Category Archives: Politics

#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.


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?


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.


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?


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!


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).


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!

#LE19 Northern Ireland’s Council Elections – Results

Outline results of the Local Elections (parties shown in order of first preference vote in each DEA). Corrections welcome!


Total seats

DUP 122; SF 105; UU 75; SDLP 59; AP 53; Oth/I 36; OthU 12

DUP -8; SF +/-; UU -13; SDLP -7; AP +21; Oth/I +16; OthU -9

Vote share

DUP 24.1%; SF 23.4%; UU 14.0%; SDLP 12.0%; AP 11.5%; Oth/I 10.3%; OthU 5.1%

DUP +1.0; SF -0.6; UU -2.1; SDLP -1.5; AP +4.9; Oth/I +3.8; OthU -4.0


SF 18; DUP 15; AP 10; SDLP 6; Green 4; PBP 3; UU 2; PUP 2

SF 27.9%; DUP 21.5%; AP 15.7%; SDLP 9.1%; UU 6.2%

Ormiston 7 (Outer East)

AP 3; DUP 2; UU 1; Green 1 (AP gain from UU)

Titanic 6 (Inner East)

DUP 2; AP 2; UU 1; PUP 1 (AP gain from SF)

Lisnasharragh 6 (South East)

AP 2; DUP 2; Green 1; SDLP 1 (Green gain from UU)

Botanic 5 (Inner South)

DUP 1; AP 1; SF 1; Green 1; SDLP 1 (Green gain from UU)

Balmoral 5 (Outer South)

DUP 2; SDLP 1; AP 1; SF 1 (DUP gain from UU)

Collin 6 (South West)

SF 4; PBP 1; SDLP 1 (PBP gain from SF)

Black Mountain 7 (Inner West)

SF 6; PBP 1 (SF gain from SDLP)

Court 6 (North West)

DUP 3; SF 2; PUP 1 (DUP gain from TUV)

Oldpark 6 (Inner North)

SF 3; SDLP 1; DUP 1; PBP 1 (PBP gain from PUP)

Castle 6 (Outer North)

DUP 2; SF 1; AP 1; SDLP 1; Green 1 (Green gain from UU)


DUP 14; UU 9; AP 7; SF 5; SDLP 4; Ind 1

DUP 31.5%; UU 20.3%; AP 18.7%; SF 13.1%; SDLP 7.8%

Macedon 6 (Rathcoole-Whiteabbey)

DUP 3; AP 1; UU 1; SF 1 (SF gain from TUV)

Glengormley Urban 7

DUP 2; SF 2; AP 1; UU 1; SDLP 1 (SF gain from UU)

Threemilewater 6 (Jordanstown-Carnmoney)

DUP 3; AP 2; UU 1 (AP gain from UU)

Ballyclare 5 (& Ballynure)

UU 2; DUP 2; Ind 1 (Ind gain from TUV)

Airport 5 (Mallusk-Templepatrick)

DUP 1; SF 1; UU 1; AP 1; SDLP 1 (AP gain from UU)

Antrim 6 (Town)

DUP 2; AP 1; UU 2; SDLP 1 (No change)

Dunsilly 5 (Toome-Randalstown)

DUP 1; SF 1; UU 1; AP 1; SDLP 1 (AP gain from DUP)


DUP 15; UU 11; AP 9; SDLP 2; SF 2; Green 1

DUP 36.7%; AP 23.6%; UU 17.4%; SDLP 8.7%; SF 5.4%

Killultagh 5 (Glenavy-Lisburn NW)

DUP 2; AP 1; UU 1; SF 1 (AP/SF gain from DUP/SDLP)

Downshire West 5 (Moira-Hillsborough)

DUP 2; AP 1; UU 2 (No change)

Downshire East 5 (Drumbo-Lisburn SE)

DUP 2; UU 2; AP 1 (UU gain from DUP)

Lisburn North 6 (north and east)

DUP 2; AP 1; UU 2; SDLP 1 (SDLP/UU gain from NI21/DUP)

Lisburn South 6 (south and west)

DUP 3; UU 2; AP 1 (UU gain from DUP)

Castlereagh South 7 (Carryduff-Newtownbreda)

AP 2; DUP 1; SDLP 1; SF 1; UU 1; Green 1 (Green/SF gain from DUP/SDLP)

Castlereagh East 6 (Dundonald-Moneyreagh)

DUP 3; AP 2; UU 1 (AP gain from TUV)


DUP 14; AP 10; UU 8; Green 3; SDLP 1; TUV 1; Ind 3

DUP 33.4%; AP 22.2%; UU 17.8%; SDLP 3.2%; SF 0.5%

Comber 5

DUP 2; AP 1; UU 1; TUV 1 (No change)

Newtownards 7

DUP 3; AP 2; UU 1; Ind 1 (AP gain from UU)

Ards Peninsula 6

DUP 3; SDLP 1; AP 1; UU 1 (No change)

Bangor East & Donaghadee 6

DUP 2; UU 2; AP 1; Ind 1 (UU gain from DUP)

Bangor Central 6

DUP 2; AP 1; UU 1; Green 1; Ind 1 (Ind gain from UU)

Bangor West 5

AP 2; DUP 1; UU 1; Green 1 (AP gain from DUP)

Holywood & Clandeboye 5

AP 2; DUP 1; Green 1; UU 1 (AP gain from DUP)


SF 16; SDLP 11; UU 4; DUP 3; AP 2; Ind 4

SF 36.5%; SDLP 23.0%; UU 10.0%; DUP 8.5%; AP 7.7%

Rowallane 5 (Saintfield area)

DUP 2; AP 1; UU 1; SDLP 1 (No change)

Downpatrick 5 

SDLP 3; SF 1; Ind 1 (No change)

Slieve Croob 5 (Newcastle & inland)

SF 2; SDLP 1; UU 1; AP 1 (UU gain from DUP)

The Mournes 7

SF 3; SDLP 1; DUP 1; UU 1; Ind 1 (SF/Ind gain from SDLP/UKIP)

Crotlieve 6 (Warrenpoint & inland)

SF 2; SDLP 2; Ind 2 (Ind gain from SDLP)

Newry 6

SF 3; SDLP 2; Ind 1 (No change)

Slieve Gullion 7 (south east Co Armagh)

SF 5; SDLP 1; UU 1 (SF gain from SDLP)


DUP 11; UU 10; SF 10; SDLP 6; AP 3; IndU 1

DUP 28.5%; UU 22.0%; SF 20.5%; SDLP 13.7%; AP 7.8%

Banbridge 7

UU 3; DUP 2; SF 1; AP 1 (AP gain from SDLP)

Lagan River 5 (Dromore area)

DUP 3; UU 1; AP 1 (AP gain from UU)

Lurgan 7

SF 3; DUP 1; SDLP 1; UU 1; AP 1 (AP gain from DUP)

Craigavon 5

DUP 1; SDLP 2; SF 1; UU 1 (SDLP gain from DUP)

Portadown 6

DUP 3; SF 1; UU 1; SDLP 1 (SDLP/DUP gain from UU/UKIP)

Cusher 5 (mid Co Armagh)

DUP 1; UU 2; SF 1; IndU 1 (SF gain from SDLP)

Armagh 6 (City)

SF 3; SDLP 2; UU 1 (SF gain from DUP)


SF 17; DUP 9; SDLP 6; UU 6; Ind 2

SF 42.4%; DUP 23.2%; SDLP 14.4%; UU 13.6%; AP 1.2%

Dungannon 6

DUP 2; SF 1; UU 1; SDLP 1; Ind 1 (No change)

Clogher Valley 6

DUP 2; SF 2; UU 1; SDLP 1 (No change)

Torrent 6 (east Co Tyrone)

SF 3; SDLP 1; UU 1; Ind 1 (Ind gain from SF)

Cookstown 7

SF 3; DUP 1; UU 2; SDLP 1 (No change)

Magherafelt 5

SF 2; DUP 2; SDLP 1 (DUP gain from UU)

Moyola 5 (Tobermore-Castledawson)

SF 3; DUP 1; UU 1 (No change)

Carntogher 5 (Maghera area)

SF 3; DUP 1; SDLP 1 (No change)


SF 15; UU 9; DUP 5; SDLP 5; AP 1; CCLA 1; Ind 4

SF 36.8%; DUP 15.9%; UU 15.6%; SDLP 10.5%; AP 3.9%

Enniskillen 6

Erne East 6 (Lisnaskea area)

SF 2; DUP 1; UU 1; SDLP 1; Ind 1 (Ind gain from SF)

Erne West 5 (Letterbreen-Belcoo)

SF 2; UU 1; SDLP 1; Ind 1 (No change)

Erne North 5 (Irvinestown area)

UU 2; SF 1; DUP 1; SDLP 1 (No change)

Mid Tyrone 6

SF 4; UU 1; Ind 1 (Ind gain from SDLP)

Omagh 6

SF 2; DUP 1; UU 1; AP 1; Ind 1 (AP/Ind gain from 2 SDLP)

West Tyrone 6

SF 3; DUP 1; UU 1; SDLP 1 (No change)


SF 11; SDLP 11; DUP 7; UU 2; PBP 2; AP 2; Aontú 1; Ind 4

SF 28.4%; SDLP 25.4%; DUP 13.4%; UU 6.8%; AP 4.3%

Derg 5 (Castlederg area)

SF 2; UU 1; DUP 1; SDLP 1 (SDLP gain from SF)

Sperrin 7 (Strabane area)

SF 2; DUP 2; SDLP 1; Ind 2 (Ind gain from SF)

Faughan 5 (Eglinton-Newbuildings)

DUP 2; SDLP 1; SF 1; AP 1 (AP gain from SDLP)

Waterside 7 (City east of Foyle)

DUP 2; SDLP 2; SF 1; UU 1; AP 1 (AP gain from DUP)

The Moor 5 (City south; Pennyburn-Ballymagroarty)

SF 2; SDLP 1; PBP 1; Ind 1 (PBP gain from SF)

Foyleside 5 (City centre)

SDLP 2; SF 1; PBP 1; Ind 1 (PBP gain from SF)

Ballyarnett 6 (City north; Galliagh-Culmore)

SDLP 3; SF 2; Aontú 1 (SDLP/Aontú gain from SF/Ind)


DUP 14; SF 9; UU 7; SDLP 6; AP 2; PUP 1; Ind 1

DUP 30.4%; SF 22.0%; UU 15.3%; SDLP 9.3%; AP 8.0%

Benbradagh 5 (Dungiven area)

SF 3; SDLP 1; DUP 1 (DUP gain from TUV)

Limavady 5

DUP 3; SF 1; SDLP 1 (DUP gain from UU)

Bann 5 (Lower Bann valley)

DUP 2; UU 1; SF 1; SDLP 1 (SF gain from UU)

Coleraine 6

DUP 2; PUP 1; UU 1; AP 1; SDLP 1 (AP gain from UU)

Giant’s Causeway 7 (Portstewart-Benone)

DUP 3; UU 2; AP 1; SDLP 1 (DUP gain from TUV)

The Glens 5 (Ballycastle area)

SF 2; SDLP 1; UU 1; Ind 1 (No change)

Ballymoney 7

DUP 3; TUV 2; SF 2 (SF gain from TUV)


DUP 15; UU 7; AP 7; TUV 5; SF 2; SDLP 1; Ind 2; IndU 1

DUP 32.8%; UU 18.2%; AP 15.8%; SF 6.4%; SDLP 1.8%

Bannside 6 (Ahoghill-Portglenone)

TUV 2; DUP 2; UU 1; SF 1 (No change)

Ballymena 7

DUP 2; TUV 1; SDLP 1; AP 1; Ind 1; IndU 1 (AP/IndU gain from UU/DUP)

Braid 7 (Glenwherry-Buckna)

DUP 3; TUV 2; UU 1; AP 1 (TUV/AP gain from DUP/SF)

Coast Road 5 (Larne north-Cushendun)

DUP 2; AP 1; SF 1; UU 1 (DUP gain from TUV)

Larne Lough 5 (Larne south-Whitehead)

DUP 2; AP 2; UU 1 (AP gain from UU)

Carrick Castle 5 (Carrickfergus east/centre)

DUP 2; UU 2; AP 1 (AP/UU gain from Ind/UKIP)

Knockagh 5 (Carrickfergus west-Greenisland)

DUP 2; UU 1; AP 1; Ind 1 (Ind gain from UU)


  • BCC Balmoral
  • BCC Court
  • ABC Portadown
  • MUC Magherafelt
  • CCG Benbradagh
  • CCG Limavady
  • CCG Causeway
  • MEA Coast Road


  • A&N Dunsilly
  • L&C Castlereagh South
  • L&C Downshire East
  • L&C Killultagh 
  • L&C Lisburn North
  • L&C Lisburn South 
  • AND Holywood & Clandeboye
  • AND Bangor West
  • AND Bangor East & Donaghadee
  • NMD Slieve Croob
  • ABC Lurgan
  • ABC Craigavon
  • ABC Armagh 
  • D&S Waterside
  • MEA Ballymena
  • MEA Braid


  • BCC Black Mountain
  • A&N Macedon
  • A&N Glengormley Urban
  • L&C Castlereagh South
  • L&C Killultagh
  • NMD The Mournes
  • NMD Slieve Gullion
  • ABC Cusher
  • ABC Armagh
  • CCG Bann
  • CCG Ballymoney


  • BCC Titanic
  • BCC Collin
  • MUC Torrent
  • F&O Enniskillen
  • F&O Erne East
  • D&S Derg
  • D&S Sperrin
  • D&S The Moor
  • D&S Foyleside
  • D&S Ballyarnett
  • MEA Braid


  • LCC Downshire East
  • LCC Lisburn North
  • LCC Lisburn South
  • AND Bangor East & Donaghadee
  • NMD Slieve Croob
  • MEA Carrick Castle


  • BCC Ormiston
  • BCC Lisnasharragh
  • BCC Botanic
  • BCC Balmoral 
  • BCC Castle
  • A&N Glengormley Urban
  • A&N Three Mile Water
  • A&N Airport
  • AND Bangor Central
  • AND Newtownards 
  • ABC Lagan River
  • ABC Portadown
  • MUC Magherafelt
  • CCG Limavady
  • CCG Bann
  • CCG Coleraine
  • MEA Ballymena
  • MEA Larne Lough
  • MEA Knockagh


  • L&C Lisburn North
  • ABC Craigavon
  • ABC Portadown
  • D&S Derg
  • D&S Ballyarnett


  • BCC Black Mountain
  • L&C Castlereagh South
  • L&C Killultagh
  • NMD The Mournes
  • NMD Crotlieve
  • NMD Slieve Gullion
  • ABC Banbridge 
  • ABC Cusher 
  • F&O Mid Tyrone 
  • F&O Omagh
  • F&O Omagh
  • D&S Faughan


  • BCC Ormiston
  • BCC Titanic
  • A&N Three Mile Water
  • A&N Airport
  • A&N Dunsilly
  • L&C Castlereagh East
  • L&C Killultagh
  • AND Holywood & Clandeboye
  • AND Bangor West
  • AND Newtownards
  • ABC Banbridge
  • ABC Lagan River
  • ABC Lurgan
  • F&O Omagh
  • D&S Faughan
  • D&S Waterside
  • CCG Coleraine
  • MEA Ballymena
  • MEA Braid
  • MEA Larne Lough
  • MEA Carrick Castle


C83431BD-2050-46C9-9B42-7F7D34C87EBDDUP (43)

  • in BelfastTitanic, Botanic, Balmoral, Court, Castle (5);
  • all Antrim & Newtownabbey except Ballyclare (6);
  • all Lisburn & Castlereagh except Castlereagh South (6);
  • all Ards & North Down except Holywood & Clandeboye and Bangor West (5);
  • in Newry, Mourne & DownRowallane (1);
  • in Mid UlsterDungannon, Clogher Valley (2);
  • in Armagh, Banbridge & Craigavon Lagan River, Craigavon, Portadown, Cusher (4);
  • in Derry & StrabaneFaughan, Waterside (2);
  • all Causeway Coast & Glens except The Glens and Benbradagh (5); and
  • all Mid & East Antrim (7).


  • in BelfastBlack Mountain, Collin, Oldpark (3);
  • in Newry, Mourne & DownSlieve Croob, The Mournes, Newry, Slieve Gullion, Crotlieve (5);
  • all Mid Ulster except Dungannon and Clogher Valley (5);
  • in Armagh, Banbridge & CraigavonLurgan, Craigavon
  • all Fermanagh & Omagh (7);
  • in Derry & Strabane Derg, Sperrin, The Moor (3); and
  • in Causeway Coast & GlensThe Glens, Benbradagh (2).


  • in Antrim & NewtownabbeyBallyclare (1); and
  • in Armagh, Banbridge & CraigavonBanbridge (1).

SDLP (3)

  • in Newry, Mourne & DownDownpatrick (1); and
  • in Derry & StrabaneBallyarnett, Foyleside (2).


  • in BelfastOrmiston, Lisnasharragh (2);
  • in Lisburn & CastlereaghCastlereagh South (1); and
  • in Ards & North DownHolywood & Clandeboye, Bangor West (2).

#le19 “Where did all my votes go?” – the story of 2003

“Number 20 is a party member” I said to the only other canvasser out with me, who also happened to be the candidate. “Ay, but is she actually voting for us?” came the weary response.

November 2003 was a dark, drizzly month which matched the public mood in Northern Ireland. The Assembly had collapsed (what’s new?) and the hardliners were on the rise.

In those days, along with an English guy studying at Queen’s who didn’t have a car and in any case always seemed to be too busy researching to do any campaigning and a woman who had a car but wasn’t allowed to campaign because of her job, I was the Alliance Party youth wing. Two years before, the party had lost sixteen Council seats to be left with just 28, all in the Belfast suburbs except for the three in City Hall. Of the six MLAs, it is fair at this distance to say that one was the Speaker and one clearly resented not being the Speaker, and one was the Leader and one clearly resented not being the Leader, leaving the former Leader and Chief Whip to make up the numbers. There is a reality that in a declining party much time is spend defending internal positions rather than promoting external visions.

And then an Assembly Election was called for the week before Advent.

Starting from the worst electoral position in its history and setting out to emphasise the importance of retaining its six seats in an Assembly which did not really exist while all the pressure was on to boost Trimble’s UUP and Mallon’s SDLP, the party had no option but to circle the wagons. Much of my time as Party Organiser was spent fending off calls from founder members in the 12 constituencies with no Alliance representation (which, by the way, included South Belfast) to explain that no, there were no posters, and no, there would be no posters because, you know, there was no money. And no point.

Canvassing in North Down was duly begun. At the first door, having climbed some wet steps in the dark down a dimly lit lane, the gentleman calmly took my leaflet and proceeded to rip it up in front of me before handing it back. As someone new to the game, I was daft enough to take it back too. A new leaflet was secured but didn’t even leave my hand at the next door as it was evident it (or I) would receive the same treatment. Every other leaflet had to be binned anyway because they got wet so quickly. There was joy at the fifteenth door, however, where a kindly woman said “Well, we usually do”. Admittedly, that left it implicit that she wasn’t going to this time, but I drew solace from the fact that at least she had taken the leaflet.

After a while it did get easier. After all, if anyone young answered the door you could just leave again – no one with even a hint of cool voted Alliance, it soon became apparent, so that was anyone under 40 discounted. You could also begin to turn to walk away in almost all cases if a man answered the door, as it was soon obvious the male vote had gone too. One retired woman wanted to know if I meant Countryside Alliance. Another wanted to know why I was talking about “lions”. Finally, on the third day, came the breakthrough. From behind the trees in Cultra I heard my fellow canvasser exclaim “Oh, you will?!”

One pledge thus secured, we became more determined to dig out a few more. Indeed, such was our excitement, we even sent South Belfast a few posters just to see if they could save their deposit. Not face posters obviously, only the big parties in the constituency like the Ulster Unionists and the Women’s Coalition could afford those, but posters all the same. And as the leaflets began to arrive through the post, at least we could save ourselves time and inevitable ignominy by recognising the unoccupied houses.

It was not all bad. This was Arsenal’s Invincible season so at least the football results were reliable. And mobile phones were now common, so at least if you got lost you would be found again within an hour or two. And they had to find you, since your presence doubled the active campaign team in any given area.

Then came the day of the count. I used said mobile phone to make contact with one North Down candidate. By then composition had returned and there were mutterings only that our vote definitely had not increased; I was reliably informed by the spouse subsequently that the immediate reaction to the papers being tallied had been, and I quote, “Where have all our votes gone?”

From early declarations it was hard to work out precisely how well we were doing because generally the Alliance candidates had so few votes that they were lumped in with “others” on the second page. We were assured that in North Antrim we had mustered nearly 1000 and in South Down had come agonisingly close to 500, and that we had at least reached three figures everywhere. Except West Belfast, obviously, where the candidate having her name at the top of the ballot paper still couldn’t quite stop the haemorrhage down to just (well actually quite a bit) below 100.

For all of that, one of the six seats was always going to be secure because one candidate had such a personal vote and no obvious competition that he couldn’t possibly lose. Or could he? Word soon reached us, to our collective relief, that he had indeed polled “well” – as in more than half what he had polled the previous time. Having topped the poll well above quota the previous time, this year he would “probably” be elected, on about the twelfth count, some time the next morning. There was light at the end of the tunnel, though admittedly this was the guy who wanted to be Speaker so there remained the possibility that it was the light of an oncoming train. But there was hope. A bit. Maybe.

At dusk on the first evening, as the hardliners made their advance to a majority on each “side”, the Alliance seat tally remained resolutely stuck at zero. Then, after news that the deposit had been saved in South Belfast (albeit by less than a single percentage point) the dice came up with two sixes. In a mistake extraordinarily unlike them, the DUP had not balanced correctly in East Belfast and would only win two seats of the six. With two for the Ulster Unionists and one for David Ervine, that still left one. By virtue of that bit of luck, sneaking in under quota for the last seat in East Belfast came a new face no one had ever heard of named Naomi Long. But who cared what her name was, right? It was one seat!

And there was definitely, well probably, well maybe at least one more to come. At least then we could have a Leadership contest. The night was spent hunting down count details from each count over dial-up Internet before the dawn. By mid-morning the guy with the personal vote was a near cert. As it became brighter through the day, news came of a “useful order of elimination” in North Down and “transfers flying towards our candidate because he is so well known and no one actively hates him” in East Antrim. Could it be four? I mean, we would have lost the Party Leader and the Chief Whip, but four wouldn’t be so bad, would it?

The Party Leader David Ford was new to the post and he then began appearing in the media, rejecting angrily any notion that he was out of it just because he had begun nearly 1000 votes behind his main rival for the seat, Sinn Féin’s Martin Meehan. “Ford or Meehan, you decide” said the posters at Sandyknowes Roundabout, and he remained sure that they would decide. Madman!

The Chief Whip was definitely gone, of course, having finished over 150 behind a very popular SDLP candidate on the first count. Or, wait a minute… was he? At 5p a time, I kept refreshing the Internet; and every time he seemed to be five votes closer. So I figured if I tried refreshing it 30 times that might be £1.50 well spent, even if it did block up the phone line. I never did reclaim the money from the party.

When it happened, it happened quickly – two became four with eliminations helping Alliance incumbents… then five as the Leader survived, still rejecting angrily any notion that there ever was any doubt… and then would you believe it? With just 25000 votes in 18 constituencies (a total that each of the “four main parties” could surpass by selecting merely their best two) and having spent just £1.50, the party had retained all six seats.

Days later came Party Council. People looked at each other as if they were attending a conference for people who had been supposed to be on crashed planes but had been delayed on the way to the airport. There was a sense of a job well done strategically, but no jubilation. There was a party to rebuild.


Sixteen years later founder member Jim Hendron, who masterminded the great escape in East Belfast while I was getting lost behind trees in neighbouring North Down, was joined by four young Councillors out of the 10 elected to Belfast City Council in an City Council election where the Alliance Party outpolled the Ulster Unionists and SDLP combined. Ross, Peter and Sian had just combined to deliver three seats on over 40% of the vote in their part of the East, while in Castle alone Nuala amassed more than four times as many as the party attained in the whole of North Belfast in that grim November (in fact even the candidate for Oldpark, never exactly an Alliance stronghold, beat that entire North Belfast total from 2003).

And then news came through. A seat in Derry! I mean there’s always a freak somewhere, like Strangford in 2003, but Derry? And it hadn’t even cost me £1.50.

Reeling from the shock I returned home. I flicked on my laptop. “Alliance elected – Lurgan”.

“Lurgan. I’ve seen it all now.” I tweeted.

And then the next day came another seat in Derry…


#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.

Notion of referendums on social change in NI is extraordinarily dangerous

I have seen several times recently the idea expressed that a way through the current breakdown in democratic structures at Stormont is via referendums – for example, on same-sex marriage.

This is well-meaning. It is also naively dangerous.

Let us follow the logic to see why.

Firstly, someone (who?) has to legislate for the referendum. Let us ask a simple question immediately here: if that entity can legislate legitimately for a referendum, say on same-sex marriage, why can that same entity not just simply legislate for same-sex marriage?

It should be noted that this is an entirely different concept from the referendums in the Republic of Ireland. Even there, it should be noted, the referendums were to remove a constitutional prohibition on a particular piece of legislation. However, the legislation itself was carried through by the legislature. This brings us to the very problem in Northern Ireland – the legislature cannot act without in effect a double majority. This would remain the case regardless of what the referendum outcome was.

Secondly, allowing a referendum to take place is an acceptance that either outcome is possible (noting that it is also unclear what the actual question would be). Since it is generally established that same-sex marriage is a rights issue (rights are being denied to a particular section of the population uniquely in Northern Ireland which are enjoyed by everyone else in Northern Ireland and by that section in all neighbouring jurisdictions), this is extraordinarily risky. Human Rights by definition cannot be subject to the whims and prejudices of the population, even of a majority of the population. So what would a “no” vote to same-sex marriage achieve?

Thirdly, let us assume there is in fact a “yes” vote. We still have not achieved anything. Politicians on one side will use the same argument they currently use in the face of majority support for same-sex marriage among elected legislators – that same-sex marriage breaches the rights of one “community” as only a minority of it (Unionists, we assume in this case) supports the change. Unionists may still demand the right to refuse legislation, using the Petition of Concern, on the basis that the referendum passes with only minority support from one “side”. So we are back to the exact problem we already have.

The worst thing, however, is the precedent it sets. Underlying it is the notion that social changes (or perhaps any areas of policy) which are too difficult for the Assembly should be put out to referendum for a straightforward majority vote on a binary question. This would be a disaster in a divided society such as Northern Ireland, where safeguards are intentionally put in place precisely to avoid political decisions being made in this way, as they could ride roughshod over the interests of certain sections of the community. Life is, in any case, much more complex than binary questions and straightforward majorities – the only way Northern Ireland (or anywhere else) can be governed is in fact by mature consensus and compromise.

As ever, what we have here are people trying to get to their preferred outcome by the quickest possible route. However, they do not consider how complex the route is; how it does not resolve the fundamental issues; and how it could set a precedent which may well result in the exact opposite of their preferred outcome in future.

Northern Ireland is a complex and diverse society. Governing it is complex too. If there are issues of rights which are currently not being applied in Northern Ireland, the UK Government is the sovereign authority with a duty to act. Otherwise, we need to face our complexities and develop institutions to manage them which work rather than shirk.

#LE19 Northern Ireland’s Council elections – preview

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:

Belfast City

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).

Mid/West Ulster

Sinn Fein 39.0% (51); SDLP 17.9% (24); DUP 15.9% (21); UU 15.1% (18); Alliance 1.3% (0).

Antrim/North Coast

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.


Remainers need to *think*

I have largely retired this blog, but I did feel it necessary to write one brief piece stating my concern that far too few people on either side of the Brexit debate are actually thinking.

Brexit is a far more profound shift than, for example, Suez, with which it is often equated. If carried out, it marks a complete change in direction for the UK from its foreign and trade policy since the War. It will have a profound impact on everything from recruiting staff for the Health Service (making a purely taxpayer-funded service an impossibility) to satellite navigation systems. It may well force the UK itself to break up.

Yet in public debate it is still seen too often like a football match, with “fans” of “Leave” and “Remain” debating it in much the same way as Arsenal and Spurs fans or Liverpool and Everton fans debate the outcome of Sunday’s derby matches. All that matters is winning, and never mind the practical social and economic consequences for millions of people up and down the country. A lot of people are to blame for that – from a media which seem intent on reporting politics like a soap opera to politicians themselves who are so caught up in the Westminster bubble they have lost all connection with the daily lives of the citizens they claim to represent (witness this weekend’s incredible episode of Conservative MPs visiting foodbanks to applaud rather than bemoan their existence). It is worth noting that Brexit is in fact a symptom of a gradual political failure, not the cause of it.

One reason the whole thing has become so ludicrous is that it has become so tribal – and each side merely blames the other for making it so, rather than taking responsibility for the necessary “de-tribalisation”. Here, generally speaking, the broadly “Remain” side is guilty too; this is something it will need to fix if it is ultimately to save us from the calamity lying ahead.

Having a go at Leavers for being stupid on social media does not constitute a serious (or successful) campaign strategy. Many people voted Leave with good reason – ranging from a very genuine concern about the distance of decision makers in Brussels from those affected by the decisions, to a more emotional but no less genuine one about the scale of immigration into an already very densely populated country. It is not wrong to be concerned about the quality of democracy when it is so distance (although I do think it is hypocritical to be so without being concerned about the quality of democracy in London, which is “distant” from most parts of the UK); nor is it even wrong to ask a question about whether levels of immigration into such a densely populated country are sustainable (although I look at it the other way around; the UK needs to invest hugely in infrastructure, particularly housing, in order to accommodate what will, inevitably, be a rapidly growing population). A bit of understanding – and remembering that we have two ears and one mouth and we should probably use them in that proportion – would do no harm.

Most fundamentally, whatever we think of the lies told during the campaign or indeed of the illegal funding activity around it, the fact will always remain that a clear snapshot of public opinion in the UK in June 2016 returned a majority preference for not being in the EU. There is little doubt, for me, that that was a fair reflection of the public view, however unfairly I think it was arrived at, because there were also people who voted “Remain” not particularly because they loved the EU but because they wanted to avoid chaos (ahem, how right they were).

Yet it looks as though the “Remain” side may be on the verge, whether through luck or skill, of securing a further vote of some kind. However, in just the same way that Leavers had not thought through the detail of what leaving would actually entail and how it should look, I have heard little detail from Remainers about what exactly the next vote should ask.

The assumption, at this stage (and assumptions are always dangerous), is that the Prime Minister’s deal will not clear the Commons. I am a hugely reluctant convert to the case for a further referendum (in a democracy with parliamentary supremacy I am unclear what purpose any referendum is supposed to serve), but if the Prime Minister’s deal fails it is clear too that Brexit has failed. In June 2016 people may have voted to leave the EU, but only a tiny minority thought this meant doing so with absolutely no future relationship in place; and it is not unreasonable to suggest that had “Leave” specifically meant leaving with no such relationship, more than the few hundred thousand necessary to switch sides for a “Remain” victory would have done so (and of course if there is any doubt about that, it is reasonable to test it now – the very case for a further referendum).

However, it would be as ludicrous as anything else to go back to the people with a straightforward second choice of “Remain” versus “Leave” where the former means continued membership of the EU with no further questions asked and the latter means leaving with no arrangements at all in place (to secure not just future trade, but also relationships in all kinds of other areas from aviation to health research). Those two options are simply far too far apart for either of them to be a reasonable way forward likely to earn a broad consensus of support.

For me, the question has to be more clearly something like this:

The UK is negotiating a new relationship with the EU. To enable the basis for this negotiation to continue, should the UK now:

REMAIN in the European Union

LEAVE the European Union

This clearly states that the status quo ante is not an option and that consideration will continue to be given to the outcome in 2016 (as no such renegotiation would be necessary without that vote having gone the way it did). However, it also offers the people the frankly safer choice of remaining in the EU while a new relationship is sorted, with the people able to assess whether they are happy about that renegotiation at future elections.

It is just a first thought and I could well be persuaded from it, but the key point is this – both sides need to stop trying to “win”, and instead start to think.