Local elections 2019: What to look out for in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland's voters go to the polls for the fifth time in three years today.

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What should we expect when Northern Ireland’s voters go to the polls for their fifth national election in three years? Unlike England, where local elections also take place today, there is a single tier of local government. All 462 of its council seats, split across 11 local authorities, are up for election at once – no fiddly thirds system here – under the proportional single transferable vote system. 

The political context for this round of elections could not be more different to that which shaped the last contest. In 2014, Sinn Féin and the DUP were into their seventh year sharing power at Stormont. Both lost seats – the first real signs of electoral discontent with their performance in government. Turnout, at a meagre 51 per cent, was low. There was no guarantee a Brexit referendum would ever take place, let alone be won by Leave. 

Much has changed since. Two assembly elections – in 2016 and then in 2017, after the executive’s collapse – have seen the stock of the two biggest parties of nationalism and unionism fall and rise. The general election that followed saw those to their moderate flank, the SDLP and Ulster Unionists, wiped out at Westminster. 

Turnout in the elections of 2017 – taking place, as they did, after a divisive Brexit referendum and the implosion of devolved government amid a row over the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal – spiked. Public anger at the two-year stalemate at Stormont is growing and, in the wake of the murder of journalist Lyra McKee, the big two are under increasing pressure to restore the institutions.

With a new round of talks scheduled for next Tuesday – and a fiercely contested European Parliament election to follow – just how well the parties perform relative to both the last set of council results and the elections in 2017 could have a profound impact on the direction of Northern Ireland’s politics in the immediate term. 

Counting begins at 8am tomorrow. Here’s what to look out for as results trickle in.

Will voters turn out?

The dramatic realignment we saw in 2017’s Westminster election was in part a consequence of increased turnout – from 58.4 per cent in 2015 to 65.6 per cent. The same was true of the same year’s assembly election, for which 64.8 per cent of voters turned up – an increase of nearly ten per cent from 54.9 per cent in 2016. 

On both occasions the increase in turnout primarily benefited Sinn Féin and the DUP – and the elections became what were essentially sectarian zero sum games. If the trend continues, the end result may well be similar – an outcome some have speculated will give both parties the necessary political capital to re-enter the executive.

If there is a marked differentiation in turnout between the nationalist and unionist communities, then the upshot might be a result that makes the politics of a deal too tricky for either or both parties: say, for instance, if Sinn Féin finishes with a plurality of councillors. 

And if turnout slumps, then the clamour to restore Stormont might well recede.

Will the DUP suffer for its Brexit stance – or cash for ash? 

Arguably, the most significant electoral event since 2017 – in terms of its impact on Brexit – was a by-election to the Carrick Castle ward of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council last October. 

Since co-option was introduced as a means to fill vacant seats in 2010, council by-elections – which, as any Lib Dem will tell you, are a great indicator of the political mood at any given moment in an electoral cycle – are rare in Northern Ireland. 

That, in part, has made a question frequently posed by pundits at Westminster – whether the DUP will pay an electoral price for its intransigence over Brexit – quite difficult to answer. 

But the fact that the DUP won in Carrick Castle on an increased vote share at the height of the fallout from the RHI inquiry – which, by any measure, was not at all good for the party’s image – and in the midst of Brexit negotiations that it played a major role in frustrating was instructive. 

The lesson to be drawn is that the DUP is hegemonic within unionism and does not appear to have suffered electorally for its missteps. 

Last time these seats were contested, in 2014, the party won a plurality of seats across Northern Ireland as a whole but suffered a net loss of 15 (Sinn Féin, meanwhile, beat them on vote share). 

The main beneficiaries then were Traditional Unionist Voice – a protest party formed in the wake of Ian Paisley’s damascene conversion to power-sharing with Sinn Féin. But neither they, the Ulster Unionists nor Ukip are in much of a position to seriously challenge this time. 

In an unconscious echo of her party founder’s infamous exhortation to “smash Sinn Féin” in local elections in the 1980s, Arlene Foster has also urged unionist voters to swing behind DUP candidates in order to weaken the case for a border poll. 

Losing ground to other unionist parties – or, indeed, a net loss of any kind – will therefore raise serious questions about whether their resilience has in fact been illusory. But the fact that smaller outfits are running fewer candidates this time could yet boost their chances.

Can the SDLP survive?

The moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party is suffering what appears to be an inexorable decline. In 2014 it managed to keep its losses to just one councillor – but the years since have seen a fall in vote share and the loss of two assembly members, as well as all three of its Westminster seats. 

Its leader, Colum Eastwood, made a divisive – and some would say desperate – attempt to arrest the decline via a policy partnership (widely interpreted as a precursor to a full-blown merger) with the Republic’s Fianna Fáil earlier this year.

No party embodies the irredentist id of southern nationalism like Fianna Fáil, which for decades was the dominant party of government in Dublin until collapsing spectacularly after the 2008 crash. 

Those two factors have caused a great deal of consternation internally. Senior activists have quit the party in protest at what they contend are their new partners’ right-wing politics – Fianna Fáil, as catch-all populists, are notoriously difficult to place on a conventional political spectrum – as has the party’s best media performer, the South Belfast MLA Claire Hanna. 

There is also concerned that nailing its colours to Fianna Fáil’s mast could deprive the party of its electoral sine qua non – cross-community appeal to unionist voters. In an STV election, transfers matter.

That the party is contesting 27 per cent fewer seats this time implies its objective is survival. But should it end up with markedly fewer seats despite fighting a calculated rearguard, then their long-term prospects will look bleak – and the last throw of the dice may well have turned up a bum result. 

Who will benefit if it doesn’t?

Look out for how Sinn Féin – which, like the DUP, lost seats in 2014 – the cross-community Alliance party, and Aontú, a new pro-life Republican movement that has attracted a handful of defections from the SDLP, do at its expense.

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.

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