Could a surge for Northern Ireland's smaller parties save devolution?

As talks resume at Stormont today, the big talking point is the performance of the cross-community Alliance in last week's local elections.

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Who won the elections to Northern Ireland’s 11 councils on Thursday? Interpret that question literally and the answer is the same as it has been since 2005: the DUP and Sinn Féin. On both of the metrics that matter - councillors and share of the vote won - they are miles clear of the smaller parties of unionism and nationalism.

Indeed, Arlene Foster’s party even ended up with the something that eluded it in 2014: a plurality of the popular vote, as well as of councillors. The Ulster Unionists and SDLP both lost seats. In all of these respects the answer to the question is, and was always going to be, the same as it ever was. 

But framing the question so narrowly tells neither the full story of Northern Ireland’s sixth national election in four years nor the one dominating the airwaves this weekend. Much more notable than any of electoral movement between unionist and nationalist parties was the rise of those who profess to reject those labels entirely.

Though they finished behind the big four parties of unionism and nationalism in terms of both seats and vote share, the performance of the cross-community Alliance - and to a lesser extent the Greens and anti-austerity People Before Profit - is the most interesting story to emerge last Thursday’s poll. While the DUP, UUP and SDLP lost ground - while Sinn Fein trod water - all three of their smaller rivals increased both their vote share and council representation. 

For years derided as a party of narrow appeal and a narrower, Belfast-centric catchment area, Alliance - which increased its vote share from 6.7 per cent to 11.5 per cent and its number of councillors from 32 to 53 - can now convincingly argue that it is a plausible national challenger (and so indeed it will as its leader, Naomi Long, runs to take the third of Northern Ireland’s three European Parliament seats on 23 May). 

The Greens, meanwhile, doubled their councillors from four to eight. PBP, who won a sole council seat in 2014, ended up with five. Strikingly, both now boast larger representation on Belfast City Council than the much-diminished UUP - now down to two seats, one of whose occupants has been suspended from the whip. 

Taken together, they won 14 per cent of the vote - nearly double the 7.9 per cent they won in 2014. The unionist share, meanwhile, slumped from 48 per cent to 41.8 per cent, with nationalist parties falling from 38 per cent to 36.3.

The inevitable questions posed by the surge for what the jargon of the Good Friday Agreement defines as the Others - the third party designation at Stormont - are why, and what next. Both its beneficiaries and victims put it down to a deep disillusionment with the prolonged absence of devolution, as well as the influence of younger voters for whom the constitutional question does not override all else. 

The vagaries of Northern Ireland’s electoral system matter too. Just as, if not more important than the number of electors a party can rely on to give its candidates a first preference vote is how many it can attract further down the ballot paper. As far as the DUP is concerned, the answer is not as many as it would like - which explains how it ended up with more first preferences, but fewer seats than it did five years ago. 

But where next? As cross-party talks on restoring devolution kick off at Stormont today, much will depend on how the DUP and Sinn Fein - who, despite the strong performance of the Others, remain the only two parties with a veto over the formation of a new executive - interpret last week’s results. It is worth noting, as the Belfast News Letter’s Sam McBride does here, that the swing to the Others is not without historical precedent. Nor does the groundswell of discontent it reflects inevitably mean that a deal will be struck, even if the big two are alive to the new insurgency. 

To understand why, consider the reaction of Christopher Stalford, the DUP assembly member dispatched to spin its disappointing first place on Sunday morning, to this set of results. A magnanimous Stalford admitted that Alliance had tapped into a mood of impatience and disenfranchisement. Welcoming the election of the DUP’s first openly gay councillor, he said that the only qualification for membership was believing in the union. Then, even more magnanimously, he admitted that his party’s assembly cohort was not big enough to veto a move to legislate for equal marriage - one of Sinn Fein’s demands for restoring the executive. 

A new dawn? Not quite. Stalford’s words appeared to be the sort of thing that might portend a breakthrough but the way the admission of vulnerability on same sex marriage was framed suggests reaching a deal is likely to be as difficult as ever. While the DUP insists it is willing to entertain (or in the case of marriage equality, yield to) Sinn Fein’s demands once the assembly is restored, the republicans want assurances before they enter government. As long as they stick to those irreconcilable positions on the process of restoring an executive, the job will be impossible - and that is before we even consider hitherto undeliverable compromise over policy disagreements such as legislation to protect the rights of Irish language speakers. 

With their core votes still sticky despite the impasse - and the remarkable rise of the Others - and a testy European election campaign looming, compromise isn’t quite a political imperative for the big two yet

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.

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