20 July-August 2023 July-August 2023 PB
Recent elections, and the last census, have
shunted the North onto new ground. There
is no majority for the Union with Britain as it
was, nor a majority for a United Ireland. The
only strong majority is against returning to
Tht’s blocs not blocks — three of them
omentum is continuing towards
restoring a Northern Executive and
Assembly. The results of the local
elections expedite it. They have
consolidated three blocs: Sinn
in, DUP and Alliance.
The rise of Alliance to third place means the
DUP faces threats from its left.
The DUP has seen o the challenge from its
Right. The Traditional Unionist Voice failed to
make a significant breakthrough. Of nine
councillors, only two are outside its North Antrim
heartland. It represents part of Unionism, but a
definite minority.
The DUP suered a less than 1% fall in vote
share. In absolute terms the vote increased by
10,000. The party returned with the same number
of councillors. That stabilisation had looked
unlikely a few months ago.
The DUP is under conflicting pressure. Part of
its vote is frustrated at the lack of an Assembly
and Executive. Another is sympathetic to the TUV,
and wants to stay out.
Since the election, the wing in favour of return
to Stormont has been strengthened by the
election of pragmatist Gavin Robinson as Deputy
Of course, Sinn Féin had the best election. For
the second successive election they have been
largest party in terms of votes and seats. They
have elected councillors in Ballymena, Coleraine,
Lisburn, and some of Belfast’s leafier suburbs. All
were once considered Sinn-Féin proof.
Sinn Féin ran a strong campaign. The explosive
rise in their vote was fuelled first by fear of Brexit
causing a Hard Border. Then the overwhelming
majority of Catholics believe the DUP brought
down the Assembly and Executive because they
would not accept a Catholic First Minister. The
truth is irrelevant. That perception mobilised
Nationalist voters. Thus the Councils served as
proxies for the Assembly.
Significantly there has been no noticeable
dissension after Michelle O’Neill’s meeting with
King Charles and attendance at the funeral of
Queen Elizabeth. Both actions were heresy to
Republican traditions though of course
circumstances evolve. A significant electoral
challenge from other Republicans did not
materialise. The partial exception was Mid-Ulster.
There, Independent Republicans added a third
seat to the two held.
As Sinn Féin’s vote expands, it becomes less
ideological. Nationalist voters do not want to
jeopardise the chance of the First Ministry. And
elected representatives are now overwhelmingly
from the post-IRA generation, with a dwindling
number of military veterans.
A factor in Sinn Féin’s success is that the
Unionist turn-out was lower than the Nationalist
turn-out. That included areas where Unionist
turn-out is traditionally high, due to the severe
competition posed by Nationalists. Perceived
safe Unionist seats were lost.
To a small degree this was due to demographic
However, more important was a lack of
confidence in Unionist leadership. Also important
were significant numbers of previous TUV voters
staying at home. Brexit has divided Unionism.
Approximately 30% of Unionists voted Remain.
Some of the most Protestant constituencies
Local elections herald
return of Assembly
As the DUP sees off internal challenge
from its Right, there are three key blocs:
Sinn Féin, the DUP and the Alliance Party
By Anton McCabe
voted Remain. Unionist opposition to the Protocol
should not be underestimated, however there is
significant division as to how to deal with the
Overall, as part of consolidation into three
blocs, Alliance progress continued, if more slowly
than in the last local and Assembly elections. The
party has had significant success in attracting
those disaected with Sinn Féin and the DUP. It
suffered some difficulties finding viable
candidates. However, paper candidates were still
getting 200 and 300 votes.
As Alliance advanced, the SDLP has retreated.
Its vote fell by fully 25%. Old strongholds such as
North Armagh and South Down have fallen under
the Sinn Féin juggernaut. Even more than
Unionism, the SDLP suffers demographic
pressures. Its vote is older, suering the ravages
of time.
Recently, Independents and small parties have
suered. The traditional squeeze which was two-
way is now three-way.
So, there was a contradictory element to the
local elections. In recent months the North has
seen the biggest wave of industrial action in
years. Despite that, left-wing candidates were
squeezed. People Before Profit lost three of five
councillors. All three Left councillors on
Fermanagh and Omagh District Council lost.
The reality is that all recent elections, and the
last census, have shunted the North onto new
ground. There is no majority for the Union with
Britain as it was, nor a majority for a United
Ireland. The only strong majority is against
returning to violence.


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