The Centre is Broad, Not Narrow

Stephen Donnan Dalzell is an LGBT activist and writer

The local elections in Northern Ireland just a few weeks ago were not like those previously. If you have been following the results and are familiar with how elections in Northern Ireland usually pan out then you may have noticed something different.

In a part of the United Kingdom that has been a sticking point during the Brexit negotiations and who’s border with the Republic of Ireland has been a stumbling block to Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill in the Houses of Parliament, local elections could be a weatherbell for who reaps the spoils the European Parliamentary elections next week. Historically the Unionist and Nationalist parties have dominated the election cycles since time immortal here, SDLP and Sinn Fein versus the Ulster Unionists and DUP (who’s 10 MPs give Theresa May’s Government a wafer-thin working majority in Parliament) and centrist and liberal parties in the centre gather up whatever scraps remain after the two main blocks are finished ripping votes from each other. But that didn’t happen this time around, something has drastically changed.

The middle ground were the clear winners in an election that was overshadowed by the tragic murder of Lyra McKee in Derry/Londonderry by dissident Republicans and renewed calls for the main political parties to sort out long-standing obstacles to forming a devolved Government here. The Alliance Party under leader former MP and current MEP candidate Naomi Long MLA had its best electoral result in decades, securing an additional twenty-one seats on local councils and an almost double increase in their share of first preference votes. The Alliance Party has long been seen as the ‘non-sectarian’ centre ground alternative in a part of the world dogged by socio-political tribalism split along Protestant/Unionist and Catholic/Nationalist lines. Now I am aware that description is very simplistic and not entirely representative of how politics works here, but you get the jist.

In the last NI Assembly election the Alliance Party didn’t gain any seats but managed to hold onto the eight MLAs that it currently has and increased its vote share marginally, but didn’t make much headway outside of already established stomping grounds. This time around, however, Alliance gained local Councillors in areas that would have typically been seen as uphill battles for centre ground parties not affiliated to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. Alliance picked up seats and in areas such as Castlereagh (typically DUP heartland), Derry/Londonderry, Omagh, Lurgan, Newry, Larne, Ballymena etc. A spectacular result for a party that only five years ago was finding it difficult to hold onto local government representatives in the aftermath of a concerted campaign by mainstream Unionist parties to drain moderate Unionists away from Alliance, a campaign that ultimately ousted Naomi Long from the East Belfast seat in Westminster.

The Green Party also did phenomenally well under their new leader, Clare Bailey MLA, holding onto their existing councillors and increasing their representation on Belfast City Council from one councillor to four, in areas that would have been traditionally dominated by Unionist and Nationalist politics. They also captured their first seat on Lisburn & Castlereagh City Council and were definitely in the hunt for seats in North Down & Ards, where their vote held up incredibly well. The hashtags of #AllianceSurge and #GreenWave were abundant on social media as votes were being tallied and candidates being declared elected for both parties. This swell of support for the centre parties extended to People Before Profit who picked up an extra two seats on Belfast City Council and another two on Derry & Strabane Council with veteran socialist campaigner, former MLA and journalist Eamonn McCann taking a seat. A similar picture was developing across the water in England & Wales as both the Lib Dems and Green Party (sister parties of the Alliance Party and NI Greens respectively) outperformed themselves in the local elections there.

So what is so significant about this election in the context of Europe? Well in a European Parliamentary election that was never expected to take place in the UK, the narrative has been dominated by Brexit with the new aptly named Brexit Party, headed by Nigel Farage, expected to do significantly well in Great Britain, the picture is looking slightly different in Northern Ireland for the first time. Both the Alliance Party and Green Party in Northern Ireland are fielding their leaders, Naomi Long and Clare Bailey respectively, as their European candidates. Both women are seen as the victors from the local elections here, their parties will have significant platforms in key areas such as Belfast City Council from which to increase their reach and make their voice heard on issues such as Brexit.

With the collapse of the power-sharing Executive in Stormont over two years ago the focus has been primarily on Westminster, but the local elections have changed that and shown that there is a hunger for a change in pace and an alternative to the usual politics. Sinn Fein, the DUP and the Ulster Unionists all lost seats to the centre ground parties that don’t take a strict position on whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK or unify with the Irish Republic. That has to be making press officers and election managers of those other parties reaching for the alarm bells, the loudest coming from the Ulster Unionist HQ who lost ground almost everywhere to Alliance and the Greens, two parties that did exceptionally well but not at the expense of each other.

With Northern Ireland having next to no voice in the Brexit negotiations (bar DUP leader Arlene Foster whispering in Theresa May’s ear) it is not insignificant that pro-Remain parties of Alliance and Greens did so well, given that Northern Ireland actually voted to remain in the EU. LucidTalk, a respected and oft quoted polling agency in Northern Ireland, have Alliance in contention to take the third MEP seat for Northern Ireland ahead of the Ulster Unionist candidate, a powerful and symbolic change in dynamics given that their data modelling has Alliance taking the seat off transfers from the SDLP, Sinn Fein and the Green Party – all pro-Remain parties.

Of course these polls and predictions come with a health warning and anything can happen within a week, but it is clear that the sands of political discourse in Northern Ireland are shifting, and that the fears of centrist parties that the ground they inhabit is small has been dispelled as there has been room enough to advance parallel to each other, rather than at the risk of fracturing their support. It would be quite the game changer to see a pro-Remain, centrist party be a voice for Northern Ireland in the European Parliament and a transformation that won’t be easily ignored.