#LE19: Will Alliance’s story be one of frontier gains, heartland consolidation or retreats?

The 1973 local government election was the first occasion in which the Alliance Party, founded in 1970, tested support at the ballot box. In that election, they secured representation on 20 of the 26 councils, winning 63 seats in the local government contest. Four years later (1977), they would increase their overall representation to 70 seats, but would lose a presence on three councils.

The 1981 election was a rude awakening for Alliance and set the parameters for how they would perform in the future at local government elections as their overall vote share dropped below the 9% figure where it has remained for the subsequent four decades, with the number of councils in which the party was represented fluctuating between 9 and 14 until the reorganization of councils after 2011.

Alliance Performance in Local Government Elections (1973-2014)

Election Votes % Share of Vote No. Seats No. Councils with seats
26 Council Model (582 seats)
1973 94,474 13.7% 63 20
1977 80,282 14.4% 70 17
1981 59,397 8.9% 38 14
1985 45,038 7.0% 33 10
1989 42,646 6.9% 38 14
1993 47,658 8% 44 14
1997 41,952 7% 41 13
2001 40,443 5% 28 9
2005 35,149 5% 30 10
2011 48,859 7.4% 44 14

11 Council Model (462 seats)

2014 41,750 6.6% 32 7

During that period (1981-2011), the pattern of support for Alliance remained fairly consistent. Whilst the party did manage to secure representation to district councils like Coleraine, Banbridge, Omagh and Strabane periodically during the existence of the 26 councils, in reality the party’s electoral heartland remains constituencies within the eastern counties of Antrim and Down, where all but one of their 32 councillors was elected in 2014 (the exception being Barney Fitzpatrick, who was elected in Causeway DEA in Causeway Coast and Glens).

Alliance are hopeful that Stephen Donnelly can make a breakthrough in Omagh DEA this time around gaining a first time seat on Fermanagh and Omagh Council, having secured over 1,250 votes in the 2017 Assembly election campaign in West Tyrone. Yet that is a tall ask in a very competitive DEA- see Daithi’s report here.

Similarly, they will be hopeful of a breakthrough on Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Council in the Lagan River DEA, where Harry Hamilton missed out in 2014. As is the case in a number of DEAs, Nationalist transfers will prove crucial to Alliance prospects here, a recurring theme for the party in the mostly majority unionist constituencies within which Alliance continues to regularly secure representation.

This point is underlined by even a cursory analysis of the councils and District Electoral Areas (DEAs) within which the party claimed council seats in 2014.

Alliance Performance on Key Councils, 2014

Council No. Seats % Vote Share
Belfast 8 11.4%
Ards & North Down 7 13.4%
Lisburn & Castlereagh 7 12.0%
Antrim & Newtownabbey 4 12.7%
Mid & East Antrim 3 9.4%
Newry, Mourne & Down 2 2.4%
Causeway Coast & Glens 1 3.9%

Note the significant drop off in party support after the first five councils. Alliance will face a struggle to retain any of the three seats won outside of those core council areas due to a range of factors.

Barney Fitzpatrick’s death in 2018 robbed the party of a popular local councillor in Causeway, and it remains to be seen if his replacement, Chris McCaw, can repeat the feat, though he will be helped by the absence of NI21 from the contest this time around.

In Slieve Croob DEA on Newry, Mourne and Down District Council, Alliance face a real uphill battle to retain a seat won by Patrick Clarke, who resigned from the party and was replaced by Andrew McMurray, who is moving to contest the Mournes DEA, leaving Gregory Bain with the challenge of holding the seat won in 2014.

The party’s standard bearer in South Down, Patrick Brown, will endeavour to secure re-election in the Rowallane DEA, though this will prove easier said than done.

In 2014, Brown secured less first preference votes than the Sinn Fein candidate, and in the event of the gap widening between the two this time around, Brown may struggle to be in a position to survive long enough to benefit from the vital transfers to secure a seat in this 5-seat constituency. His prospects should not be written off, however, as the Alliance candidate demonstrated his impressive vote gaining credentials in the 2017 Assembly election, when he claimed over 4,500 votes and lifted the party’s share of the vote by almost 4% on the 2016 Assembly election figures for the South Down constituency.

In Belfast, Alliance will be fighting to retain all 8 seats won in 2014, and targeting second seats in Botanic and Titanic, neither of which appear likely outcomes at this point. In Botanic, whilst Alliance secured the highest number of 1st preferences in 2014, there was little to separate them from the SDLP, DUP and Sinn Fein, and the combined vote totals of the various unionist parties will mean that a return of just one unionist councillor, whilst possible, is the less likely outcome.

A second Alliance seat in Titanic is wholly contingent upon Sinn Fein failing to retain their seat and, even in the event of that materializing, it is more likely that the second Alliance candidate will have been eliminated before that point in the count.

Ormiston is one of the few DEAs across the north in which Alliance have two sitting councillors, with Lisnasharragh the other in Belfast. The party looks likely to hold both seats in Ormiston, and are running three, while Lisnasharragh is set to be a fascinating contest, with Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Greens all challenging with Alliance for what is likely to be 3 non-unionist seats, while the DUP have their eyes on the solitary UUP seat here to move their total in the DEA to three.

Kate Nicholl will be defending the solitary Alliance seat in Balmoral, which looks a safe return, but across the city the party’s former mayor, Nuala McAllister, is facing a fascinating encounter in a Castle DEA which is set to be one of the most interesting battlegrounds in the election. McAllister’s profile has undoubtedly been significantly enhanced since 2014, and she will hope to attract an improved share of first preferences to help her stay relevant as the transfers come into play.

Whilst Alliance may have won more seats in Belfast (8), it is in Ards & North Down that the party received its greatest share of votes and seats, securing representation in every one of the seven DEAs in 2014. Alliance seats look secure in Bangor Central, Newtownards, Comber, Bangor East & Donaghadee, while the party will challenge for second seats in Holywood & Clandeboye and Bangor West. The party should hold on to its seat in Ards Peninsula, though the 8.1% share of first preference votes obtained in 2014 would once again leave Alliance reliant on a strong transfer rate from the eliminated Sinn Fein candidate to get across the line.

Alliance’s seven councillors on Lisburn & Castlereagh Council are elected to six of the DEAs, with Killultagh the odd one out. Alliance felt the challenge from NI21 in 2014 most acutely in this council area, with the then fledgling middle ground party performing impressively in a number of DEAs and winning their only council seat in Lisburn North. In Lisburn South and Downshire East, NI21 succeeded in outpolling Alliance, but the Alliance candidates still managed to secure greater transfers in order to secure election.

Alliance will be hoping that the absence of NI21 from the field this time will help bolster their first preference votes across the seven DEAs in Lisburn & Castlereagh. Five of their seven councillors elected in 2014 are running again in Downshire East (Aaron McIntyre), Downshire West (Owen Gawith), Castlereagh East (Tim Morrow), Lisburn South (Amanda Grehan) and Lisburn North (Stephen Martin).

Whilst the party would be favoured to secure re-election in each of these DEAs, the contest in Lisburn North will be particularly fascinating, given that the one-time solitary NI21 elected councillor, Johnny McCarthy, has since joined the SDLP, whilst Sinn Fein has also targeted this DEA as a potential new seat. Nationalism should secure its first seat (at election as opposed defection) this time round in Lisburn North, with Lisburn South likely to follow in four years’ time, limiting Alliance’s potential for growth in these DEAs.

The most challenging contest for Alliance on this council will be in Castlereagh South, where ironically the party secured one of its best results in 2014, taking two seats.

In the interim, both of their 2014 elected candidates, Geraldine Rice and Vasundhara Kamble, have since resigned from the party in rancorous circumstances. Geraldine Rice is running for re-election on an Independent platform, whilst Vasundhara Kamble has since defected to the DUP and is running for re-election on their ticket this time. The two Alliance candidates (Sorcha Eastwood and Michelle Guy) will also face strong opposition from Sinn Fein’s Ryan Carlin and the SDLP as the latter battle to hold their two seats on this 7-seater council.

Mid and East Antrim elected three Alliance councilors in 2014 to Knockagh, Larne Lough and Coast Road, and the party will be confidently hoping they can add another seat to the overall tally here in Carrick Castle, where they failed to turn a 14.5% share of the 1st preference votes into a seat. This time, only one candidate, Lauren Gray, has been selected in the hope of maximizing the party’s chances (whereas two candidates were fielded in 2014). Of the three seats taken in 2014, Geraldine Mulvenna is most likely to face some opposition in Coast Road, though the absence of an SDLP candidate (Martin Wilson is now running on an Independent ticket) is likely to ensure that Mulvenna has a sizeable bank of transfers to rely upon to get across the line.

In Antrim and Newtownabbey, Alliance will be targeting a breakthrough in Ballyclare, where they secured 9.9% of a middle ground vote fragmented by the presence of an NI21 candidate who took 5.6% of the first preference vote share. Given that this is a 5-seater, however, it will still be a challenge to convert an increased first preference share into a seat.

 The seat in Three Mile Water won by Tom Campbell with 17.7% looks secure (this is a 6-seater constituency), but an increased nationalist turnout in Macedon could act to either make the solitary Alliance seat there more vulnerable or to further consolidate the seat, depending on the order of candidate eliminations. Whilst the party are defending a seat in Antrim won with 13.5% of the vote, this is likely to be a tightly fought contest as an increased nationalist turnout could significantly improve the prospect of both nationalist parties securing representation, or at least fighting Alliance closely for the second non-unionist seat.

The Alliance seat in Glengormley Urban will be safe if the party returns anything close to the 15.4% vote share secured in 2014, not least since this is a 7-seater constituency.

Whilst Alliance are fielding candidates across Derry and Strabane and Mid-Ulster councils, there is no great expectation of a significant breakthrough on either council at this point.

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