Spanish veces. Spanish also exhibits AU/AL to [o] which was also a marker of lower class or rustic speech in and around Rome 2000 years ago (e.g. Latin alterum, Italian altro, Spanish otro).

Note that Spanish (as well as Sardinian, the most conservative Latinate language) contains only five basic vowel sounds. This is not absolute proof, but it strongly suggests that Classical Latin had only five too.

Contemporary writing

As noted above, Romans themselves often noted “errors” creeping into speech, or commented on how peasants or immigrants spoke. These give us a clear idea of how the language was changing. Many inscriptions themselves contain these “errors” (perhaps most commonly omitting initial h– or post-vocalic final –m) and thus reflect contemporary speech.

On top of this, the meter of Roman poetry also gives us a clear idea about elision. Notably, we can tell from this that final and initial vowels (or nasals or h-) ran into each other consistently in Latin poems, and there is no evidence other than that this was a simple representation of how Latin was actually pronounced.

This is, for the record, a fundamental point because with some exceptions it was the ending rather than the initial sound which was lost in the elision – and thus often the bit containing the grammatical coding (which makes Latin so distinct fundamentally from its daughter languages). Yet studies of Latin literature have shown that this is crucial to understanding in only a minuscule proportion of combinations, and that even then there is no doubt about the meaning from the context. This suggests that in fact one driver of Romans’ choice of word order was the determination to avoid losing a grammatically crucial ending (e.g. if it going to be unclear that you mean agricolā erat nauta ‘by the farmer was a sailor’ rather than agricola erat nauta ‘the farmer was a sailor’ or agricolae erat nauta ‘the farmer’s was a sailor’ because without the ending pronounced in the first word they all sound the same, just say agricolā nauta erat – which indeed was the most common word order). This remains a remarkably understudied aspect of Latin syntax.

Ultimately, all of these allow us to reconstruct very accurately the speech of Caesar. Not that he ever said et tū Brūte, of course – indeed he would likely have appealed to Brutus in Greek…

Options for devolution

For all the talk of the DUP and Sinn Fein having been in a bunker until early July seeking a way through towards restoring devolution, it is increasingly evident neither has any intention of doing so. The DUP is quite happy to play with the big boys (risking economic and social stability as they do so, but as long as you can run a consultancy lobbying alongside your MLA work or get a few free family holidays in exotic islands as an MP, who cares?) and Sinn Fein is simply clueless about how to govern and actually deliver (hence its savaging in the Republic’s European and local elections last month, alongside its worst vote share since 2001 in Northern Ireland). I would love them to prove me wrong and take the next phase of talks seriously – but frankly it is much easier for both of them just to blame everyone else, even though this renders rather pointless any vote cast for them (since they will just blame everyone else no matter what mandate they receive).

This presents an apparently unsolvable problem, because a deal between those two parties specifically is what is needed to restore devolution (and since they like to blame everyone else but this leaves them with the option only of blaming each other, the circle just becomes ever decreasing each time).

It is evident, therefore, that devolution will not be restored until the requirement for the DUP and Sinn Fein to agree to it is removed.

Problem

Even though the fundamental problem is our tendency to elect populists who promise much and deliver little (as opposed to people who understand the limitations of governing a complex and diverse society), it is worth emphasising what the structural problem specific to Northern Ireland is.

It is said that, to be able to take and hold office, an executive (or government) has to be able to command a majority in the legislature (or parliament/assembly). In fact, this is inaccurate. The requirement is not to have a majority against it. This is highly relevant in the UK currently, where Boris Johnson will soon command the overt support of only 321 of 643 MPs even for confidence and supply purposes, yet will be able to hold office because fewer than that are expressly against him. This is decidedly tricky, of course, and one significant issue in the run-up to 31 October is whether the number against him will rise to form a majority (and that is a majority only of those voting in a confidence vote, not in Parliament itself), which is a possibility particularly if some aggravated ex-Minister or Remainer Conservatives decide enough is enough.

The problem in Northern Ireland is that merely having a majority against you is not enough. In practice, you need a majority of both the largest two designations – in other words, both a majority (or “not-minority”) of Unionists and a majority (or “not-minority”) of Nationalists. This hands all the power after an election to the largest Unionist and largest Nationalist party, but an Executive can only be formed if they both agree to one.

Furthermore, there is the oddity that an Executive may only be formed and a legislature (Assembly) may only sit after those parties have agreed to form an Executive. In most systems, the legislature would sit anyway and outgoing Ministers would remain in a caretaker capacity. Northern Ireland is unique in not having this, and leaving the time between the election and formation of an Executive as a complete limbo period.

This suits the two largest parties electorally, of course, because they can simply go to the polls ignoring the key issues and just demanding a mandate to beat the other side. However, ultimately it is a ridiculous zero-sum game which fundamentally doesn’t work. We should stop kidding ourselves that it ever will.

Options

That means we have to assess other options for governing this place.

Direct Rule

“Direct Rule” actually means the appointment of Ministers to the Northern Ireland Office to fulfill the functions of Executive Ministers, theoretically accountable to the UK Parliament rather than the Northern Ireland Assembly (but in practice not really accountable to anyone).

A lot of people find this tempting because at least it means decisions would at least be made, and it is familiar.

However, it is also fundamentally undemocratic, and in fact illegal under the 2006 Agreement. Most importantly, it is democratically illegitimate as almost literally no one in Northern Ireland voted to be governed by the Conservatives, particularly not in their current guise. “Consent of the governed”, anyone?

So, tempting though this appears, it is not a serious option. (Under the current government, of course, “not being a serious option” is not a reason to discount something happening…)

Weighted majority Executive

This essentially requires an amendment so that any Executive which can be formed and can pass a Programme and a Budget without being defeated may continue to hold office.

In practice, given a Petition of Concern could be used to defeat it, this would mean that any Executive not opposed by 30 Assembly members (essentially, commanding two thirds support or, at least, two thirds consent) could hold office – there is no “designation” and no “d’Hondt”.

Such an Executive would inevitably be cross-community. Indeed, there would be no reason for the Petition of Concern to be allowed for any purpose other than challenging a Programme or Budget once one was formed (and perhaps calling in any policies or legislation which breach human rights or equality law).

Remember, such an Executive would not be required to appoint Ministers to the current Departments – it could shift them about a bit and even have more or fewer; nor would it be required to have a First and deputy First Minister – it could have just a First Minister, or even a Senior Ministerial Council with a rotating chair (similar to Switzerland, which rotates its Presidency every year). Exactly how Ministerial (and First/senior Ministerial) portfolios are allocated would be part of the negotiation to form the Executive and agree the policies to offer to the Assembly in its Programme and Budget.

At the moment, a DUP-Alliance-SDLP Executive could be so formed; or a SF-Alliance-UUP one. Most intriguingly, perhaps, an SDLP-UUP-Alliance Executive could likely be formed if either the DUP or Sinn Fein opted not to bring it down (in other words, they would have to vote together to stop it taking office).

Given that the penalty for not being able to form an Executive would be another election, any party bringing down an Executive would have to be very sure about its position with the electorate (and particularly if it continued to do so). Causing ongoing instability (rather than merely taking a seat in opposition and scrutinising performance from there) would be unlikely to be a vote winner in the long run.

Commission Executive

This is essentially a technocracy – the Assembly operates as normal, but instead of appointing Ministers by party strength from among its number, Ministers are appointed on the basis of some evident competence in the same way that Commissions are. Essentially, each Department would receive a Commissioner with Ministerial authority until such time as the parties in the Assembly were able to provide their own. Scrutiny would therefore still be provided by elected representatives, with the potential for them to take on Ministerial roles at any time if they can find agreement to do so on a cross-community basis.

This seems peculiar, but it is not at all unusual even in sovereign states. Italy did it at the height of the financial crisis. The Czechs have did it a decade ago (in fact, its technocratic government proved extremely popular). Notably, Austria is governed in exactly this way at time of writing. It can in fact be a highly effective way of bringing expertise into government and, dare we say it, making decisions which have to be made – is that not exactly what Northern Ireland needs?

I emphasise I am writing in a purely personal capacity but those, it seems to me, are the options. They are not exclusive – with the exception of Direct Rule (which is democratically illegitimate) they could in fact be tried in order. Is the new Secretary of State Julian Smith an “outside-the-box” thinker? We may be about to find out.

#EE19 by NI Local Council

Without tallies, the only way to attempt to indicate where exactly the votes were stacked up in Northern Ireland’s European Election is essentially to extrapolate them from the Local Elections three weeks previously, mapping them allowing for turnout differential and the change in vote for each candidate. For the smaller parties, TUV in particular (as its vote was so significantly different in each election and it had so few local candidates to start with) this is extraordinarily difficult and the result is necessarily imperfect. However, this is a reasonable judgement of the vote share (precise vote would in fact be a more confusing calculation) of the top six party candidates in each Council area at the European Election as we can make.

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Belfast City

  • Sinn Féin 26.3%
  • Alliance 24.9%
  • DUP 19.4%
  • SDLP 10.3%
  • TUV 10.0%
  • UUP 4.1%

Antrim & Newtownabbey

  • Alliance 28.5%
  • DUP 27.2%
  • UUP 12.8%
  • Sinn Féin 11.8%
  • TUV 9.4%
  • SDLP 8.5%

Lisburn & Castlereagh

  • Alliance 34.4%
  • DUP 30.3%
  • UUP 10.5%
  • TUV 9.6%
  • SDLP 9.0%
  • Sinn Féin 4.6%

Ards & North Down

  • Alliance 36.8%
  • DUP 31.3%
  • UUP 12.2%
  • TUV 9.4%
  • Green 4.0%
  • SDLP 3.8%

Newry, Mourne & Down

  • Sinn Féin 36.0%
  • SDLP 27.4%
  • Alliance 12.8%
  • DUP 8.1%
  • UUP 6.9%
  • TUV 4.7%

Armagh, Banbridge & Craigavon

  • DUP 25.0%
  • Sinn Féin 20.4%
  • SDLP 15.1%
  • UUP 14.1%
  • Alliance 12.3%
  • TUV 11.5%

Mid Ulster

  • Sinn Féin 44.2%
  • DUP 23.2%
  • SDLP 18.1%
  • UUP 9.9%
  • Alliance 2.2%
  • TUV 0.9%

Fermanagh & Omagh

  • Sinn Féin 39.1%
  • DUP 16.2%
  • SDLP 13.5%
  • UUP 11.6%
  • TUV 7.9%
  • Alliance 7.0%

Derry & Strabane

  • SDLP 32.7%
  • Sinn Féin 29.9%
  • DUP 13.7%
  • Alliance 8.5%
  • UUP 5.1%
  • TUV 3.5%

Causeway Coast & Glens

  • DUP 26.4%
  • Sinn Féin 19.9%
  • TUV 18.5%
  • Alliance 12.3%
  • SDLP 10.1%
  • UUP 9.7%

Mid & East Antrim

  • TUV 33.5%
  • DUP 24.1%
  • Alliance 22.0%
  • UUP 10.0%
  • Sinn Féin 5.0%
  • SDLP 1.7%

It is worth re-emphasising these are extrapolations based on mapping one election on to the other. Even though they were only three weeks apart, this would already be imperfect even before having to account for where parties actually ran Council candidates and where they did not. Nevertheless, at least for the five parties which scored over 10% in the Council elections, the figures will not be too far off what actually happened (even though we will never know exactly how far off!)

#EE19 – What on earth just happened?

I thought Naomi Long would be elected from the moment she was nominated, and explained roughly why here. However, the scale of her vote shocked everyone, party stalwarts included. What on earth happened?

Euro

What happened was the classic re-aligning election.

Not only did the Alliance Party beat the SDLP in first preferences for the first time in over 40 years and the Ulster Unionist Party for the first time ever in a Northern Ireland-wide election, but in fact it was closer to the Big Two than it was to either of them (as the graph – courtesy Election NI – shows).

It was only a matter of time before politics reflected what was already going on in society. On the “Compromise After Conflict” blog run by Queen’s University I wrote, in February 2014:

Northern Ireland is increasingly pillarised three ways – in addition to “Catholic/Nationalist/Republican” and “Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist” we now have a growing “Secular/Progressive/Liberal” pillar, to some extent at least. That latter pillar tends to be built on the growing professional, suburban class and is marked by its tendency to be internationalist, to reject old categories, and (demonstrated indisputably in polling) to regard itself predominantly as “Northern Irish” (rather than “Irish” or “British”).

That other parties, most notably but not exclusively Unionists, are talking in terms of votes being “lent” to Naomi Long merely re-emphasises their inability to grasp this reality.

While it was unquestionably the Alliance Party’s day the result, in particular, highlights again that the DUP’s relative electoral success is coming at the expense of Unionism overall. The 2014 European Election was the last one in which Unionists attained more than half the votes cast – five years on, that figure has fallen to under 43%, in line with other elections. That Unionism’s reaction is immediately to accuse those who were unionist but chose to vote for Naomi Long as somehow misguided idiots just shows the scale of Unionism’s problem. Liberal Unionists are not allowed any more. You have to be Liberal or Unionist – and increasingly Liberal Unionists are choosing the former.

Everyone has already worked out that the result constitutes an existential crisis for the Ulster Unionists, whose brand now means almost nothing. It was unable to come up with a coherent position for the simple reason that it is not a coherent party. Local elections, in which Ulster Unionist incumbents are able to soak up personal votes, always inflate the Ulster Unionist position; this European election told it where it really stands. In theory, a share of 9.3% is retrievable – but with nothing but continued incoherence to offer, it is hard to see what purpose the party could ever have in future.

For TUV too, contrary to Mr Allister’s bombast, it was a day of reckoning. His total at European elections continues to decline; the local election results were also a significant reverse. What exactly distinguishes TUV from the DUP, aside from personalities? TUV’s main role in this election was to split the Unionist vote so Sinn Fein topped the poll for the third time running. It is hard to see what future purpose it has.

Unionism is not the only grouping with a problem, however. The denial also crossed over and afflicted Sinn Fein in particular, whose candidate came up with all sorts of fanciful stories about how she had essentially secured a second “Remain” seat herself. She had done no such thing. Sinn Fein’s vote share was its lowest for eighteen years (having already been at its lower end at the local elections) as it shed 33000 votes to Alliance, the SDLP and the non-voter column. Tied to a severe setback in both local and European elections in the Republic, this points to a serious problem for the party, whose policy of abstaining not only from Westminster but from any sort of responsibility for anything is plainly not working beyond its base. The first part of solving a problem is accepting it exists…

In some ways matters may be worse for the SDLP, precisely because its result was, well, meh. It ran what was widely regarded as the best campaign and in fact its share was up on 2014. This will likely be used by the leadership as justification for continuing its current strategy (which, out of interest, saw the PES logo dropped from its posters). However, it remains the case that in the end the SDLP will have to choose – is it doing the merger with Fianna Fail, or is it not? This outcome offers no guidance either way – and, if it is not, what exactly is it doing?

However, none of that is in fact answering the question of what just happened.

What just happened was that a lot of people of Northern Ireland – particularly but not exclusively the young post-Agreement generation – demonstrated through politics what they have already demonstrated in society. They want something else and something better. “Orange-and-green” to them is seen not as an identity, but as a constraint. Why should choices in leisure activities, educational options and indeed voting patterns be determined along sectarian fault lines? Why are we constantly told that if we do not stick to our side of those fault lines all Hell will break loose? What, in fact, would be wrong with a society where we chose activities based on what we want to do; schools based on where we want to be educated; and political parties based on competence and position? What indeed would be wrong with a society where we are free to participate in whatever we want to participate in, marry whomever we want to marry, and work across communities and indeed across borders wherever we want to work?

Those people who switched to Alliance (or Greens or other non-aligned parties) in the local elections did not feel any guilt about doing so, but rather a new-found freedom. They went and cast a vote clearly for decency and democracy alongside people of different community backgrounds and felt not guilty about betraying the tribe, but good about helping the community as a whole.

Then a lot more tried it in the European election. A month ago it seemed corruption, carve-up and collapse were just facts of life in this little place. Now with their votes they had forged open a space for democracy and decency; for tolerance and transparency; for honesty and honour; for compromise and consensus; for fair play and freedom for all. They had made their voice heard. That felt good as well.

Then they woke up this morning and they looked around and they thought to themselves that this is now a different country. Another way is possible. And that felt good too.

 

Sectarianism, constitutional preferences and young people rejecting them…

The voting is over, and now we have the rather odd wait to determine who has won the three Northern Ireland seats (and all the other UK seats) in the European Parliament, for however long they are occupied.

One of the peculiarities of the final week of campaigning, however, was an attempt by Ulster Unionist and SDLP MLAs to promote the notion that taking a position on the constitutional question in Northern Ireland is not in itself sectarian.

This was peculiar, because no one was claiming otherwise. It was a desperate attempt to stem the Alliance (and perhaps Green) surge by trying to put words into their representatives’ mouths that they had never said.

However, there is of course a fairly obvious issue. Northern Irish society is now split roughly 45-45 in terms of broad “religious background” (even after the controversial “re-assignment” of people who do not declare in the census), and yet it just so happens elected representatives for both the Ulster Unionists and SDLP come entirely from one “side” or the “other side”.

If any public agency had 70 staff and 65 were identifiably from one “side” of the community, the Equality Commission would quite rightly be involved. To be specific, the reason it would be involved is that that agency would have to take steps to address why it was only appealing to one “side”. Interestingly, neither the Ulster Unionists nor the SDLP have any interest in addressing this obvious and glaring problem.

Ultimately, the reason is that both parties base their political identity around the “side” of the community their representatives happen to have been born into. Colum Eastwood never made a rational decision to support a United Ireland; that is a consequence of growing up on the Cityside of Derry. Had he grown up in Inner East Belfast his constitutional view would be the direct opposite. The party he leads thus makes the attaining of a “United Ireland” – something of no interest whatsoever to people who grew up on the “other side” – its top priority. As soon as it does, it inevitably excludes more than half the population. A further, inevitable consequence of this is that it begins to reinforce its exclusive nature – even subtly, in anything from geopolitical narrative to phraseology (“East Londonderry” anyone?) – precisely because what its members come to assume is “normal” is in fact “normal” only to those on their “side”.

Ultimately, the “normal” point is the fundamental one. No one in Northern Ireland likes to believe themselves to be “sectarian”. To get around this, what we do is assume that our “normal” is everyone’s “normal” and thus that anyone diverging from that “normal” is being sectarian. But our own “normal” cannot be “sectarian”, of course…

We will then go to extremes to justify this. Moderate Ulster Unionists will decry an Irish Language Act as “too costly” without even the slightest awareness of just how offensive that sounds to almost everyone on the “other side”; conversely, SDLP MLAs will describe Catholic (actually, segregated) education as a matter of “choice”, even justifying voting down integration of teacher training (that’s just teacher training, not schools themselves) on that basis. “Cost” or “choice” will be abused as reasons, in fact, for promoting  institutionalised sectarianism – be it in culture, education or indeed politics.

Fundamentally, Northern Ireland remains a sectarian society, in the literal sense of the word. Still, in 80-90% of cases, choices in culture, sport, education and, yes, politics are made along the familiar sectarian fault line. Many vested interests in all those spheres of societies have sprung up, whose interest is to defend that status quo. Moving on from it will, therefore, be unpopular and uncomfortable. Are the Ulster Unionists or SDLP prepared for that discomfort? No.

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However, that is exactly why they are in trouble. Regardless of who takes the third seat, the result of this election, just as the last one earlier this month, will show significant signs that Northern Ireland is in fact beginning to abandon sectarianism. That is because young people in particular are voting to reject the status quo and the vested interests, and to reject the tired excuses for not taking them on and bringing down the walls – metaphorical and literal. Increasingly, they want to live free to move about where they wish; free to marry who they want; and yes, free to play whatever sport or attend whatever school or vote for whatever party they choose. They reject the sectarian fault lines which provided a degree of security during the Troubles, but which so restricted their parents’ and their grandparents’ freedoms. They know we did not move on from conflict to be hemmed in by the very same things which fed that conflict.

The fact is, with the exception of some outstanding individuals, the Ulster Unionists and SDLP have nothing whatsoever to say to these young people. That is why, I suspect, none of them will be heading to Brussels – but even if one is, the die is already cast.

 

#LE19 Northern Ireland’s Council Elections – Review

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?

Councils

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?

Belfast City

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!

Down/Armagh

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!

Mid/West Ulster

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.

Antrim/North Coast

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).

Conclusion

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!

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