Unless something dramatic and unforseen happens in the period of less than three weeks between now and polling day, it is almost certain that Sinn Fein are on course to have a record performance at local government level in May’s election.
Looking across the 11 councils, it is clear that Sinn Fein could tack on an additional 20+ seats on their 2014 tally if the twin factors of a heightened nationalist turnout and swing from SDLP to Sinn Fein that contributed to their vote in the two elections of 2017 are once again in play. Every indication suggests that will be the case.
Sinn Fein’s local government performances (1985-2014)
|% Share of Vote
They are helped by the fact that the 2014 election took place at a time when the rot had already set in as far as the nationalist electorate was concerned. In an election marked by a poor nationalist turnout and a decline in the percentage of overall seats held by the two main nationalist parties, the SDLP managed to outpoll Sinn Fein in 23 of the 80 DEAs; Sinn Fein secured more votes in 47 DEAs, whilst both parties failed to contest 10 DEAs.
This time around, the number of DEAs in which the SDLP are likely to secure more votes than their republican counterparts is likely to fall into single figures, illustrating the party’s continuing decline in support.
There are a number of seats that are essentially low hanging fruit for Sinn Fein, and another tier of seat targets that should be comfortably within grasp in the event of the 2017 conditions being met.
In Belfast, where Sinn Fein is already the largest party (with 19 councillors), there are realistic prospects of additional seat gains in Castle, Oldpark, Black Mountain and Lisnasharragh. The Castle project has been bolstered by the candidacy of John Finucane, whose performance in the 2017 Westminster election suggests that the party should comfortably secure the two seats here. The SDLP’s decision to run two candidates, knowing that they were almost certainly going to face a fierce battle to merely secure a solitary seat in the DEA is perplexing, not least given that the party councillors elected to the constituency in 2014 are now standing against the party as independents, further shredding the core SDLP vote in a very competitive constituency.
Sinn Fein’s decision to run six candidates in Black Mountain in a bid to secure an unprecedented six from seven councillors illustrates the strength of support for the party, whilst also exposing how far the SDLP has fallen as an electoral force in west Belfast. It is likely that Sinn Fein will take the sixth seat, leaving the SDLP to compete with People Before Profit for the final seat.
In neighbouring Antrim and Newtownabbey, a poor outing in 2014 has left a number of very winnable target seats in Macedon, Glengormley Urban, Antrim and Dunsilly, with a number of these seats more likely to be won at the expense of non-nationalists as opposed to the SDLP. Sinn Fein are even confident enough to be running two candidates in the Airport DEA, though claiming a second seat would be a shock result given the profile of the SDLP’s incumbent candidate, Thomas Burns.
Sinn Fein failed to secure any representation to Lisburn and Castlereagh Council in 2014, yet the party has a trio of realistic target seats including Killultagh, Lisburn North and Castlereagh South, as well as an additional seat in Ballymena to increase their tally of seats on Mid and East Antrim Council. Maria Cahill’s late departure from the contest will further aid the Sinn Fein project in Killultagh, though in reality she faced an uphill struggle to hold a seat in a constituency in which Sinn Fein had already surpassed the SDLP in 2014. Similarly, Sinn Fein outpolled the SDLP in 2014 in Lisburn North running a relatively unknown candidate and are hoping that the more prominent and active campaign by Joe Duffy will secure a breakthrough in this constituency.
The party’s decision to move Patrice Hardy from Bannside to Ballymena was a shrewd move, not least given the departure of the constituency’s SDLP stalwart, Declan O’Loan, leaving Hardy with a clearer run for the seat.
Sinn Fein’s performance on Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Council will be particularly worth watching.
In Cusher, Portadown, Craigavon, Lurgan and Armagh DEAs, Sinn Fein would only require a modest shift from the SDLP on 2014 numbers to secure additional representation, whilst a more significant surge and enhanced nationalist turnout (compared to 2014) would bring a second seat in Banbridge into play, potentially leaving the party’s new tally of seats in the 11-12 range (from the 8 seats secured in 2014.)
Since 2014, Sinn Fein has seen off the SDLP in South Down in dramatic fashion at Westminster level, and there would be an expectation that the party would make significant advances at local level across a Newry, Mourne and Down Council that returned fourteen SDLP and fourteen Sinn Fein councillors five years ago.
In six of the seven DEAs, Sinn Fein have very realistic chances of securing additional seats- Downpatrick, Newry, Crotlieve, Slieve Gullion, Mournes and Rowallane, and it is likely that Sinn Fein will return with a number of seats in the high teens, approaching the crucial figure of 20 on the 40-seat council. Sinn Fein will be seeking to outpoll the SDLP for the first time in Crotlieve, a DEA which was one of only four in which support for the SDLP exceeded 40% of first preference votes in 2014.
In Causeway Coast and Glens, Sinn Fein’s prospects have been further bolstered by the absence of a number of political opponents from the electoral fray this time around. Padraig McShane’s (Independent) decision to not run for re-election should make securing a third seat that was already a probability in The Glens marginally more likely, whilst the surprise absence of any SDLP candidate in Ballymoney means that Sinn Fein have an unexpected new target seat gain, seeking to double their representation in this DEA.
The party is on course to take a seat in Bann whilst challenging for another in Causeway and Coleraine. In Benbradagh, the party will be confident that it can return its three sitting councillors and leave the battle for the fourth nationalist seat to be contested by the SDLP’s Orla Beattie and Proinnsias Brolly from Aontú- as opposed to his mother, Anne Brolly, who it had been previously suggested would be running for the new party here. Similarly, Sinn Fein will be confident that Brenda Chivers will be returned in Limavady, leaving Francie Brolly (Aontú) and Ashleen Schenning (SDLP) to battle it out for the fifth seat.
Ards and North Down remains the one council area in which nationalists of either hue (SF or SDLP) have yet to seriously organize in order to mount a credible campaign for representation, though Sinn Fein is running Kieran Maxwell (Bangor West) and Murdoch McKibbin (Ards Peninsula) in order to establish some foothold and electoral presence on the ground. The addition of the latter as a party candidate at the 11th hour suggests that insufficient groundwork has been done to credibly challenge Joe Boyle (SDLP) for the seat- the only constituency in which this is likely to be the case across the north’s 80 DEAs.
The party’s three strongest council areas from 2014 are likely to each provide Sinn Fein with a credible opportunity to seize exactly half the number of council seats or more, offering the prize of being in a position to control council business.
In Derry and Strabane, Sinn Fein will be vying for additional seat gains in Foyleside, Faughan, Sperrin, Waterside, Ballyarnett and The Moor, requiring four new seats to hit the 20 figure. They will face the challenge of a wounded SDLP, fighting to show some sign of a recovery in their heartland, as well as a number of Independents elected with the support of splinter republican groups last time around. Additionally, Aontú’s Dr Anne McCloskey will be running for the party in Ballyarnett with Eamonn McCann running for People Before Profit in The Moor, both DEAs in which Sinn Fein are targeting fourth seats this time around, meaning the contest in the Derry city DEAs will be particularly interesting.
In Fermanagh and Omagh, the party’s 17 seats should be locked in, with additional seats a realistic ambition in Omagh, Erne West, Erne North and Erne East. Daithi has written a good constituency report on Omagh for Slugger here. The party will face a challenge from former Sinn Fein MLA and Aontú candidate, Gerry McHugh, in Erne East, where Sinn Fein have sights set on four seats, whilst in Erne North they are targeting a second seat and a third in Erne West.
Finally, in Mid Ulster, where Sinn Fein were the largest party in 2014 with 18 seats, they will be targeting gains in both Dungannon and Carntogher. The Dungannon seat gain would likely come at the expense of the SDLP, who are sitting on 9.1% from 2014. The Independent Republican candidate, Barry Monteith, is a former Sinn Fein member who topped the poll as an Independent five years ago. Indeed, Monteith has signed the nomination papers of a second Independent Republican candidate in the constituency, Niall Bowen, who returned the favour for Monteith, with both openly calling for supporters to give their second preference votes to one another. Nevertheless, Sinn Fein would remain clear favourites for the second seat this time around.
In Carntogher, Sinn Fein received just under 61% of the first preference votes in 2014, the party’s fourth highest vote share in an individual DEA- behind west Belfast’s Collin and Black Mountain as well as Slieve Gullion (south Armagh). Their four candidates are likely to be in pole position after the first preference votes, with transfers from Aontú and unionism proving crucial in determining if the SDLP’s Martin Kearney can catch the last Sinn Fein candidate in a constituency that will elect four nationalists.
Finally, one interesting feature of the election will be the overall vote share and distribution of seats once all the counts are finalized.
In 2014, the combined Sinn Fein/ SDLP total of 171 seats represented just 37.0% of the 462 seats, a decline on the 38-39% share that had consistently been returned in the three preceding local government elections to the 26 councils- in 2001, 2005 and 2011 respectively.
However, adding in the solitary People Before Profit seat in Belfast and ten Independent nationalist candidates who won seats across the 11 councils would bring the percentage share up to 39.3% in 2014 (PBP favour Irish unity though would not embrace the nationalist label.)
In that context, it is more reasonable to claim that pushing the overall combined nationalist/pro-Unity representation beyond the 40% figure (as opposed to simply SF/SDLP) would give some indication that increased nationalist turnout was having an impact regarding share of seats.