Local government elections in north
Sinn Féin takes lead as political unionism decays
25 May 2023
Sinn Fein leaders call for return of Stormont.
Commentary on the local government elections in the North remarked on the dullness of the campaign. The results (see table below article), by contrast, which saw Sinn Féin surpass the DUP as the biggest party, were hailed as very dramatic and of great significance. Words such as “tsunami”, “seismic”, and even “landslide”, were being bandied around. There was much discussion over what the outcome would mean for the restoration of Stormont, and beyond this for the calling of a border poll and the prospect of a united Ireland. It was generally agreed that all of this had moved a step closer. However, when we examine the election campaign and its outcome a lot of what is being claimed and speculated about is overblown.
It is true that Sinn Féin did well in the election with a significant rise both in votes (+7.7%) and seats (+39). However, the rise is exaggerated to some extent by the party’s disappointing performance during the last council elections which were held in 2019. Indeed, 2019 was a low point for Sinn Féin with another poor result in the UK General Election in December of that year. A better comparison is with the Assembly election of last when Sinn Féin obtained around 30% of the popular vote and moved ahead of the DUP in terms of the number of MLAs. The council election confirms the trend of Sinn Féin consolidating its position as the leading party of nationalism. Part of this is the continued haemorrhaging of support away from the SDLP which saw its vote drop by 4.4%. Sinn Féin also hoovered up votes from the various nationalist others and independents who virtually disappeared this time round. Another factor in the rise of support for the party was the provocative stance of the DUP, in particular, its refusal to commit to going into a Stormont Executive under a nationalist First Minister. Over the years, with Arlene’s Foster’s dismissive remarks about the Irish language during the Assembly election campaign of 2016 being another good example, Sinn Féin has received a bump in support when nationalists have been motivated to send a message of defiance to unionists and the British government.
However, despite the success of Sinn Féin, it would be wrong to present the election result as nationalism eclipsing unionism. In terms of vote share the two blocs are very close. While nationalism may be ahead this time it is marginal. In terms of seats won it is unionism that is marginally ahead. While Sinn Féin may be growing, broader Irish nationalism is not. Support for parties identifying as nationalist has been hovering around the 40% mark for a long time. In terms of councillors, nationalist parties have only increased their numbers by 1% over the past twenty years, going up from 38.6% in 2001 to 39.6% in 2023 (see table below article). This rate of advance is glacial. It does not point to any dramatic change in the near future
However, the most serious error of those making dramatic claims for the advance for Sinn Féin is the programme that party is standing on. For all the talk of border polls and Irish unity these things were barely mentioned by Sinn Féin during the election campaign. The consistent message from the party was for the restoration of the Stormont Executive and Assembly. The most talked about initiative taken by Sinn Féin during the campaign was the attendance of Michelle O'Neill at the Coronation of King Charles III. This hat tipping towards the British monarchy, and the absence of a backlash from its supporters, show the degree to which Sinn Féin and the broader nationalist population has moved away from the traditional platform of Irish republicanism. It is a thoroughly nationalist party now that has as its primary objective the extension of cultural and community rights within the northern state. This is why the restoration of Stormont, rather than the push for a united Ireland, is the priority. It also reflects the material interests of sections of its base, particularly those middle-class elements, that benefit from state patronage and are comfortable with the constitutional status quo. In the council elections, with the exception of Derry, there was little evidence of anything that could be described as a republican vote.
What serves to exaggerate the claim that nationalism is advancing is the ongoing decay of political unionism. And there is no dispute that support for unionist parties has been declining. For example, in the same period as the number of nationalist councillors increased by 1% (as cited above) the number of unionist councillors declined by 10% (see table below article). This was also seen in Assembly elections which have seen unionists lose their majority in 2017, and then the DUP displaced as the leading party in 2022. However, this has not been the result of a swing from unionism to nationalism but rather a fragmentation of the unionist vote between the DUP, UUP and TUV and a transfer of votes to those parties (primarily Alliance) designated as other. Using the number of councillors as the common measurement, the percentage designated as other has increased from 5% in 2001 to 16% in 2023, almost exactly mirroring the unionist decline. The reality is that the others, and this is certainly the case for Alliance, most likely have drawn support from people within the unionist community, who are repelled by the bigotry and pro-Brexit position of the DUP, yet also favour the constitutional status quo. If these “soft unionists” are factored in then the position of the union is not as precarious as it may first appear.
Within the intra unionist battle the DUP has consolidated its position as the leading party. It has maintained its vote share and came back with the same number of seats. By contrast, the UUP had another poor election, dropping 4.5% in the popular vote and losing 20 seats. The far right TUV recorded modest gains in terms of votes and seats but it was nowhere near the breakthrough it had hoped for. The outcome of the election for unionism has given credence to the view that the DUP has seen off its hard-line rivals and can now plot a course back to the Assembly and Executive. However, this ignores the fact that the DUP only maintained its leading position by taking a hard-line approach on the NI Protocol and the Windsor Framework. It would hardly be credible for the DUP leadership to do an abrupt about turn that would risk splitting the party and reviving Jim Allister and the TUV. The critical point here is that a significant section of unionism - as evidenced in the two most recent elections in the north - has turned against power sharing, and in particular, the prospect of a Sinn Féin First Minister. In these circumstances it will be very hard to revive the Stormont institutions even with the financial and political inducements that could be offered to the DUP.
In the unlikely event that Stormont was restored how would things be different. During the election campaign there was an almost universal mantra from the political parties and the media that a return of the Assembly and the Executive was the solution to the North’s collapsing public services. However, it was notable that none of the parties committed themselves to reversing any of the draconian cuts that had already been announced. The news, in the days before the vote, that northern health workers were in line for a zero percent pay rise barely got a mention. That such issues did not get an airing shows the degree to which the election was wholly sectarian, only being about whether unionism or nationalism finished on top. It also shows that the parties do not have an alternative to the programme of austerity. They are quite prepared, as they have in the past, to run with the Tory agenda of spending cuts; of privatisation; and of higher charges and taxes. Indeed, some of them may quietly welcome the British government taking the unpopular decisions on their behalf.
The prospect of a future Stormont Executive presiding over austerity completely dispels the illusion, peddled most strongly by the trade union leadership, that the restoration of the devolved institutions offers the only hope to working class people. It doesn’t now, and it never has. What is missing in the North, like the rest of Ireland, is an independent working-class movement that will challenge the status quo; that will take on sectarianism and partition; that will oppose austerity; and that will fully support women's rights. While the eventual realisation of that task is some way off, it is only by commencing with it today can we offer any manner of defence against the oncoming onslaught.
Percentage of council seats won since
1997 by designation