Local Election 2014 in 10 Points

The 2014 Local Government election belongs in the past tense, with all of the 462 seats now occupied by councillors elected to the new eleven ‘super’ council framework. At this early stage, ten observations stand out from our latest electoral outing:

2014 LOCAL COUNCIL RESULTS

Party 2014 Seats Equivalent seat tally in 2014 (/462) +/- on Equivalent tally 2011 Seats (/582)
SDLP 66 69 -3 87
SF 105 109 -4 138
UUP 88 79 +9 99
DUP 130 139 -9 175
ALL 32 35 -3 44
OTH 41 31 +10 39

 

1. Sinn Fein’s status as the most popular party in Northern Ireland has been confirmed for the third time in the past five elections (it’ll be 4 of 6 after Monday), and that was just the icing on the cake on day one of a long weekend in which the republican party’s all-Ireland electoral and political strategy was comprehensively vindicated by a stunning showing at local government and Dail by-election level across the South. Gerry Adams has many detractors, but his political legacy will now include guiding Sinn Fein to a place where the party has not been since the Revolutionary period, on the cusp of gaining political office in the coming years across the island.

2. Northern Sinn Fein are well positioned to seize Foyle at Westminster following this election, a fact clearly appreciated by an SDLP party which is clearly in an ill state of health locally. With regard to that, the Carr debacle, the bizarre fracas involving John Hume’s brother and another party figure, and –most significantly- a fairly hard hitting TV interview by Foyle MP Mark Durkan which was critical in tone suggests a strained relationship between the once all powerful Derry wing and the Belfast leadership of Alasdair McDonnell. Worth watching in the coming days and weeks.

3. Every election will be marked by near misses where the crossbar was struck, as well as seats won which could just have easily been lost. But when the balance swings decisively in one direction, there are clearly underlying factors at play.Sinn Fein and the SDLP secured a combined % of the total vote which was not only down on 2011 (a bad year for both in that regard) but the lowest for the two main nationalist parties since before the 1994 IRA ceasefire.

At a glance it is possible to identify a dozen plus seats lost to the nationalist parties due to a combination of poor turnout, bad vote management and weak transfer rates (multiple DEAs in each of the new Antrim/Newtownabbey and ‘ABC’ Councils stand out in this regard.)

I alluded to the difficulties historically experienced by both nationalist parties with regard to maximizing votes and converting those into seats in a pre-election article here. The outcome of this election only serves to underline the negative impact upon nationalist turnout and representation resulting from the continuing failure of both nationalist parties to effectively organize across the North. Hence the anomalous situation of the largest political party in Northern Ireland being the only one of the four main parties to not even have a single seat on all 11 councils- in fact, SF will only be represented on 9 councils, failing to register at all in North Down/Ards or Castlereagh/Lisburn. Addressing this long-term problem in an effective and enduring way must be a priority for both parties.

4. Martin McGuinness was correct to welcome the election of Gary Donnelly in Derry. The prominent dissident republican secured an impressive poll topping vote, mopping up support from the disaffected and disillusioned republican base. Other non-mainstream candidates also returned decent votes in Belfast, Derry and elsewhere. McGuinness and Sinn Fein know only too well how the lure of electoral office brings with it increased public exposure and accountability for words and actions, which may in time contribute towards dissidents coming in from the cold and moving decisively to end armed actions.

5. The election of Gerry Carroll, the socialist People Before Profit candidate in west Belfast, is a noteworthy development as the elevation of an articulate and ideologically focused Independent has the potential to shake the Nationalist parties up in this constituency. Throw in Fianna Fail at the other end of the spectrum in 5 years time and there is the prospect of a healthy plurality of all-Ireland advocates seeking to attract and grow support for an island-wide vision, albeit with differing opinions on socio-economic and moral issues.

6. The DUP will wear a smile and adopt the usually brazen style associated with the party, but there is no denying that they’ve ceded ground in this election, and they know it. Their % vote loss was cushioned by a seat bonus resulting from the considerably more effective tribal vote transferring that defines unionism as opposed to nationalism. But the beginnings of an albeit limited pincer movement against the party (outlined below) can be identified which, although not posing a fatal threat to DUP domination within unionism, can nevertheless detrimentally impact upon their overall vote share and seat tallies at local and even Assembly level in the years to come, to the point where a Sinn Fein First Minister could be a real possibility.

7. The Ulster Unionist Party, both in terms of vote share increase and seats returned, stands apart as the primary victor in this election of the major players, though its advances were modest. The party improved its vote share by 0.9%, but its seat tally of 87 is up on the equivalent seat tally figure of 79 which marked its return from the 2011 local government election outing. The party’s strategic shift to the right resulted in the UUP being successfully positioned to attract some support from the ranks of the disgruntled DUP voters, arresting the UUP’s decline and finally providing some hope for the party faithful.

8. The TUV are cock-a-hoop, and rightly so. Jim Allister has every right to be delighted with a return of 13 seats (up from 6 in the old council format) across 6 councils, including a very impressive 5 seats on the Mid/East Antrim Council. This sets the party up nicely for an Assembly election run in which they must be targeting multiple seat gains at the expense primarily of the DUP, whose 38 seat return in the 2011 Assembly election included 3 seats in South Antrim, East Derry and East Antrim, all of which must be target seats for a rejuvenated Traditional Unionist Voice.

9. For all the noise they’ve been making, the PUP have still only managed to return with four councillors, matching their 2001 tally but less than the 7 councillors elected in the heady days of 1997. The party’s new Coleraine councillor was the only candidate to get elected outside of the same three inner city loyalist Belfast areas to which the party has been getting elected on and off since the 1990s.

Nevertheless, the election of Julie Corr (Oldpark) and impressive vote tally secured by Billy Hutchinson (Court) will incentivize loyalists to continue on the electoral path, bringing with it potential benefits for the rest of society for the same reason Martin McGuinness identified when commenting on the fortunes of dissident republican candidates.

Furthermore, the loyalist victory in Oldpark was a significant advance in its own right, knocking out the DUP Council leader in Belfast, Lee Reynolds, sending the message out to the DUP that their efforts to counter the PUP’s machinations by seeking co-ownership of Twaddell and the associated flag/parade movement were ultimately unsuccessful.

Expect the DUP to face trouble from the PUP in the time ahead as the loyalists seek to broaden their reach and strengthen their prospects in other areas by mimicking the strategy of using flute bands, parades and other protests to further embed and grow the party across working class loyalist Belfast. In their own right, the PUP will not seriously challenge DUP dominance within working class loyalism, but anticipated losses at the margins, coupled with similar small scale losses to the TUV and UUP, will have the effect of further consolidating Sinn Fein’s status as the most popular party in the state.

10. The Alliance Party have returned with 32 seats, down from the seat equivalent of 35 on the basis of the 44 seats secured in 2011. The party vote is also down by 0.7%. But this modest decline must be a source of comfort and relief for the party, given the dire predictions of vote meltdown following the loyalist flag movement’s targeting of the party over the City Council flag flying policy. A resolute performance across Belfast- returning 8 councillors- firmly establishes the party in its kingmaker role, whilst it has also been able to celebrate getting two councillors elected in the new Newry, Mourne and Down council.

The other ‘Other’ performance of note was that of the Greens, claiming four seats across two councils, including a very impressive return of 3 seats to the new North Down and Ards Council.