The elections to our new local government councils are only a few days away, but there are a number of observations that can already be made about the significance and likely implications for our political parties from the changing local government model which has seen our 26 councils amalgamate into 11 larger councils.
Firstly, the new council framework means this is akin to a baseline election, with parties knowing they are only really able to begin to get a feel for each constituency once the votes are cast, counted and analysed ad nauseam as the basis for future targets.
But it is possible to use the seat tallies gained in 2011 as a basis to project equivalent totals for each party, allowing us to create a framework to analyse whether or not parties have made relative advances or retreats on their electoral performances in 2011.
2011 SEAT TALLIES PROJECTED IN 2014 LOCAL COUNCIL ELECTIONS
|Party||2011 Seats (/582)||Equivalent seat tally in 2014 (/462)|
In this article, I am primarily focusing on the history of political nationalism’s electoral advance at local government level, using the 1993 election as a baseline to compare with where Sinn Fein and the SDLP stood after the 2011 election.
Political Nationalism and Constituency Organisation
Both Sinn Fein and the SDLP have a frustratingly pedestrian approach to party development, and charting the history of the election performances of both parties at local government level bears this out clearly for observers.
It is very likely that this will be the first local government election in which either nationalist party secures representation on every local government council in the north of Ireland. That is a significant advance which will in time likely bear further fruit for nationalism as it gains a foothold and with that a sense of relevance to local politics across all parts and communities in Northern Ireland, including the overwhelmingly unionist coastal suburb communities of lower east Antrim and North Down which have no history of nationalist elected representatives at this level.
1993 LOCAL GOVERNMENT ELECTION RESULTS
|Party||% Vote||Seats||Councils elected to||DEAs elected to|
The 1993 Local Government Election
21 years ago, the 1993 local government election saw Sinn Fein contest its third local government election since re-launching itself in electoral politics.
Of the 101 District Electoral Areas (DEAs) that made up the 26 local government councils, Sinn Fein ran candidates in only 52 DEAs (51%), with the SDLP fielding candidates in 69 DEAS (68%).
In contrast, the Ulster Unionist Party ran candidates in 95 DEAs (94%) and the DUP in 90 DEAs (89%.) Even Alliance had a wider spread of candidates than Sinn Fein, running in 55 DEAs (54%.)
The SDLP only fielded candidates in 21 of the 26 local government council areas, with Sinn Fein running in only 17 council districts, one less than Alliance.
In total, the SDLP claimed 127 council seats on the back of its 22.0% of the vote in 1993, with Sinn Fein taking 51 seats on 12.4%. The two main unionist parties claimed 300 of the 582 seats between them (51.5% of the overall seats), and when the 25 seats secured by the Conservatives and Independent Unionists were factored in, more than 55% of seats were held by that firmly pro-Union bloc of parties.
The SDLP secured representation to 68 of the 101 DEAs, but Sinn Fein did likewise in only 32 DEAs, less than a third of constituencies (3 less than Alliance.) The UUP saw councillors returned in 93 DEAs and the DUP in 73 DEAs.
There are good historical reasons explaining the contrasting organisational and electoral fortunes of the main unionist and nationalist parties, and they are linked to the reasons why most of our towns and villages will have either or both of a British military memorial or Orange Hall somewhere along one of the main drags regardless of the sectarian demography of the local populace. Put simply, the superior position in Northern Irish state and society of political unionism since the state’s inception has meant that unionist parties developed a culture of seeking and expecting representation across the state whilst organised political nationalism floundered under the strain of a sense of hopelessness, despair and betrayal.
Both Sinn Fein (in its modern electoral manifestation) and the SDLP were born out of the Troubles and have suffered from a limited electoral vision which continues to inhibit their electoral growth at local government level. (Ironically, it also feeds a narrative of continuing incremental nationalist growth as they get round to it in piecemeal fashion, an unintended but nevertheless positive consequence for nationalists.)
This is compounded by a sense of fear and apprehension felt by many nationalists residing in majority unionist areas which makes it difficult to get the necessary list of electors in each DEA willing to sign the nomination papers for nationalist candidates.
2011 LOCAL GOVERNMENT ELECTION RESULTS
|Party||% Vote||Seats||Councils elected to||DEAs elected to|
The 2011 Local Government Election
Fast forwarding four election cycles later brings us to the 2011 local government election, with a contrasting picture emerging from that of 1993 as a result of almost two decades of nationalist electoral and political advance.
In 2011, Sinn Fein secured 138 seats on 24.8% of the vote, with the SDLP taking 87 seats on 15.0% of the vote, meaning that the combined number of seats and % of the vote for the two main nationalist parties had risen from from 34.4% to 40.0% from 1993 to 2011, and the combined seat tally was up from 178 seats to 225 seats.
The DUP’s share of seats in 2011 was 175 on 27.2% of the vote, with the UUP securing 99 seats on 15.2% of the vote, making a combined seat tally of 274 seats, down from 300 in 1993.
Significantly, by 2011 the SDLP would have councillors in all but 2 of the 26 local councils (North Down and Carrickfergus) but Sinn Fein would still have no representation on 4 councils (Ards and Castlereagh in addition to North Down and Carrickfergus.)
At DEA level, though, the nationalist advance in the intervening years was markedly visible- though with an interesting caveat.
In 2011, Sinn Fein secured electoral representation on 65 DEAs, just over double the number of DEAs it had representatives elected to in 1993, but only one more than the SDLP’s 64 DEAs- a strikingly symmetrical figure when it is considered that Sinn Fein’s dominance within nationalism at overall vote level was such that the party at 24.8% was almost a full ten percentage points ahead of the SDLP on 15.0%.
This apparent anomaly is worth reflecting upon as it is illustrative of the failure to date of Sinn Fein to extend itself organisationally to capitalise on its superior position within nationalism.
In many constituencies with a middle-class nationalist or minority nationalist electorate, the republican party continues to be sluggish in its approach towards party development, confirming its over reliance and bias towards its core republican base constituency- thus parachute candidates from the base constituencies continue to be dropped in as cards to fill a space on the ballot without genuine hope of election.
There are deeper factors contributing towards this than I intend to dwell upon today, but the end result remains the same: unlike the DUP, Sinn Fein’s electoral dominance within its own community is not universal across class and geographical contexts.
But, as the party’s development in areas like Ballymena, Ballymoney and Coleraine over the past decade indicates, once an electoral foothold is established, the direction is clearly towards electoral growth and subsequent representation.
In this sense, the 11 Council model, with its 80 DEAs replacing the 101 pre-existing DEAs, will benefit both of the main nationalist parties by ensuring that representation on all councils is secured from the outset (though it is probable that one of the two main nationalist parties will miss out on a seat to the North Down and Ards Council, depending on the result in the Ards Peninsula DEA.)
Sinn Fein secured 23.7% of the 582 seats and the SDLP 14.9% of the overall seat tally with their 2011 performance, which would translate into 109 seats for Sinn Fein and 69 for the SDLP in the new council framework with its 462 total councillors.
This poses a challenge to Alliance, which has historically benefitted from the absence of nationalist candidates in many DEAs across the north.
It is worth noting that the 2011 local government election was not a good one for nationalism, as the malaise had well and truly set in with the SDLP’s demise failing to translate directly into Sinn Fein’s gains. The non-voting nationalist is now as significant a cohort as his/her unionist counterpart, and that will likely be confirmed once again after the latest electoral contest is concluded in the coming week. That, too, is for another day….