Current Affairs Politics

2019 Northern Local Elections Results: A New Trend Or An Anomaly?

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.

23 comments on “2019 Northern Local Elections Results: A New Trend Or An Anomaly?

  1. Sharon E Douglas

    Ugh!

  2. Alliance are technically unionist. That said, they can be summed up as “NBN” or “Nice But Naive”. Sinn Fein, on the other hand, signed the soi disant policing agreement and sold out.

  3. Brian Patterson

    Have we a breakdown of total votes cast in numbers as opposed to percentages? Did the defection to Aontú of a small number of SF voters explain the slight drop in their vote? Did welfare “reform” hit them hard in Derry as claimed by Eamonn McCann?Also former SF member Mark Gibbons in Newry and Mourne might have taken some SF votes. Plus Gavin Malone in Newry, despite it being his first foray into politics, got a massive vote. It is widely believed he was heavily supported by former supporters of Davy Hyland a former SF councillors who fell out with the party some years back over its support for PSNI.. Ironically he also got support from disaffected SDLP supporters. Also an influx of new blood into the local SDLP team saw a slight revival of their fortunes. SF more or less maintained their position here doing very well especially in Mourne and S. Armagh. Strong female representation but few heavy hitters apart from redoubtable veteran Charlie Casey.

    • Pat Murphy

      SF can no longer be regarded as a Republican Party. They are now the voice of placard waving feminists and pro abortionists. No doubt why their vote seems to have stayed the same. “The north is next” springs to mind. From my experience they have lost an awful support from what could have been called “the traditional republican voice” or TRV for short. It would be interesting to see the % voter turnout per district and gender breakdown if possible. One can but hope that the sellout party disappears to oblivion in the not too distant future.

  4. gendjinn

    The electorate is up to 1.305mm now, an increase of 62k on 2014. Turnout was 688k, which is a big drop from the 2017 Assembly & WM elections of 812k, but still a big increase for a local government election alone.

    In Derry/Strabane 5.5k added to the rolls and 6.9k more turnout, in Newry/Mourne something similar with 7k added to rolls and 8.4k increase in turnout. Causeway was a more modest 3k added to electorate and 3.9k increase in turnout. Interesting to see that level of increased engagement by the electorate in those councils. Everywhere but Belfast turnout was noticeably improved. I wonder why Belfast was such an outlier.

    I would say that APNI has changed in the post-GFA years from the staunch polite, soft Unionism it once was. The last few elections have seen its voter base change almost unrecognizably. The demographic trends manifesting in the increase in SF MLAs have pressured the more Unionist voters to leave the APNI for the DUP, same pressure applies to the UUP voter base. APNI’s Unionist voter base are now more likely to prefer IE/EU over remaining in the UK with a hard Brexit. I suspect this year it has benefited the most from the increases in turnout, in combination with Remain Unionism consolidating into it, much as Leave Unionism has consolidated into DUP/UUP. What I haven’t teased out yet is what, if any, impact the SDLP/FF alignment has had, I could see SDLP voters opposed to FF heading to APNI.

    We are deep into the interesting times period of the tipping point transition to majority Nationalist vote in the north. Unionism is consolidating and shrinking, moderate elements of Unionism are being alienated from the majority, moving to middle ground parties such as APNI. Looking at Belfast transfers alone (not all councils have published their vote counts yet) transfers from APNI were breaking down very roughly as 50% to Nationalist, 25% to Unionist and 25% going nowhere. That’s a firm up of a trend over the past 5 years and I’d say that’s about where the voter base of APNI would go in a border poll. I think GP is >=75% Nationalist and PBPA is surely >95%.

    Curious to see what impact Brexit has on the Euro election turnout in a few weeks, usually it’s about the same as the LG and much lower than Ass/WM. I’m thinking there will be an increase in turnout, and that the bulk of that will go to APNI.

    Also will be interesting to see how many party leaders go after the EU elections.

    • Good analysis. With predictions that the third MEP seat may be up for grabs, the SDLP and APNI must fancy their chances for a narrow win over the UUP (or even a DUP double MEP attempt).

      My own gut instinct would argue that a “cross community” Remain candidate could take it if the SDLP, APNI, Greens and others rowed in behind her/him.

      A cross-border candidate would be a similar if trickier option.

      Too late for that now.

      But SF needs to get the northern nationalist vote out, and the SDLP too, if the anti-Brexit argument is to maintain its position as the will of the people in the north.

      Two pro-Brexit MEPs would seriously harm that.

      • Pat Murphy

        Be interesting to see will the turkeys vote for Christmas or will the pound in their pocket overcome the magnetic pull of the Fleg.

        • I’m not sure that’s the best tactic to get them to put aside the “fleg”.

          The thing about being told “screw it, vote your economic interests instead” is like telling some people “Admit your only place in the world is as a welfare case”. It’s a bit like walking on a house (not necessarily fancy but in decent shape) that your family has held for generations because you can’t afford it, and moving into subsidized housing.

          All people vote for things other than their pocketbook. Expecting “fleggers” to be different is unrealistic. The only thing that can truly overcome the “fleg” -and I do not know how to pull that one off-is to get them to believe in something else. Probably a something else that doesn’t require them to directly renounce their families.

          • Pat Murphy

            Grace, if there had been fair play in this part of Ireland throughout the years do you honestly believe that we would have the present situation that we find ourselves in?. That’s all that was ever needed. Now that brexit has raised its head, what benefits we have got seem precarious at least. We will not give up that situation. Unionists will not want to end up in the situation nationalists were in. An old saying here is to hurt anyone properly hit them on the pocket. If it comes down to a choice, the pound or the crown, I think I know what the answer would be. The free state never had anything to offer the north, now within the European Union a reunited Ireland would be a very viable proposition. Then as a united country it would be up to the people to decide if they wanted their own irexit or not. No one would be required to “renounce their family’s” like the nationalists population were expected to do for nearly one hundred years.

            • I doubt anyone here would deny that the whole history of partition has been a running fiasco.

              However, I’ve spent most of my adult life saying very, very similar things about a certain demographic/North American subculture that bears an often startling resemblance to these Protestant Ulsterman-White Southerners; The kinds with Confederate Flags, fighting to keep Confederate Monuments on public buildings (not just cemeteries and battlefields).

              The more you look at both groups the mire astonishing it gets how similar those two populations act in many, many ways.

              Indeed progressive have been debating and theorizing about the question since at least the 1890’s.

              I concluded that pocketbook alone only works at making them put up with a short term compromise when they are desperate. And then found out that others had come to the same conclusion over 100 years ago.

              I wish I could provide the answer at how to change such a population at least with the younger ones who wer born into the legacy through no fault of their own. Maybe the person who can will get a Nobel Peace Prize.

      • gendjinn

        I’d agree with you that a x-community bandwagon candidate would likely take the 3rd MEP seat, but that ship already sailed.

        ALthough, I would not think it that fatal if two Brexit Unionist candidates win, it would be explained away by tribal lines trumping politics (as per usual) and it would have the signal impact of further alienating Remain Unionists from voting for their regular Unionist party. Remember, the toughest point in changing someone’s voting pattern is the first time they vote for a different party than usual.

        In 2014 Unionist 1st Pref % in LG was 47.6%, Nationalist 38.9%. In 2019 N is 39.8%, U is 41.8% and Other 11.5% (Independent Unionist vote is lumped in here may be as much as 2%). Those demographic trends you’ve been told aren’t happening, aren’t happening even faster. 5 years or less.

        • I agree, there is a trend in the elections, blips and anomalies aside. The northern nationalist vote is up, or creeping into the “centre-ground” in terms of preferences and transfers, while the unionist vote is down or bleeding into the “centre-ground” in terms of preferences and transfers. I would put the latter in a “bad” category for unionists because the essence of unionism is electoral or political ground taken and held. Nationalism has proven itself to be more flexible and willing to abide incremental change.

          Political “greening” or “orange” diluting largely works one way. So far! SF should take note of its failures in the locals. And FF should take note of how lucky the SDLP was with the Derry/Strabane wins.

          • gendjinn

            SF lost 5 seats in Derry, some or all due to McKee’s murder.

            Your point about Nationalist vote diversifying into formerly Unionist center ground parties such as APNI and formally non-aligned parties such as GP, PBPA over the past few years while Unionism continues to coalesce around their most fundamentalist, intransigent party reflects a differential in outlook and confidence in the two tribes.

            Look at the new blood Unionism has attracted in recent years – Little-Pengelly, Lee Reynolds, Chris Stalford, Gavin Robinson, Dale Pankhurst…. no different from the people they were recruiting in the 60s & 70s.

            • Pat Murphy

              SF are only there now by the skin of their teeth. They sold out their grassroots supporters. Universal credit,bedroom tax, abortion to name just three. Everyone can see how power hungry they are. They would sell their own mothers. people vote for them not on their policies but in fear that that other crowd would get in. Granted there is very little difference. It is a case of being caught between a rock and a hard place. In time a credible alternative will emerge. God knows it’s long overdue. It seems to me quite disrespectful to not refer to the young lady murdered by using her full name. I was always taught that it showed a lack of manners to address or refer anyone by their surname. Just saying.

              • Jim McGettigan

                If Brexit is to in fact provide an opportunity for some semblance of a United Ireland, then all strains of republicanism must come together in unity to even stand a chance.
                ‘Carpe Diem’ should be the rallying cry and your adversaries must be denied any advantage due to republican divisiveness. United we can stand but divided we will almost definitely fail.

              • gendjinn

                I’m no great fan of SF for the very reasons you outline but once more their defeats are greatly exaggerated.

                No disrespect is intended to Lyra McKee, referring to political relevant people by surname only is a practice far older older than either you & I combined.

    • Agreed.

      Belfast is interesting. It seems from the detail that the East Belfast hard Unionist/Brexiteer vote is softening. Or perhaps they stayed at home?

  5. As of yet there are no official figures for overall turnout in Britain. It’s speculated that it’s between 30 and 40 %. In some areas it was 11%. You would’ve thought ‘the people’ would be eager to demonstrate their opposition to brexit by a show of strength? Perhaps the peasants realise the main political parties are pissing down the publics backs by pretending they want brexit? One things for sure, the state(Tory and labour) are on delicate ground.

    • Maybe, though I’m not sure that you can read poor voter turnout as indicating frustration with Brexit not being implemented. If that was the case, surely more voters would have turned out to voice their frustration? As it was, the Tories took a hammering and Labour took a few slaps too. And a lot of those independent councillors in England are Brexiteers or worse.

      The Brexit Party and the Faragists would have swept that election if they had got there with a year or two of local organisation.

      • The brexit party didn’t partake in this election and what’s conveniently left I.e UKIP has been suitably destroyed from within. So much so that the public didn’t bother voting for them either. The very fact that the state broadcaster and other media has ignored the low turnout would suggest the state knows what way the wind is blowing I.e the peasants are not participating in the election as they see no point as the last time their voices were ignored I.e brexit.

  6. Interesting the GP doing reasonably well. Though the SP are really in the functionally pro-union camp in my view.

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