After The Dust Settles on #LE23…

With the dust almost settled after a tumultuous election that turned many red areas a deep green, it’s time to look at the impact of some key points. This local election was fraught with disinterest, a lack of media coverage, and a general apathy amongst the public for electoral drama. It’s hard to blame them, with a second Assembly collapse in the space of six years, and the damage done by Brexit, the electorate can hardly be held responsible for being more or less switched off from the polls.

This was the first electoral test of the DUP and wider Unionism following the Assembly stalemate, brought on by the DUP’s objection to the NI Protocol and the Windsor Framework. Whilst they didn’t technically lose any seats overall (Any seats they lost were cancelled out by gains elsewhere), they didn’t break through and gain anywhere that wasn’t already expected. The total Unionist vote has shrunk significantly from 49.1% in 2017 to 39.35% in the recent local elections. If that was, as Sir Jeffrey Donaldson put it, a mandate to continue their Stormont boycott, then it could hardly be seen as a ringing endorsement. Unionism overall suffered significant setbacks, with Alliance and Sinn Fein snapping at the DUP and UUP’s heels everywhere from Belfast, to North Down and Ards, to Derry and Strabane.

Alliance maintained their place as the second largest party on North Down and Ards council, picking up two seats at the expense of the Greens in Bangor Central, and an Independent in Bangor West/Donaghadee. In an area that was dominated by Green politics for so long, their vote has more or less collapsed in North Down from 10.2% in 2019 to 5.9% this election cycle. Their vote seems to have collapsed province wide, with former leader Clare Bailey losing her Assembly seat in last year’s election, and current leader Mal O’Hara being beaten out for a seat on Belfast City Council by the SDLP, who clung on despite a resurgent Sinn Fein in Castle DEA. I personally feel that the Greens’ real problem this election was that they failed to hammer through the message of why they matter in local politics. Their visibility was completely eclipsed by Alliance and Sinn Fein, both of whom are usually transfer friendly to the Greens. The management of both Alliance and Sinn Fein’s vote put the Greens on the ropes in every single constituency and DEA, as was seen last year with both Clare Bailey and Rachel Woods losing out to a second Alliance candidate in their respective constituencies.

Their platform has been rather diminished, and the Greens failed to connect with middle ground voters. A missed opportunity to capitalise and compound on their 2019 victories has resulted in their influence being greatly undermined. Whether Mal O’Hara stays on as leader remains to be seen, but my money would be on Cllr Rachel Woods, former Green Party MLA for North Down, being coronated unchallenged in the next few months.

The UUP continued their descent into electoral oblivion, losing twenty one councillors across Northern Ireland. Considering just twenty years ago they were the largest party in local government with one hundred and fifty four seats, to drop to only fifty four across all eleven councils is quite the sea change. There were a few glimmers of hope for the UUP with them picking up a handful of seats that had otherwise been in contention for them, however overall their electoral machinery has completely fallen apart. Current leader Doug Beattie’s inability to draw clear blue water between the Ulster Unionists and the DUP, as well as allowing the UUP to expand within Belfast and the larger population centres will result in the party dwindling into “Independents/Others” territory in future election results. I would hazard a guess that in any future Assembly election they could see their number of MLAs drop to less than five, with Doug Beattie’s seat also up for grabs. It’s not looking good for the UUP, even with talented new comers in their ranks like former PUP Cllr Julie Anne Corr, and seasoned defectors like Carole Howard from Alliance, their problem is branding and message. It didn’t take long after the election for several Unionists to make the case for Unionist unity.

The TUV also failed to make significant inroads into the DUP base, managing to gain only three seats with one in Court DEA at the expense of the PUP leader Billy Hutchinson. Rather than the Unionist base growing, it has begun to devour itself at the expense of growing room for smaller Unionist parties who are competing for the last seats in several DEAs. With only one MLA and now nine Councillors, the TUV have outperformed the Greens for the first time in terms of elected representation, but whether this can be sustained and translated into Assembly seats is doubtful. Unlike Alliance, Sinn Fein and the DUP, the TUV has a talent problem. The party, by and large, remains a vehicle for the personal politics of Jim Allister KC MLA, and their only other personality, Cllr Timothy Gaston, failing to gain any traction in the media in the shadow of his party leader. It would be hard to see how the TUV would continue as an electoral force should Jim Allister retire, or lose his seat. The No Sea Border campaign, which has bedecked Loyalist areas up and down Northern Ireland, failed to translate into any meaningful surge in TUV support, but it is highly unlikely they will change tack and adopt a softer approach. The TUV appeals to a certain section of anti-agreement Unionism and that isn’t likely to go away any time soon, but an inability to coalesce that energy into a movement outside of Jim Allister’s cult of personality is what will continue to hinder them from any significant electoral inroads.

The PUP are all but finished as an electoral force in Northern Ireland, their last hurrah having been their small resurgence off the back of the flag protests in 2012. With the defection of Dr John Kyle to the UUP, the loss of Julie Anne Corr’s seat, and now the TUV taking Billy Hutchinson out of local politics, it’s hard to see how they can, if at all, come back from this. Their sole remaining elected representative, Cllr Russell Watton on Causeway Coast and Glens district council will likely become leader if the party decides to continue in its current form. It’s safe to say the party of the late David Ervine is all but finished.

Similarly to the PUP and UUP, People Before Profit were more or less engulfed by the Sinn Fein electoral wave that swept the board in last week’s election. PBP seats that would have been considered safe only a few years ago are now in the hands of Sinn Fein, from Belfast, to and Derry and Strabane. Maeve O’Neill losing her seat in the Moor, and Fiona Ferguson in Oldpark was a shock personally, as I was convinced they would hold onto those seats. However the PBP vote has largely been absorbed into Sinn Fein’s messaging, with the latter adopting many of PBP’s political imagery and managing to eat into their base. With a drop to only over four thousand first preference votes across the entire city, it is becoming abundantly clear that for both Unionists and Nationalists, smaller parties are now being cannibalised by their larger, and more well funded peers. Money wins elections, and without funding and grass roots support it’s impossible to get the vote out. Gerry Caroll MLA will be sweating with any upcoming Assembly election as Sinn Fein will be eager to snap up a full house in West Belfast.

The Alliance surge, often talked about, seemed to have hit a speed bump as a yellow wave didn’t materialise west of the Bann. Alliance lost both Cllrs they had gained on Derry and Strabane City Council which will be a huge blow to activists in the city, however at one point during the count they were pegged to be the largest party on LCCC where they are but one seat behind the DUP. Alliance did, however, have one bright spot outside of their usual urban base with the election of Eddie Roof in Enniskillen at the expense of the SDLP’s Paul Blake. Alliance also broke through in Balmoral with the election of Tara Brooks and Micky Murray, with the DUP’s Gareth Spratt losing out in the process.

Sinn Fein managed to make headlines by electing two Cllrs in Castlereagh South, and taking a seat off long term Alliance stalwart, and former Mayor, Stephen Martin. It was a casualty of war that many, including myself, did not see coming and Alliance will be licking their wounds after the loss of such a capable and well respected Councillor, however Sinn Fein will be delighted that they have elected representation in what was once considered a DUP heartland.

It was a similar story in Ballymena with Bréanainn Lyness taking a seat, again with the SDLP incumbent losing out. On a council that has been riddled with controversy and rumours of scandal, and dominated by Unionist control, the election of an extra two Sinn Fein Cllrs will definitely upset the apple cart.

It’s becoming clear that politics in Northern Ireland is coalescing around three main parties – Sinn Fein, DUP and Alliance. I’m not going to go into the minutae of the scale of the Sinn Fein victory, or now the DUP managed to defy expectations and hold onto their current number of seats, but looking at the electoral map after this election it’s obvious that Sinn Fein has managed to expand into the base of moderate as well as radical Republicans and Nationalists, cutting into the base of the SDLP, People Before Profit, Aointu and independent Republicans and even Alliance in Derry and Strabane City Council. Alliance likewise has been able to dig into the UUP, Green and SDLP vote in Belfast, North Down and beyond, however they failed to make any significant electoral breakthrough, though they did increase their seats on Causeway Coast and Glens at the cost of the SDLP and UUP. This was a recurring pattern across the province with the two former political heavyweights taking the brunt of either Alliance or Sinn Fein victories. The main victims of this election were the smaller parties, and that’s not necessarily good for local communities or democracy. The election of smaller parties allows for the scrutiny and challenging of larger parties who may dominate. Whether this trend continues remains to be seen.

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