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Correspondence: Orange, green (and red)

9 May 2019

After the [NI] local government elections, there have again been claims that ‘orange and green’ politics were eroded. The inescapable fact, though, is that there is little cross-community voting. Take, for example, People Before Profit, that went from one to five councillors, from 1.1 to 1.4% of votes cast. By and large, PBP stood and did best in areas with very few, if any, unionists. Their support was from traditionally nationalist voters.

In Belfast the Collins brothers, Matt and Michael, won a PBP seat each in the Black Mountain and Colin electoral areas. Black Mountain, with no unionist candidates, delivered six seats left to Sinn Féin. In Colin, where unionists received 439 votes, SF won five remaining seats.

In the only other area where PBP stood, Derry-Strabane, the same thing happened. Thus Eamonn McCann won in Moor, where a unionist received 148 votes. The successful PBP candidate in Foyleside confronted no unionist candidate. An unlucky PBP candidate in Ballyarnett again faced no unionist. In Derg and Faughan, where SF and the SDLP won seats, alongside successful unionist and Alliance candidates, PBP did not stand.

The only partial outlier was in Belfast’s Oldpark that elected 3 SF, 1 each for the SDLP and DUP, plus a PBP candidate on the last count. PBP started with 447 and ended up with 1,407 votes. PBP received 334 transfer votes from a significantly over-quota SDLP candidate in stage two (SF received 623). Later, PBP received 457 transfers from excluded PUP (341) and UUP (116) candidates. The UUP-PUP transfer may have been a unionist anti-SF vote. There may also, tentatively, be signs of movement among working class unionist voters in that area.

What does this tell us? Perhaps that nationalists generally are more progressive and less sectarian in their voting habits, than the unionist electorate. It also indicates that within traditionally poorer nationalist working class areas, voters are frustrated with the slow pace of change, with austerity imposed by Westminster Tories and by the absence of political movement on equality issues. Nationalist expectations rest largely with Sinn Féin, in second place overall. SF stood still, with the same number of seats, 105. PBP’s two seat gain in Belfast and in Derry-Strabane was within the same electoral pool. The SDLP, which otherwise had a bad election, and an anti-choice GP also won seats in Derry-Strabane at Sinn Fein’s expense.

Unionist frustrations were reflected in a severe dent in UUP support by Alliance, with some inroads also into the dominant DUP’s seat count. Alliance grew from 6.6 to 11.5% support. The Green Party (up from 0.9 to 2.1%) appears also to have had an impact. These gains may result from an anti-Brexit backlash.

Whatever way the tealeaves are read, the basic division on national identity continues to be reflected in voting habits, even where successful ‘other’ candidates deny this reality. This political condition is imposed by Northern Ireland’s formation and history, which is why the constitutional issue remains to the fore.

Niall Meehan

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