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#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 “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.

#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.


“Liberals” need to work out how to oppose appalling populism more positively

We humans are emotional beings. It makes us all the more interesting. Most of the best things in life are emotional (and irrational) after all – from romantic love to supporting a sports team. These things do not make sense when considered in a reasoned way, but they are what drive our passions and thus they are the basis of our art, our music and our culture.

Psychologically some would suggest we human beings fall broadly into one of two categories – fast-mode or slow-mode thinker. 


This brings us not to Brexit (though it very well could), but to a recent leaflet sent around the Botanic DEA of Belfast by one of the DUP candidates for the forthcoming local election.


To me and to almost anyone in my social circle, this leaflet is clearly appalling. However, almost everyone in my social circle is a “slow-mode” thinker when it comes to such things.

To a “fast-mode” thinker when it comes to politics, on the other hand, that leaflet is so appalling as to be likely to work. After all, a “fast-mode” thinker might say, are we seriously suggesting local homes shouldn’t go to local people? That we shouldn’t control immigration? That there shouldn’t be more funding for Loyalist areas in need? 

The fast, automatic, unconscious response to such a leaflet is in fact to agree with it instinctively. From any sort of Unionist viewpoint, make any of the proposals negative and they are clearly wrong. This is why groups whose governmental record is atrocious but whose electoral record is good resort to such leaflets at election time – they draw the fast, automatic, unconscious response to agree, and thus they win support and votes (enabling them to continue to make a mess in government but get away with it electorally).

From a slow-mode thinker’s point of view, such a leaflet is extraordinarily difficult to counter, for two prime reasons. Firstly, those of us who engage with politics (and thus in “slow-mode” thought around political issues) and thus make the effort to consider the complexities of such things can see the appalling reality of what such a leaflet is trying to achieve – just a little reflection on it has us recognising that segregating society into “in-groups” and “out-groups” (and setting one against the other for apparently finite resources), exactly as that leaflet intends, rarely has happy consequences. Secondly, and worse still, we arrive at that conclusion so quickly (given our experience as “slow-mode” thinkers in politics) that we simply cannot comprehend how anyone else would not arrive at it. What a “slow-mode” thinker sees as obvious, a “fast-mode” thinker simply does not see at all – and vice-versa. 

Ultimately, most people are too busy to spend vast amounts of time thinking about politics. That is for others to do (hence they often disparage “politicians” as a group, despite being responsible for electing them – politicians are supposed to be trusted to get on with their job while the res tof us get on with ours). This is a fundamental division which populists are brilliant at exploiting. They play to pre-conceptions (and worse) to deliver emotional appeals to “fast-mode” thinking which, without pause for consideration, seem obvious and incontrovertible. Slogans such as “Take back control” or “Make America Great Again” are perfect for this, appealing additionally to a sense of loss and an instinctive desire to put things right without really having to spend time thinking about the hows and whys. 

“Liberals”, often academics or professionals who spend longer comtemplating government and politics, have not even yet worked out what is happening as they simply cannot comprehend the appeal of electoral slogans and promises which, to “slow-mode” thinking, are so obviously wrong. Furthermore, they also find it harder to deliver the same sort of unity the populists seem (initially at least) able to rely on. As “slow-mode” thinkers with regard to politics, these Liberals fall out with each other over details (last year the British Liberal Democrats even managed to lose one of their 12 remaining MPs over their European policy, previously their most defining and unifying policy area) and thus end up arguing with each other over minor side points. They have no influence over these minor side points anyway because, as political “slow-mode” thinkers, they cannot fathom the electoral appeal of cases made to “fast-mode” thinkers and thus keep losing elections.

I myself have no idea what the answer to this conundrum is, or I would long ago have shared it! What I do know is that political “slow-mode” thinkers have to get cuter than simply pointing to appalling leaflets and assuming that what is obvious to them will be obvious to everyone. My own suspicion is that “Liberals” will have to become less relentlessly negative, particularly apparently about those who engage in “fast-mode” thinking politically, and instead make appeals to them through more positive messaging on the key issues. For example, instead of pointing out how appalling an anti-immigration message is, they should attempt to sell immigration as a good thing; instead of pointing to the blatant sectarianism of prioritising only “Loyalist” areas in need, make the case for a deal for all areas in need and that they can achieve far more by working together rather than apart. Ultimately the task is to change the instinctive immediate response on issues such as immigration and sectarianism so those who have no time for political “slow-mode” thinking nevertheless share the instincts of those who have.

In short, “Liberals” too need to come to terms with the fact we are not primarily rational, but rather emotional animals. After all, that is what unites us and we are all the more interesting for it…

Updated slightly after a correspondent, who prefers to remain anonymous, linked to Kahneman hypothesis of “fast” versus “slow”; I am no psychologist but it is worth noting Kahneman’s early research was on “loss aversion” also referenced above as a key electoral driver, and that he also wrote extensively on the “illusion of control” (hence the success of the slogan).

#Brexit thread from November 2017

A Twitter thread I wrote on 16 November 2017 has begun attracting attention again – probably because so little of the Government’s thinking has meaningfully changed since! It ran like this…

This evening in Germany, David Davis has demonstrated a frankly humiliating misunderstanding of even the basics of the EU. A quick thread. 1/

Firstly, even if somehow Angela Merkel were scared that the German economy could be crippled by, er, not being able to export freely to a smaller country like the UK, she cannot intervene to offer the UK a special deal. No one can. 2/

Let us repeat: the EU is the Single Market and the Single Market is the EU. Let us also repeat: the Single Market is a market of *rules*. This is the fundamental point David Davis has still failed to grasp. 3/

For that reason, participation in the Single Market by any non-EU State is determined by which rules that State is willing to adopt. And that is the end of it.

(Norway adopts nearly all of them, for example; Moldova just a few.) 4/

David Davis therefore still hasn’t grasped that this negotiation is not “We give a bit, you give a bit”. It is essentially “Here are the rules of the Single Market; tell us which ones you no longer wish to apply and that will determine your level of participation in it.” 5/

This really should be obvious. How otherwise could a 27/28-member bloc function if it did not have *rules*? And those rules cannot be amended other than with the support of the whole bloc. 6/

This is all to leave quite aside that David Davis vastly overstates the UK’s economic importance. Germany sells many multiples more cars in China and the US, for example. That is a basic matter of fact. 7/

UK really should have worked out by now, more than halfway between Referendum Day and Brexit Day, that this whole “They’ll bend to our will” stuff is a *myth*. It can’t happen – and wouldn’t, even if it could. 8/

And for any UK Minister to go anywhere else and tell the locals not to put “politics before prosperity” is, right now, to set a new world record in gross hypocrisy. For that is precisely and embarrassingly what the UK alone is doing with #Brexit. 9/

David Davis’ call for co-operation in the interests of mutual prosperity was met with an obvious first question from a German journalist.

“If that is what you want, why are you leaving?”



UK has profound crisis of government which goes beyond Brexit

I have pulled this blog from retirement again because I remain unsure that media coverage of the latest political farce really does justice to the scale of the breakdown. Brexit is merely a symptom of a much larger problem in the UK – the political system is broken, and quite profoundly.

This is for a number of reasons which include, but are far from limited to:

  • a “London bubble” – from the Civil Service to the broadcast media, the focus is astonishingly biased towards London, which leads to a very genuine sense in much of the rest of England of being distant from power (hence “take back control” resonated so strongly);
  • coverage as a “soap opera” – there is a tendency to cover politics rather than government, and to promote to positions of media prominence people are are entertaining in preference to those who are knowledgeable (and to cover issues in terms of their political rather than social consequences, hence even Brexit becomes all about jostling for position rather than educated debates about its impact on food on shelves, welfare budgets or health recruitment);
  • a farcical education system – which, as The Economist puts it, means positions in senior office all too often go to people from a small number of schools and universities whose position is in fact based on pure confidence and bluster rather than on actual competence and knowledge;
  • a lack of civic input and engagement – that same education system also does not teach people even the basics of politics and government, meaning people all too often leave it to others;
  • the electoral system – which, in England at least, promotes two large parties unable to respond to the range of complex interests which now exist in plain view across the country.

The result is that we need to ask far more profound questions even than “Who will lead the Conservative Party?” or “What sort of Brexit will we have?”

We are now in a position where neither large party can ever conceivably be coherent enough to form a parliamentary majority of MPs with genuine confidence in its Leader. There is literally not a single MP who could command the confidence of the House of Commons now. Even a new election would be little use. For as long as the electoral system remains as it is, each party will remain a grossly unstable coalition unable practically to govern with any coherence. Only a German-style PR system, allowing MPs to form coalitions after the election based on the priorities of the day, can restore any coherence. Yet there is scant prospect of that.

Thus the only hope is to return decision making to the people, but even this is fraught with danger given the aforementioned point that, in the UK, the people are not used to such decisions (“They didn’t do enough to inform us” was a familiar cry in 2016 – which should immediately make you wonder who “they” are who should be doing the “informing”). Returning decision making to the people requires tools other than just crude binary referendums. Cititzens’ Conventions and other forms of local deliberative democracy are surely necessary to counter the distance and gridlock of Westminster.

This is a deep and profound crisis not just of politics but of Government itself. In fact, bluntly, the UK has become ungovernable. It will take radical thinking and an ability to work across partisan lines for the greater good to overcome this.


Glider will work – but not always for rational reasons

Last Friday I had some work to do and I was in the eastern part of Belfast City Centre. I decided to do it in a coffee shop – in Ballyhackamore.

Why? Well, because I could via the new Glider. I would do it again too – I met three people I knew while there and that led to some useful additional points for the research work I was doing. Ballyhackamore is a hub – and it will only become more so because it is now so obviously easy to get to.

It is not, of course, that it wasn’t already easy to get to. The Glider, as one traveller put it on the BBC, “is only a bus at the end of the day”. The reason it will succeed is more emotional than rational.


Ultimately, the basic reason may be the simple map above. Compared to the Belfast Metro (Citybus) network, it is a lot simpler. People choosing locations to go, as I was, will choose from the map. Next week I may well choose the Kennedy Centre; the following Dundonald; and so on.

Comfort matters too. The bus is newer and more spacious – for example, people can bring on prams at off-peak times without any disturbance, as they could on a train but not on a double decker.

Part of it is pure branding. I overheard one child expressing delight at the very notion of “gliding”.

This is not to discount the rational reasons for liking it, from the at-level platforms to the USB ports. But in the end it plays to emotion rather than reason. For that, it will likely succeed.


Donegal Ulster Scots

For the day that’s in it…

Wee Hughie

He’s gaen tae schuil, wee Hughie,
An him no fouwer.
Shuir A saa the fricht wis in him,
Whan he left the deur.

But he tuik a haund o Denny
An a haund o Dan,
Wi Joes auld coat upon him –
Och, the puir wee maun!

He cut the quaerest feigur,
Mair stout nor thin;
An trottan richten steadie
Wi his taes turnt in.

A watcht him tae the corner
O the big turf stak,
An themair his feet went forrit,
Still his heid turnt bak.

He wis leukan, wad A caa him –
Och ma hairt wis wae –
Shuir it’s losst A am athout him,
But he buid tae gae.

A follaed tae the turnin
Whan thay past it aa,
Goad help him, he wis cryan,
An, mebbes, sae wis A.

Original: Elizabeth McShane

#WeDeserveBetter – or do we?

I have brought this blog out of political retirement to say just one thing. Delivering good government is complex.

This should not be a controversial statement. To manage a health service while adapting to new treatments, new equipment and new medical conditions while dealing with an ageing population presenting with ever more complex care needs (my father alone has prostrate cancer, dementia and diabetes) is difficult. To manage an education system which meets the needs of the economy, the expectations of parents and the interest of children all while ensuring those who emerge from it are genuinely educated and able to adapt in a fast-changing world is difficult. Even to put in place a new guided bus system in one city which will attract people out of their cars, improve traffic flow and help the environment while meeting the needs and expectations of people through both the delivery and the transition is a project fraught with immense difficulty.

Delivering these things, and managing the people and systems required to do so, is a hugely complicated and difficult task requiring a significant base of skills and experience.

To repeat, this should not be controversial. And yet it is incredible – incredible – how many people do not take account of it and go about their daily lives as if these things are easy and straightforward. They are not.

This brings us to a problem afflicting the Western World, particularly the Anglosphere – populism. Populists do not come forward with solutions. They come forward with problems and then, given the complexity actually involved with resolving those problems, they pick instead on something simplistic (or, worse, on a particular minority group) to blame. “These things are actually simple”, they say, “except the elite/the establishment/the foreigners/the gays/the weak moaning group-of-your-choice are telling you otherwise!”

Pointing at things which are wrong, they simply point out they are wrong and that they must be put right – but never bother to explain how. So it is in Northern Ireland. One side points out the damage caused by terrorists and the other side points out the damage caused by the denial of rights. But neither gives you a coherent plan to fixing it or even moving on from it. People all over the Western World would no doubt recognise that general problem in their own political system, or at least one very nearby.

In Northern Ireland, what is remarkable is how little public reaction there has been. There are no industrial actions, no protest marches, not even really public discussions of any kind.

Stepping into the void was, supposedly, the #WeDeserveBetter campaign. To its supporters, this looks like an obvious common sense campaign saying that politicians should get back to work.

Yet here is the thing: to DUP supporters it is common sense that it is Sinn Fein which is solely responsible for blocking restoration through its pre-conditions; to Sinn Fein supporters it is common sense that it is the DUP refusing to ensure equal rights as part of government. No one doesn’t want to do the job – it is just the other side is blocking them from doing so. What has #WeDeserveBetter to say about those viewpoints?

Sadly it became apparent almost instantly that #WeDeserveBetter is just as populist as the very populists who are holding us all up.

Firstly, they pointed out how much MLAs have been paid since the Executive fell. Those are, of course, the MLAs we elected, carrying out the platforms under which we elected them. As it happens, comfortably more than half elected under the broadly proportional system we operate were from the two largest parties required to form an Executive. So what does #WeDeserveBetter propose to do about this fact? Ignore popular mandates? Sack the politicians the people elected? Abolish democracy?

Secondly, they then decided to host a rally calling for some common sense changes in line with the rest of the UK and Ireland – primarily reforms to marriage and abortion legislation. This is, in fact, somewhat more complex than it sounds. Presumably, marriage legislation should allow same-sex couples the same rights to civic marriage as any others, but should protect churches from any obligation in this regard (which may require slightly different drafting from the rest of the UK given Northern Ireland’s distinct equality laws, both in terms of the legislation applicable and the legal judgments applied here to it)? On abortion, are we proposing to follow a 50-year-old law in Great Britain which quite specifically does not give the woman the right to choose (taking the risk that courts in Northern Ireland will set the same precedent as they did in Great Britain five decades ago) or something more like the Irish proposal (itself in fact seemingly based on German law, which is much more restrictive than Great Britain’s in terms of timing but establishes more clearly the woman’s right)? What precisely, here, is the #WeDeserveBetter campaign proposing?

Of course, it then turned out that even having the same rights for LGBT and women as in the rest of the UK and Ireland was “divisive”, according to some who believe #WeDeserveBetter. (It should be quite obvious, by the way, that those who have suffered from the denial of basic civil and medical rights definitely “deserve better”.)

So when people came to demand “better”, the fact is they could not even agree on basic principles of social policy. When you then get to the very real and difficult complications of transforming an entire health and social care service; reforming the schools estate and skills; or even implementing a guided bus system; and doing all of this within a budget already well above what we actually raise in revenue, what have they to say? How on earth would they be expected to agree on those highly complex matters, if even basic social policy and rights are too difficult?

Therein lies the difficulty!

At the last election, almost two-thirds of the population voted for the two “problem parties” (defined as those required to form an Executive but unable to agree how to do so) despite knowing that they were the problem parties – indeed, almost 30% voted for a party on the very specific proposition that it would not take its seats in the legislature. Neither party is particularly keen on forming a government because, of course, government is actually complex and difficult. Both remain more popular by not forming a government.

Yet those who would oppose them then fall into the same trap. Just like the DUP and Sinn Fein, they present apparently common sense propositions (“MLAs are paid too much”; “politicians are useless”, “#WeDeserveBetter”), only to find that as soon as a single one of those propositions is tested (“Well obviously we should have a more progressive social policy…”) the whole thing falls apart. Just as with the DUP and Sinn Fein, it turns out to be much easier to oppose the government with some basic slogans no one could be seen to disagree with, than actually form a government to deal with the very real complexities and difficulties of delivering public services and social policy (never mind economic strategies – no one even pretends to bother with those) on behalf of a diverse population.

Thus, even the very basic proposition is ultimately populist, however well meaning it is. We all like to think we “deserve better” – the people opposing that proposition will be as numerous as those opposing the proposition that “terrorists are bad” or that “equal rights are good”! The problem comes when we start defining those terms…

And so it is that when I campaign at elections what I see is a vast majority voting for the very two parties who are quite obviously the problem; when I hit the doors between elections I find very few people prepared to give up their time and join me; and when I propose think tanks to look at very real issues of health, education and jobs no one shows any real interest. It is much easier to tweet angrily about radio programmes playing to our base instinct of “identity politics” where we can just blame an “out group” of our choosing.

I understand. We are all busy. But based on our voting record, our campaigning time and our ability even to think through the complexities and difficulties faced by those trying to deliver a functioning health service, education system and transport infrastructure on a budget limited by what we are ourselves prepared to pay in rates and taxes, I have to wonder – if “we” deserve better, who precisely are “we” and on what basis do we “deserve” it?