Why was the 2023 Local Election the Most Seismic NI Election Ever, and How Might Identity Politics Evolve?

Why is this the most seismic NI election ever?

Northern Ireland, and its eventual six-county shape, remained part of the UK in 1920 to secure unionist rule in north-east Ireland. Unionist communities in Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan were sacrificed by James Craig and Edward Carson to ensure the greatest possible areal extent of secure unionist rule. For the first time since the franchise was widened in the 1880s, the unionist vote is less than the nationalist vote. The nationalist bloc gained a majority of the vote in both Belfast and Derry for the first time.

The Election in Maps:

Bloc Plurality:

Nationalist bloc plurality occurs in 40 EAs (35 in 2019). For the unionist bloc, the figure is 34 (40), and is 6 (5) for the middle-ground bloc.

The map image we have of NI political hegemony has been shattered. The continuous swathe of unionist domination from Limavady to Tandragee to Ballywalter has now been broken into five distinct areas, fractured by nationalist bloc advances in Antrim & Newtownabbey (Airport, Dunsilly, Glengormley Urban), Belfast Castle and Mid-Ulster Clogher Valley. Oldpark is now part of the largest continuous nationalist region stretching to Culmore Point and Lough Melvin. The middle-ground bloc gained plurality in Bangor West. There were seven separate nationalist bloc areas in 2019; now there are four.

Party Plurality:

In 2019 a unionist party was the plurality party in 45 EAs. That is now down to 32 EAs. The corresponding figures for Sinn Féin is 30 up to 40, and five up to eight for Alliance. The SDLP has been wiped out by SF as a plurality party in Ballyarnett, Foyleside and Downpatrick.

So, political unionism is in trouble, seemingly doomed by demographics to be eternal second-fiddle to Sinn Féin. What of ‘border-poll’ unionism (as Enda McClafferty called it in yesterday’s BBC Sunday Politics)?

Why a single unionist party will not solve unionist decline:

The unionist bloc vote (parties with a U in the name, Conservatives, independents whose votes transferred more to unionist candidates than to candidates from the other two blocs) in Thursday’s local elections is estimated at 40.12%, its lowest ever. The nationalist bloc (SF, SDLP, PBP, Aontú, IRSP, WP, independents) was 44.27%, its highest ever. The middle-ground bloc (independents, Greens, CCLA, CISTA, SP) was 15.61% (smaller than the 1973 and 1977 local elections, and the 2019 Westminster and European elections). {NOTE: figures revised (very slightly) following rechecking of transfers.}

A single unionist party will not get as many votes as the nationalist bloc: it is difficult to imagine a monolithic unionist party, which would be mostly pro-Brexit and socially conservative, attracting Alliance, never mind SDLP or Green, voters. Should a single unionist party emerge, it is likely to hasten the decline of the SDLP, Aontú and PBP, thus increasing SF’s vote share even further. The current decline in unionist smaller parties is being paralleled by the decline in smaller nationalist parties. The difference being that the largest unionist party also declined (by 0.8%), whereas the largest nationalist party increased by 7.7%. So, an increase in unionist vote consolidation around fewer parties may well be flattened by the ongoing demographic steamroller.

Mike Nesbitt has suggested in recent days that unionist politicians should realign into two (conservative and liberal) unionist parties. Presumably he envisages the DUP splitting, with some joining TUV and others joining UUP. In the context of demographic decline, it is difficult to see how two such parties would stem unionist losses, though it would mean these new parties would have to look over only one, rather than over both, shoulders.

Why a huge increase in turnout in Antrim and Down will not solve unionist decline:

The go-to explanatory trope post-election for unionist politicians for the past fifty years has been that unionism is declining because too many East-coast unionists don’t vote: their reasoning being that a higher unionist turnout would result in more unionist politicians being elected. This only holds true if unionist turnout is lower than other bloc turnouts within a constituency or electoral area. Is there evidence for this? Scant, as far as I know. There is a lazy assumption that those who don’t turn out East of the Bann are unionists. The middle-ground bloc share in Holywood & Clandeboye and Ormiston is greater than the unionist bloc share. Stay-at-home voters in these low-turnout EAs could just as easily be Alliance or Greens as unionists.

If every unionist turned out to vote in Newtownards (valid poll 42.74%) this would not affect the result in Erne West (turnout 67.76%).

If we take the bloc percentages for each electoral area and apply them to the entire electorate of that electoral area to estimate the impact of differential turnout between electoral areas, we find that the adjusted bloc vote shares change to 42.02% nationalist bloc, 41.21% unionist bloc, and 16.77% middle-ground bloc. Note that while the unionist bloc rises, so does the middle-ground bloc. (Electoral areas closer to the Border have a 140-year-old history of fiercely-contested elections, and return mostly nationalist bloc councillors.) So, even if inter-EA differential turnout didn’t occur, the nationalist bloc would still be ahead of the unionist bloc.

Why Alliance’s best days may be behind them, and why this should worry unionism:

In 2019, the middle-ground bloc gained 21.15% of the vote in the European election, and 17.25% in the Westminster election. Both figures are higher than last Thursday’s local election figure. The graph, below, shows the bloc performances.

The beginning of the Alliance surge was at the expense of the other two blocs. Now the nationalist bloc increase is at the expense of both unionist and middle-ground blocs. The smoothed middle-ground bloc share is declining at its steepest rate since before the Belfast Agreement. This suggests that, yes, demographic change is increasing nationalism at the expense of unionism, but it also suggests that SF is winning over new voters who see that party (and its united Ireland agenda) – rather than Alliance or Greens – as the harbinger of a better, more tolerant Northern Ireland. This is a new dynamic in NI elections, but it corroborates the University of Liverpool opinion poll findings in 2022: 11% of 18-34 year-olds supported Alliance, compared to 19% of 35-59 year-olds and 17% of 60+ voters. It suggests that SF are being supremely successful at portraying themselves as a blank canvas for young voters to project their hopes on. Relentless positivity and on-message coherence is paying off big-time for SF candidates.

As the Irish government (which may be SF-led after the 2025 Dáil election) tries to figure out what to do with its surplus billions, unionism will be extremely vulnerable to the pincer attack of continuing demographic change and the attractiveness of the Irish Republic, where people are richer, have greater third-level participation and live longer, implying a better health service. True, opinion polls currently indicate a solid pro-union border-poll majority, but nobody foresaw that nationalism would be more than 4% ahead of unionism at the end of this election. When unionism is seen by nationalists and new voters as disrespecting almost half the electorate (e.g. supporting Brexit leading to a harder land border, feeding a crocodile, not letting Stormont sit and thus denying a nationalist First Minister), the nationalist vote spikes. When such spikes die down, demographic change means that the next spike is likely to be even bigger.

Unionist politicians will also worry that falling behind the nationalist bloc share may demoralise their core vote and depress unionist turnout in future elections.

Unionism is entwined to the core with Plantation, conservative Protestantism and Empire. The monarch cannot be Catholic. King William had shares in Edward Coulston’s Royal African Company, who transported 186,327 slaves from Africa to America. How can unionism disentangle itself from these global historical traumas unleashed by the Age of Discovery, and offer a hope-filled UK-centered future for new voters, most of whom are hostile to Plantation, conservative Protestantism and Empire? (Perhaps a similar debate could be had among nationalists regarding John Mitchel’s pro-slavery ideas?)

SF’s game-changing election victory leaves them well-positioned to transform how non-SF voters view them. What if SF were to say that the IRA campaign of violence was not successful? Of course, there would be outrage amongst many of its supporters. Yet Martin McGuinness’s toasting of the Queen in Windsor Castle, and Michelle O’Neill’s deft handling of Elizabeth II’s death and Charles III’s coronation, have not hurt SF’s vote. On the contrary: they have eaten into SDLP, Aontú and PBP votes. Arguably, such a statement would further copper-fasten its hold on newer voters, would continue to weaken the SDLP’s raison d’être, and would probably take votes from Alliance. It would probably convulse unionism even more than it already is. And it would make further electoral gains in the South more likely.

Can the unionist political leadership respond creatively and successfully to these challenges, or will they merely resort to managing decline by deckchair-rearranging? This titanic struggle to reclaim electoral dominance will be fascinating to watch.

I will look at party and bloc change from 2019 in maps, and I will estimate vote share by county, in forthcoming Slugger articles.

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