A swing to the political centre but the DUP and Sinn Fein stay top

The first election in almost two years has seen significant gains for two centrist parties, with voters slightly moving away from the orange and green direction of the 2017 general election.

By The Newsroom
Saturday, 4th May 2019, 9:30 am
Updated Saturday, 4th May 2019, 10:18 am
The DUP's first openly gay candidate, Alison Bennington, who has been elected to Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council.
The DUP's first openly gay candidate, Alison Bennington, who has been elected to Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council.

On the first day of a two-day count which will continue today, most parties faced a mixed situation across Northern Ireland, with local factors and personalities contributing to the results.

However, the two parties for which things were overwhelmingly positive were Alliance and the Green Party, making gains in Belfast where the centrist bloc is now going to be even more significant in swinging key votes.

People Before Profit, the socialist party, also polled strongly and gained new seats, confounding those who believed that its support for Brexit had fatally undermined its support in largely nationalist areas.

Kyle Black, son of murdered prison officer David Black, of himself celebrating with his girlfriend Adele Bradley, after winning a council seat in Mid Ulster.

The DUP polled strongly but its performance will not be clear until the end of the count.

The DUP was delighted to see the election of Kyle Black in Mid Ulster, a victory which was poignant because his father, David Black, was murdered by dissident republicans.

The party also made history by seeing its first openly gay councillor, Alison Bennington, elected. DUP veteran Jim Wells had denounced her candidacy when it was announced and then declined to congratulate her yesterday.

But Arlene Foster made explicit that she stands behind the decision, despite criticism from the Free Presbyterian Church and some DUP members, and Mervyn Storey, himself a Free Presbyterian, did not criticise her selection but stressed ongoing party opposition to gay marriage.

Mr Wells was criticised by former DUP spad Tim Cairns, who said that his comments about Ms Bennington were “repellent”.

Tom Smith, deselected as a DUP councillor in Bangor East and Donaghadee after he voted to light up a council building in rainbow colours, retained his seat as an independent — a significant victory against the party machine.

Sinn Féin, which had been expected to take additional seats in Belfast after its surge in support in 2017, came under pressure from People Before Profit, Aontú and Alliance, losing several seats in Belfast and elsewhere.

The Greens topped the poll in the Botanic area of Belfast, winning a seat, and secured a strong vote in the east of Northern Ireland.

Alliance had expanded beyond its eastern heartland to contest multiple seats in the west, and some of those candidates broke through. Rachael Ferguson took an Alliance seat on Derry City and Strabane District Council.

But it was a bad election for the UUP — and especially so in Belfast, where the party once dominated city hall politics.

The party found itself squeezed between the DUP and Alliance and struggling to explain a leaflet circulated by veteran councillor Jim Rodgers in which he denounced Alliance, claiming that it tended to vote with “the Provisional IRA’s political wing”.

Mr Rodgers, who held his seat but saw his running mate lose his, denied that leaflet had damaged the party.

When asked by the BBC why she thought her party was losing ground, UUP councillor Sonia Copeland said: “I have no idea.” She dedicated her victory to the murdered east Belfast man Ian Ogle.

The UUP also lost young party officer Alex Redpath, a sitting councillor in Lisburn, and party veteran Arnold Hatch in Portadown.

Last night turnout across the areas which had been counted stood around 52% — almost identical to the turnout in the 2014 council election, which was held on the same day as the European election.

The DUP lost its group leader on Belfast City Council, Lee Reynolds, who had led from the front by moving seats in an attempt to win another seat for the party.

The SDLP faced a mixed picture, comfortably holding some seats where it had been expected to be under pressure, but losing elsewhere.

Aontú, the pro-life republican party established months ago by former Sinn Féin TD Peadar Tóibín, saw signs for encouragement in several areas where it contested seats and saw GP Anne McCloskey elected in Londonderry.

Counting will continue on Saturday for the remaining seats.