Northern Ireland local elections 2023

So, the headline is that Nationalist parties (those who would designate as Nationalists in the Assembly) outpolled Unionist parties (those who would designate as Nationalists in the Assembly) in Thursday’s local elections by 19,000 votes, and more than two percentage points. This is a first for Northern Ireland.

Nationalists (SF + SDLP + Aontu + IRSP): 300,565 (40.8%, +4.5%)
Unionists (DUP + UUP + TUV + PUP + Cons): 281,196 (38.2%, -3.7%)

My tweet about this last night got a lot of pickup, including getting me quoted in the Guardian. Some people pushed back at me saying that I should have counted People Before Profit as Nationalists, though they don’t designate as such; or that I should have counted Alliance as Unionists, though they too don’t designate as such; or that I should have counted independents, though they are not political parties by definition; or that I shouldn’t have done the calculation at all. The point remains: Unionist parties were outpolled by Nationalist parties for the first time ever.

This is important psychologically but not operationally. The criterion for triggering a referendum on a United Ireland is pretty much that the UK thinks it is likely to go that way. That outcome is not apparent from the above numbers, which show only 40.8% of voters supporting the election of candidates from Nationalist parties to local councils with limited powers. 40.8% is a lot – it’s more than 38.2% – but it’s not 50%, and the Nationalist vote share would need to be higher or have a larger lead to justify calling a Border Poll.

In the case of Catalonia, which I am familiar with, where pro-independence forces were in the zone of getting a majority of the electorate, the picture was complicated by a significant clump of voters who wanted a referendum on independence, for the sake of clarity and dignity, but also wanted to stay part of Spain. There is no such pro-referendum caucus within the 20% swing voters of the centre in Northern Ireland. Nationalists (in both Northern Ireland and Scotland) might start usefully working out how such a caucus could be persuaded into existence.

And, as I’ve said before, winning such a referendum is a different matter again. It requires three things: Brexit continues to be an obvious negative (✔), Unionists continue to talk only to their own core voters and ignore the persuadable middle (✔) and Nationalists come up with a credible counter-offer, including robust proposals on health care (✘). Nationalists have time to work on the third of these; Unionists are running out of time to work on the first two.

Looking at the details:

CouncilDUPUUPTUVAllianceOthersSDLPSFTotal
Antrim & Newtownabbey13-7–08+2+ Ind 1—9++++40
Ards & North Down1480-12++3 Ind, 2- Green1040
Armagh, Banbridge & Craigavon13++6—-1+4+1 Ind1—–15+++++41
Belfast City14-21+11+3- Green, 1– PBP, 1+ Ind5-22++++60
Causeway Coast & Glens13-4—2++5+++1+ PUP3—12+++40
Derry & Strabane5–3+00–3- Ind, 1- PBP10-18+++++++40
Fermanagh & Omagh6+7–02+1— Ind3–21++++++40
Lisburn & Castlereagh14-6—–013++++1+ Ind24++40
Mid & East Antrim14-8+572- Ind0-4++40
Mid-Ulster11++2—-003+ Ind5-19++40
Newry, Mourne & Down5++1—05+++2— Ind8—20++++41
Total122549672739144462
±0-21+3+14-15-20+39
Not shown in above table:
2 PUP losses in Belfast
1 Ind loss in Causeway Coast and Glens
1 Aontu loss in Derry and Strabane
1 Lab loss in Fermanagh and Omagh
1 Green loss in Lisburn and Castlereagh

It will be apparent that while the majority of the SDLP’s losses were directly to Sinn Fein, only about half of the Sinn Fein gains came from the SDLP. The rest came from smaller groups/independents and Unionists. The campaign successfully persuaded many voters who don’t normally vote SF, or vote at all, to show solidarity with the concept that the leader of the party with the most votes should become First Minister. It is a stunning success, the best vote share ever for Sinn Fein in a Northern Ireland election. Alliance’s gains also demonstrated support for getting the institutions back up and running.

On the other side of the argument, the TUV failed to break through in any significant numbers – though they are still there – and the DUP were fortunate to avoid a net loss of seats despite slipping a full percentage point on vote share. It’s clear that their message has not resonated beyond the core vote, which is tactically a successful defence but strategically questionable. Cards on the table: I don’t see how blocking the institutions can be a successful strategy. It’s clear that London doesn’t care very much, so the blockade imposes no pressure on Westminster, while damaging the interests of the people who Unionism claims to represent. Worse, it undermines the legitimacy of Northern Ireland’s continued existence as an entity. (See above.)

The crunch on smaller parties is severe, and I don’t see an easy way out of it. It’s the worst election result ever for the SDLP, and the second worst for the UUP. Neither has a clear unique selling point relevant to the current situation. I heard one SDLP speaker complaining that the electorate have forgotten who got the Good Friday Agreement 25 years ago. In the real world, nobody fights this year’s elections on 1998’s outcomes. A UUP speaker complained that Nationalists were running too many candidates and should let other parties have a chance. That’s not how elections work.

On these numbers, the SDLP Westminster seats in Foyle and South Belfast look vulnerable, though I’m inclined to think that the incumbent will hang on in South Belfast. On the other hand, Alliance look more secure in North Down and better placed in East Belfast. Come an Assembly election, SF would be well in the lead, and Alliance in third place but some way behind the DUP.

So how was your weekend?