Following on from my previous post looking at the runners and riders for the local government election, I’ll now drill down in a bit more detail to look at each council and some of the key races. In a previous post I spoke about how all the parties will be telling us how they want our votes, but in reality no party in the 2014 election stood in every single DEA, meaning that not everyone who wanted to vote for a party actually could. This time round we can see that the biggest increase in coverage is from Alliance who are running more candidates in more DEAs than in 2014, meaning that 91% of voters have the chance to vote for an Alliance candidate; contrast that with the SDLP which has seen a marked reduction in the number of areas that it is standing in. Whether or not the fact parties are running more or fewer candidates means they will eventually win more seats remains to be seen, but increasing your candidates is a clear declaration of intent and sign that parties are trying to expand beyond their traditional areas, rather than simply consolidating what they have.
To calculate coverage I simply totalled the electorate of each DEA that each party is standing in and calculated this as a percentage of the total NI electorate.
In order to calculate a comparison with 2014 I repeated the same process for 2014 and calculated the difference.
Breakdown of candidates 2019
Antrim & Newtownabbey (40 seats)
The DUP are running the same number of candidates this time as they did five years ago and whilst they are not running enough seats to secure an overall majority on the council they might fancy their chances of picking off a few Ulster Unionist and TUV seats in Glengormley and Macedon. Alliance stood nine candidates and won four seats in 2014, but are running once less candidate this time around so will probably consolidate their position and could find it difficult to increase their haul of seats. In 2014, Sinn Féin outpolled the SDLP by almost 1,700 votes but the SDLP won four seats to Sinn Féin’s three. This time around Sinn Féin are running more candidates than in 2014 and the SDLP are running three less, with the hope of retaining their four seats. As always the final few seats will probably come down to which candidate can attract the greatest number of transfers. Sinn Féin will be pushing hard to win the sole nationalist seat in Antrim from the SDLP, and are running two candidates in both Glengormley and in Airport in an attempt to take seats, but for this to work it will require both a surge in Sinn Féin support and a near perfect vote management strategy in both areas.
Armagh, Banbridge & Craigavon (41 seats)
Thirty-nine of the forty one seats in this council in 2014 were won by the four largest parties, with the DUP edging out the Ulster Unionists by one seat (thirteen to twelve) and Sinn Féin finishing two seats ahead of the SDLP (eight seats to six). It is unlikely that there will be much change in this council area but perhaps the most interesting race will be in Craigavon where former Sinn Féin councillor Fergal Lennon is hoping to retain the seat he won in 2014 for his new party Aontú. The four main parties are all running fewer candidates than in 2014, a sign perhaps that they have a better understanding of where their votes are, and that last time out they ran too many candidates. The UUP and DUP will be vying to be the largest party and will be going head to head for seats across the council so control of the council will be decided by who can prevail for the final unionist seat in places such as Cusher and Banbridge. Both Sinn Féin and the SDLP are running two fewer candidates this time out and as the four SDLP seats seem to be relatively secure it would need a large swing towards the Sinn Féin for the SDLP to lose any of their seats.
Belfast (60 seats)
Since 1997, when unionism lost control over Belfast City Council, the Alliance Party has held the balance of power and that will not change this time. The largest of all the councils, with 60 seats being contested across ten DEAs, Belfast will no doubt throw up a few surprises and some interesting results. Sinn Féin are the largest party in the council and are running a record number of candidates (25) and are clearly expecting to pick up seats. The SDLP saw seven councillors elected in 2014 but three of them left the party in 2017 and all three are now standing as independents this time round so, as in Fermanagh and Omagh, the SDLP is running to stand still and will have to retain these seats before it could even begin to consider winning more. Alliance have seen their representation in Belfast increase in recent years, clearly benefiting from their role as kingmaker, but they may have peaked and it is hard to see where their gains can come from. Having said that, Alliance have a habit of confounding expectations and surprising everyone. Back in 2014 the DUP only had one MP in Belfast and seven MLAs (out of twenty-four) but today they have three MPS and have eight MLAs (out of twenty) so it would not be surprising to see them strengthen their position as the dominant unionist party in Belfast. In all ten DEAs the final seat is probably too close to call but the race in Castle is probably going to be the most interesting with a number of high profile candidates and independents who could fracture the vote in any number of ways.
Causeway Coast & Glens (40 seats)
A somewhat similar situation to Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon, with the DUP being slightly ahead of the UUP (eleven seats to ten) and Sinn Féin being one seat ahead of the SDLP (seven to six), it will be interesting to see whether the UUP and SDLP can hold their ground against their rivals, or whether they will start to slip further behind. The SDLP are running four fewer candidates this time out and Sinn Féin are running three more, with the SDLP strategy, as in Antrim and Newtownabbey, to save their sitting councillors and not even attempt to increase their numbers. Sinn Féin outpolled the SDLP in Bann last time out but the SDLP managed to win the seat so this will surely be high up on Sinn Féín’s hitlist. The DUP are running one less candidate this time out but will surely fancy their chances at picking up seats from the UUP and the TUV in places like Causeway and Bann.
Derry & Strabane (40 seats)
In 2014 Sinn Féin were five seats short of an overall majority on the council and will be hoping to consolidate the electoral gains they made in the Assembly and Westminster elections in Foyle in 2017 by increasing their council representation. It will be interesting to see whether the four independents elected in 2014 can retain their seats. The SDLP are running a large, diverse team in 2019 and will hope to pick up seats which they feel they could have won back in 2014, but they will need to win more seats on the Strabane side of the council if they are to keep pace with Sinn Féin. Alliance are running more candidates in this council than in 2014 and, with a handful of independents and a few big name candidates from the smaller parties (Eamonn McCann for People Before Profit and Dr. Anne McCloskey for Aontú), there could be a few close calls for the final seats in Foyleside, The Moor and Ballyarnet.
Fermanagh & Omagh (40 seats)
Sinn Féin were probably disappointed not to win an overall majority back in 2014 so will be pushing hard to pick up the four seats they need, and there could be opportunities for pickups across the council area. The SDLP had a good election in 2014, winning eight seats, but have since seen three councillors exiting the party, leaving them significantly weakened on the Omagh side of the council, with both Omagh councillors (Jo Deehan and Joanne Donnelly) and their sole Mid Tyrone councillor (Rosemarie Shields) running on different platforms this time around. With Shields standing for Aontú, and Deehan and Donnelly running as independents, the SDLP will have to fight hard to match the eight seats they won five years ago. As Daithi McKay noted, the Omagh DEA is going to be fascinating with Sinn Féin running three caniddates, the SDLP running two candidates, and with the range of independents also including Sorcha McAnespy who quit Sinn Féin, joined Fianna Fail, and is standing as an independent (despite previously being announced as a Fianna Fail candidate). Throw into the mix the former Sinn Féín MP Barry McElduff and there is real potential for one of the most interesting races of the entire election. On the unionist side, Fermanagh and Omagh is the only council where the Ulster Unionists have more seats than the DUP (nine to five) so the DUP will want to at least narrow the gap, if not come out ahead of the UUP. Whether that can happen after the loss of Lord Morrow’s seat in the 2017 Assembly elections for the DUP remains to be seen.
Lisburn & Castlereagh (40 seats)
This council remains a unionist stronghold with the DUP, UUP and TUV holding twenty-nine seats between them, and the DUP being only one seat away from having an overall majority. Whilst the DUP are running three fewer candidates this time out they appear to be running a much more targeted election, whilst the UUP are running three more candidates suggesting that they are confident about winning seats. Alliance are the third largest party on the council with seven seats, and may benefit from the fact that NI21 are not on the ballot this year. In 2014, Johnny McCarthy became the only person to ever be elected to any office as an NI21 candidate and it will be interesting to see whether he can retain his Lisburn North seat as an SDLP councillor. In 2014 NI21 were the fifth largest party (in terms of votes) in the council election, so the redistribution of their votes may be crucial in many places this time around. Lisburn and Castlereagh is only one of two councils where Sinn Féin does not have a single seat, and Killultagh was always going to be their best chance of winning one, so those odds must have increased with the news that sitting SDLP councillor Máiría Cahill is not contesting the election, citing safety concerns if her home address was published.
Mid & East Antrim (40 seats)
Another area where the DUP might have fancied their chances of securing an overall majority as they currently hold sixteen seats, but given that they are only running 19 candidates (as opposed to 25 in 2014) it’s a moot point. Mid and East Antrim is the closest thing to a TUV stronghold but their vote fell in the 2017 Assembly and Westminster elections and if this trend continues then a number of their seats could fall, with the DUP being the most likely beneficiaries. On the nationalist side Sinn Féín have three seats to the SDLP’s one, but with the retirement of Declan O’Loan there could be an opportunity for Sinn Féin to pick up a seat and shut the SDLP out of a council entirely.
Mid-Ulster (40 seats)
This could have been an outside bet for Sinn Féin to try and secure an overall majority, as they currently have eighteen seats, but like the DUP in Mid and East Antrim they are only fielding 19 candidates, so it won’t happen this year. Excluding Belfast, Mid Ulster is the council with the largest minority representation, with fifteen of the forty seats being held by unionist councillors (eight DUP and seven Ulster Unionists). This is another are where the SDLP is running considerably fewer candidates and seems to be party of a wider strategy of ensuring they put their resources into retaining council seats, rather than trying to expand the field.
Newry, Mourne & Down (41 seats)
Back in 2014 the SDLP surprised a few people with a very strong performance, winning 14 seats, the same number as Sinn Féin. However, not only might they struggle to repeat that performance this year, especially on the back of a strong Sinn Féin performance in South Down in the 2017 Assembly election, but they will also be conscious of the 11% swing to Sinn Fein which saw Chris Hazzard win the Westminster seat from Margaret Ritchie. Sinn Féín will surely be hoping that these strong performances transform into an increased vote at local government level, which will yield an increase in seats, and are running 4 more candidates than they did five years ago. This is borne out by the fact that Sinn Féín are running four more candidates than they did in 2014 and the SDLP are running three fewer. Aontú are running three candidates across the council and in tight races, such as Downpatrick, their presence could be felt and may very well have an impact on where the final seat ends up.
North Down & Ards (40 seats)
The DUP are only three seats short of an overall majority but are actually running fewer candidates this time out, as are most of the parties, indicating that they know where their votes are and they want to hold their 17 seats, and possibly pick up two more. Alliance were only two seats behind the UUP and are running 10 candidates, compared to the UUP’s 12, but could be in with a chance of overtaking them. The SDLP have one seat in this council, Joe Boyle in Ards Peninsula, but as he was elected on the first count in 2014, with well over a quota, he will probably remain the sole nationalist on the council going forward. One person who won’t be on the ballot paper is the former Alliance MLA and Ards councillor Kieran McCarthy, who had expressed interest in returning to politics after retiring from the Assembly in 2016, but discovered he is ineligible to stand after it was confirmed that his decision to take his severance package from the old council meant he could not stand for election again.
Ten years ago it would not have been uncommon for an MLA to also be an MP, an Executive minister and strangely enough even a local councillor. However, the move to end double-jobbing, and the severance payments to longstanding councillors as part of the Review of Public Administration, saw an enormous amount of institutional knowledge leave local government in the period 2008-2011. With Westminster consumed with Brexit and the possibility of the Assembly being mothballed for the considerable future it could be argued that the political parties are starting to upskill their council teams with some ‘big hitters’ including former MPs and MLAs contesting the election. In Fermanagh and Omagh, former MP Barry McElduff is hoping to resurrect his political career by standing in the Omagh DEA and in Antrim and Newtownabbey former MP Danny Kinahan is running in Ballyclare. There are also a number of former MLAs who are hoping to get back in the game with Karen McKevitt (SDLP), Eamon McCann (People Before Profit), Ian McCrea (DUP), Oliver McMullan (Sinn Féin), Fred Cobain (previously of the UUP but now the DUP), Maurice Devenney (DUP), Cathal Ó hOisín (Sinn Fein), and Philip Smith (UUP) hoping to win council seats after losing their Assembly seats. We also have Francie Brolly trying to win a seat for Aontú having previously been a Sinn Féín MLA. The DUP and Sinn Féin even got in on the act early, co-opting former MLAs Stephen Moutray, Catherine Nelson and Ian Milne into council seats in Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon and Mid Ulster in late 2018 in order to ensure they are running for election as incumbents. Stranger than any of that, Sinn Féin are actually running a sitting MLA for Councils seats in Derry City and Strabane (Michaela Boyle MLA) and Fermanagh, indicating that further Assembly co-options could be on the cards.
Turnout will be the great unknown this time as it will be the first local government election not to be held on the same day as another election since 1997. This, coupled with the fact that we’ve had no Executive and Assembly for over two years, as well as the interminable Brexit saga, could force turnover down below the 51% seen in 2014.
Between now and 2nd May expect to see countless posts on social media proclaiming universally warm welcomes on the door, apoplectic outrage about posters being removed and stories of fallings out between candidates in the same parties over leaflets going through the ‘wrong’ doors and posters being erected in the ‘wrong’ areas. Enjoy.
And just when you thought that would be the end of the elections for a while, it looks like we’ll do it all again four weeks late for the European Parliament.
Niall Kelly is a former Belfast City Councillor who has worked on various political campaigns during the past 15 years. He has an interest in politics and data, and how they interact with each other. Follow at @nkbelfast