Analysing the 2023 Local Elections: Part 3: identity bloc performance, estimated six-county vote, SDLP and UUP decline, spoiled votes.

(Part 1 can be found here.)

(Part 2 can be found here.)

Identity bloc performance

The nationalist bloc is the largest in 13 of the 15 border EAs (excepting Erne North and Cusher), having overtaken the unionist bloc in Faughan and Clogher Valley.

Eight of the 11 EAs that touch Lough Neagh are now N-bloc plurality or majority, including four east of the Bann.

East/west of the Bann has limited relevance as geographical shorthand to describe relative political dominance in NI. It ignores unionist dominance in Erne North, Enniskillen, Bann and Limavady. Nationalist bloc plurality in Airport and Dunsilly means that Culmore, Ardoyne and Garrison are now in one continuous nationalist zone. Londonderry East is west of the Bann but is politically closer to North Antrim than to Foyle. And what does east/west of the Bann mean for the upper Bann, which flows northwestwards from Slieve Muck to Bannfoot? Not to mention the bisection of Banbridge, Portadown and Coleraine. I can’t think of a better term: “Border & Lough” or “the A5-A4 wedge” is the best that I can come up with. (Post a comment if you think of anything better.)

Black Mountain had the highest N-bloc share (98.5%); most of the three loughshores from Killinchy to Larne had no nationalist candidates standing. The increase in Castlereagh South for both SF and SDLP suggests further future fragmentation of unionist Down.

Braid had the highest U-bloc share (75.1%). No unionist stood in Black Mountain, Collin, Ballyarnett, Foyleside and The Moor.

Holywood & Clandeboye had the largest MG-bloc share (55.7%). No MG candidates stood in Clogher Valley and Carntogher.

Where are the EAs most likely to change plurality between N and U in the future? The five smallest U-bloc and N-bloc leads over each other are shown in this table (in Lisnasharragh, both blocs are behind the MG-bloc):

Electoral Area N-bloc % minus U-bloc %
Rowallane -19.89%
Lisnasharragh -11.02%
Limavady -10.96%
Erne North -4.93%
Enniskillen -0.20%
Craigavon +2.54%
Glengormley +4.26%
Waterside +6.42%
Dunsilly +8.06%
Airport +10.84%

How many of these EAs are likely to change plurality in 2027? To answer this, we need to look at the bloc swing between 2019 and 2023.

Consider Castlereagh South. In 2019, the U-bloc had 31.1% and the N-bloc had 27.6% (U-bloc ahead by 3.5%). In 2023, the U-bloc had 22.5% and the N-bloc had 38.2% (N-bloc ahead by 15.7%). The net swing from U-bloc to N-bloc was 3.5+15.7=19.2%. (The MG-bloc was the plurality bloc in both elections, but are likely to lose bloc dominance in 2027 as their 39.3% is only 1.1% ahead of the N-bloc.) Such a swing from U to N would see N-bloc dominance over U-bloc in Erne East, Enniskillen, Lisnasharragh and Limavady.

My overall NI-wide swing of 6.87% was calculated from my estimates of bloc % in 2019 and 2023. In 2019 I estimate that bloc shares were 44.09% U and 41.37% N (U-bloc lead of 2.72%). In 2023, my corresponding figures are 44.27% N and 40.12% U (N-bloc lead of 4.15%). 4.15+2.72=6.87%.

Swings from N-bloc to U-bloc were few and literally far between: along the border or coast, and occurring where the N-bloc vote share was either enormous or tiny.

Estimating the vote by County

My methodology is explained in this Slugger article analysing the 2019 local election.

The Newry and Lagan river estuaries are taken as county boundaries, splitting Newry, Belfast and Lisburn. There are 16 EAs that lie in two counties (Balmoral, Banbridge, Botanic, Causeway, Clogher Valley, Cookstown, Craigavon, Downshire West, Enniskillen, Erne North, Faughan, Lagan River, Lisburn North, Magherafelt, Newry and Sperrin) and one that lies in three (Lurgan).

Estimated county votes are:

County Nationalist Bloc % Unionist Bloc % Middle-Ground Bloc %
(estimated votes [rounded]: 235,753)
(estimated votes: 91,637)
{% change on 2019 local elections: +4.9%}

As was seen in 2019, nationalists are in a majority in four counties. Unionists are not a majority in any county, but they are the plurality bloc in counties Antrim and Down.

If the same share changes happened in County Antrim by 2027 as happened since 2019, the nationalist bloc would become the plurality bloc.

Estimated valid poll change by county, compared to the 2019 local election is as follows (biggest change first):

  • Tyrone: +2.8% {59.1% to 61.9%}
  • Armagh: +2.8% {54.7% to 57.5%}
  • Down: +2.4% {48.9% to 51.3%}
  • Antrim: +2.1% {49.3% to 51.4%}
  • Londonderry: +0.4% {55.3% to 55.7%}
  • Fermanagh: -0.2% {63.9% to 63.7%}

Turnout east of the Bann was up by more than in Derry, and turnout actually declined in Fermanagh.

UUP and SDLP decline

This graph shows how far these two parties’ votes, combined, have dropped since 1993.

The decrease is steady, around 1% per year. When the next council election rolls around in 2027, each party could be down 2%, which suggests 5-7 MLAs each.

Spoiled vote analysis

It is hard to see a definitive pattern here. Urban EAs seem to have higher spoiled votes %, but Ballymena and Ormiston are exceptions to that rule. Crotlieve has the highest percentage of spoiled votes. Perhaps this was due to the high number of candidates (15)? Drawing a best-fit line through the 80 data points, we see that there does seem to some correlation between number of candidates and percentage of votes that were spoiled or invalid. The percentage spoiled in Crotlieve was almost five times the percentage spoiled in Ballymena (nine candidates).

These are dramatic psephological times for NI. Nobody expected a swing of 6.87% from unionist to nationalist bloc in this year’s local elections. Unionists and Alliance will face the likelihood of demographically-increasing, and more frustrated, nationalist voters should this bloc feel they are being deprived of a border poll. Should this scenario play out, higher nationalist turnout is likely to drive further gains. The countdown to the Westminster 2024 election is well under way.

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