Following nearly three days of counting the results of UK-administered local government elections in the north-east of the country are in. Despite some press predictions to the contrary, the Democratic Unionist Party has escaped any significant punishment by pro-union voters for its high-profile association with Brexit and the parliamentary chaos in Westminster in an election which saw a slight fall in overall support for explicitly unionist parties.
By and large the DUP held its base, the party adding some votes as it increased its support in percentage terms from 23.1% to 24.1% (+1.1%) though in reality it fell from 130 seats to 122 (-8). The percentage rise seems to have been largely at the expense of rival pro-union groupings, including the Ulster Unionist Party, which went down from 16.1% to 14.1% (-2.1%) or 88 seats to 75 (-13), the Traditional Unionist Voice, dropping from 4.5% to 2.2% (-2.3%) or 13 seats to 6 (-7), the Progressive Unionist Party, down from 2.0% to 0.8% (-1.2%) or 4 seats to 3 (-1), the United Kingdom Independence Party, falling from 1.5% to 0.4% (-1.0%) or zero seats, and finally the Conservative Party, dropping from 0.4% to 0.2% (-0.2%) or also zero seats.
As in previous elections, there is a marked consolidation of unionist or pro-union voting around the city of Belfast, in parts of the coastal counties of Antrim and Down, and the border county of Armagh. Correspondingly, there has been a notable withdrawal of pro-union support elsewhere in the Six Counties, pointing towards a sort of partition-within-a-partition and the emergence of a core “Northern Ireland” redoubt east of the River Bann.
The real story of the broadly pro-union vote is the rise of the moderate centre-right Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, which increased its support from 6.6% to 11.5% (+4.8%) with a comparatively major jump from 32 seats to 53 seats (+21). Brexit seems to have played a significant part in this rise, as Remain-inclined unionist voters moved to the party, particularly from the UUP, coupled with support by nationalist voters in a number of key districts. However, contrary to the media narrative, this does not represent the emergence of a non-communal or post-constitutional demographic in the north of Ireland.
While the APNI may officially designate itself as “Other” on the “Nationalist” to “Unionist” political spectrum, appealing to liberal Protestant and Catholic constituents in some affluent areas, it remains a broadly pro-union party. One only has to look at the treatment of Anna Lo, the party president, who was castigated in 2014 by some members and representatives for pointing out that “Northern Ireland” is a British colony and that a reunited Ireland is a desirable inevitability. The APNI might be relatively progressive and it may have small “n” nationalists or “cultural Catholics” in its membership but it continues to favour the United Kingdom when it comes to the inescapable constitutional question.
One can contrast the small surge in support for the APNI with that of a grouping usually identified as “Other”, namely the far-left People Before Profit Alliance. This is a broadly pro-unity if not “nationalist” all-Ireland party which jumped in the local elections from to 0.3% to 1.4% (+1.1%) or 1 seat to 5 (+4), giving it a greater presence in the cities of Belfast and Derry. This was despite widespread expectations that it would lose all of its representation because of its socialist-driven pro-Brexit advocacy, though that aspect of its policies was studiously downplayed or avoided during the recent election campaign, especially in Belfast where it slightly “greened” its appeal to nationalist voters.
Also in the catchall “Others” camp falls the results of the centre-left Green Party in Northern Ireland, which is technically a regional branch of the all-Ireland party, and which is arguably a pro-unity body. It also scored a good result in the elections, rising from 0.9% to 2.1% (+1.2%) or 4 seats to 8 (+4), making inroads in a number of districts. It will rightfully be pleased with its results. Unlike the APNI, which generally takes votes from small “p” Protestants, the GP generally takes votes from small “c” Catholics, though both have cross-community appeal and generally compete in the same electoral space.
Most commentators expected to see Sinn Féin emerge as the real winner from this year’s local government elections in the north and while it made significant inroads into a number of districts with previously little or no nationalist representation, its overall vote fell back slightly from 24.1% to 23.2% (-0.9%) though it kept all of its 105 seats. This mixed result can be best explained by the capture of new seats in majority pro-union areas which offset the party’s loss of seats in majority pro-unity areas to the PBPA, the APNI and SF’s main rival, the centre-left Social Democratic and Labour Party.
The SDLP scored several morale-building victories in its traditional heartland of Derry, which Sinn Féin had come to dominate in previous contests, arresting its overall fall in the local elections from 13.6% to 12.0% (-1.6%) with a drop from 66 seats to 59 (-7). Without the results in the city of Derry and elsewhere, the SDLP would have had another bad polling day and Sinn Féin a very much better one. As things stand, it could be argued that SF’s lost council seats in the city and county were collateral damage in a localised backlash against the strength of so-called Dissident Republicanism in the region following the slaying of the journalist Lyra McKee during street clashes. Though this argument should be combined with an analysis of Sinn Féin’s perceived failings on a number of economic and social issues or the perception that it has become less than responsive to some of its northern constituents, taking their support for granted.
On the fringe of the nationalist vote can be found the results for Aontú, the centre-right republican party which gained 1.1% of the vote on its first election and 1 seat taken. Meanwhile the Cross Community Labour Alternative, a far-left front for the northern branch of the all-Ireland Socialist Party, managed to gain 1 seat. Taken together the growth of the combined pro-unity vote in the border counties of Derry, Tyrone and Armagh continues to follow the upward tick of previous elections (putting aside a few anomalous declines), with salients being made into traditionally pro-union districts of Down and Antrim.
A noteworthy aspect of the elections in the Six Counties has been the rise of successful independent and non-party candidates. Somewhat paradoxically, these twenty plus councillors include a handful of non-aligned republicans previously associated with various strands of Dissident Republicanism or former Sinn Féin representatives, even in the Derry region. Which raises complex questions about the political views of some voters in the northern nationalist community. But more of that later.
Overall, the picture from the 2019 local government elections in the north of Ireland shows a significant fall in support for unambiguously unionist parties, a slight fall in support for unambiguously nationalist parties, and a sharp rise in support for parties with ambiguous pro-union or pro-unity policies or identities. Meanwhile, on the question of Brexit, most voters in the Six Counties continue to favour anti-Brexit parties like Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Alliance, the Greens and Aontú. With the pro-Brexit DUP, UUP, TUV, PUP, UKIP, PBPA, CCLA and the Tories in the minority.