22 May 2023

Sinn Fein were the big winners, but Northern Ireland’s local elections do offer hope for unionists


Last Thursday’s Northern Ireland local government election has prompted a bout of introspection from pro-Union parties in the province. There was fresh misery, too, for the SDLP, as the moderate nationalist party lost 20 seats after a torrid few years.

While it was possible, in some respects, to qualify the result, it was impossible to deny that the big winner was Sinn Fein. The populist republican party, which police forces north and south of the Irish border believe is still ‘directed’ by the IRA army council, gained 39 seats across Northern Ireland’s 11 councils, taking it to a total of 144. Its share of first preference votes was 30.9%, while the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) came second with 23.3%.

Rather than concentrate on local issues, Sinn Fein cast the election as a rerun of last year’s Stormont Assembly election. It asked voters to ‘re-endorse’ that result, which would have made its Northern Ireland leader, Michelle O’Neill, first minister, were it not for the DUP’s boycott of the devolved institutions.

That appeal, and the claim that unionists prevented the restoration of power-sharing simply to stop a nationalist becoming the province’s figurehead, seemed to galvanise the nationalist electorate. In areas where Sinn Fein are strong, the turnout was considerably higher than in traditionally pro-Union constituencies.

As a consequence – though the figures were tight and there were a number of strong independents – by most measures, nationalists out-polled unionists for the first time. 

The DUP, for its part, maintained the same number of seats, 122, as it held in the previous local government election in 2019. Its share of the vote was down almost a percentage point on that performance, but it recovered a little from its return at last year’s Assembly poll.

There was scant opportunity, though, for its leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson to be complacent about the outcome. After the results were announced, he acknowledged the need for, ‘a big conversation about where we’re going,’ and expressed openness to a ‘realignment’ of unionism in Northern Ireland.

While the DUP largely maintained its position, the biggest unionist losses came from the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), whose vote dipped 3.2% to 10.9%. The Ulster Unionists, who were once the dominant force in Northern Ireland politics, fell to fourth place, behind the Alliance Party, which sees itself as ‘agnostic’ about the province’s place in the UK.

Under Doug Beattie, a former army captain who won a military cross in Afghanistan, the UUP has tried to attract younger, more liberal voters to unionism. The perception, backed up by statistics and anecdotal evidence, is that younger people from traditionally pro-Union communities have turned increasingly to Alliance at election time.

Naomi Long’s ‘progressive’ party did not continue its surge this time, but did move up to third place at council level, having taken that position at last year’s Stormont poll. Some of its strategists believe that the extraordinary switch to Sinn Fein on Thursday cost it votes in nationalist areas, where it previously made modest but steady progress.

Indeed, the result was chastening for almost everybody, apart from Sinn Fein. But there are some reasons for hope.

It’s been difficult for unionists to deliver a hopeful message, over the past few years, because they’ve been forced to be defensive by the ‘backstop’ and the Northern Ireland Protocol. Indeed, many observers believed that the secretary of state, Chris Heaton-Harris, published a deliberately punitive budget for the province just before the election in order to pressure the DUP to change its position on Stormont.

The combined DUP and TUV vote showed that many unionists are still deeply opposed to the Irish Sea border, and were prepared to use the election to express their dissatisfaction. At the same time, the UUP tried to reach voters who saw opportunities in Rishi Sunak’s Windsor Framework and felt fed up with the disruption at Stormont. Largely, however, it failed to win them back from Alliance.

At least the election result, though, seems to have belatedly persuaded unionists that change is needed. While they should always be clear about constitutional challenges, they must find a more compelling and sympathetic way to put across their ideas, both within Northern Ireland and at Westminster. 

There is a growing constituency in Northern Ireland, much of it young, that does not hold a  firm view on the constitution or wants, for the time being, to ignore that debate. It would be negligent for pro-Union parties to give up on these people entirely, in the naïve view that they would eventually, in any case, vote to maintain the UK if there were a referendum.  

It’s become clearer, though, that Sinn Fein has now practically wiped out constitutional nationalism in Northern Ireland. The SDLP won only 8.7% of first preference votes, and, like the UUP, fell behind Alliance at council level. Either Sinn Fein’s efforts to argue that the IRA’s campaign was justified have worked, or the party’s supporters don’t appreciate the hurt that it caused to their neighbours. Perhaps they don’t care, and feel more motivated by the grievances that Sinn Fein nourishes so carefully and effectively.

Michelle O’Neill and her colleagues may be buoyant about their current success, but it will continue to alienate middle-ground voters from arguments for an all-Ireland state. The party won new supporters at this election, but it did not attract many lower preference votes. A substantial number of people are always likely to consider Sinn Fein toxic.

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Owen Polley is a writer, commentator, consultant, and the co-author 'An Agenda for Northern Ireland After Brexit'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.