Voters move to centre from orange and green

Voters in Northern Ireland have moved firmly towards non-tribal politics and away from the four big parties which are dominated by their constitutional stance

Allliance leader Naomi Long and Stephen Farry with sucessful candidate Nuala McAllister
Allliance leader Naomi Long and Stephen Farry with sucessful candidate Nuala McAllister

Counting of votes in last Thursday’s council election finished late on Saturday night and revealed an unmistakable trend away from the DUP, Sinn Fein, UUP and SDLP, each of which either lost seats or came back with a smaller percentage of the vote.

Those big four remain the largest parties and the centrist or left-wing alternatives are still much smaller players on the overall political scene.

However, the story of the election is the scale of the move away from constitutional politics and the surge in support for those not defined by their stance on the border – Alliance, the Greens and People Before Profit.

That meant a fall in support for unionist and nationalist parties, although unionism took the bigger fall.

Alliance increased its councillors from 32 to 53 and broke out from its eastern heartlands to take seats in Londonderry, Omagh and Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon council.

The Green Party doubled its councillors from four to eight, while socialist party People Before Profit also saw its vote soar, taking its number of councillors from one to five.

But the success for smaller parties not dominated by constitutional politics was not shared by other smaller parties which might have hoped to benefit if the electorate had been delivering a broader protest vote.

The TUV lost seven of its 13 seats, the PUP lost one of its four seats and Ukip did not win a single one of the three seats it had.

The ‘soft’ unionist and nationalist parties, the UUP and the SDLP, went backwards, getting caught between their larger rivals and the centre ground.

The UUP had a particularly bad result, losing 13 councillors, and the SDLP lost seven, leaving it just six seats ahead of Alliance.

DUP and Sinn Fein figures who had hoped to make significant gains in the election admitted that the absence of Stormont - widely seen as a failure by those two parties - contributed to the result.

That could have implications for the talks which are due to get under way this week - the first talks about restoring Stormont in more than a year.

Despite a low-key campaign and the fact that the council elections were not held in conjunction with a higher profile election for the first time since 1997, turnout was slightly up at 52.7%.

Alliance leader Naomi Long said: “We got seats in places that our target was to get a candidate who would run there. We were not expecting the surge that we got and it has been tremendous.”

Speaking on the BBC’s Sunday Politics yesterday, Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said that the result had “shaken a lot of the conventional wisdom about Northern Ireland politics”.

Green Party leader Claire Bailey said that she believed climate change - which has rarely out of the news over recent weeks due to the Extinction Rebellion protests - had played a part in her party’s “phenomenal” success.

She said: “Regardless of our traditional cultural identities, the them and us politics, what we really need to be looking at is how we all mitigate against climate change, and that message is just being understood on the doors and over the last few days we are seeing that result coming in.”

People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll described the move towards his party - despite it being criticised by Sinn Féin for having argued in favour of Brexit - as “an unprecedented breakthrough for the socialist left”.

He said that welfare reform had been a major issue on the doors, adding: “We are witnessing the emergence of a new style of politics, and People Before Profit is right at the heart of it. Its time the big parties sat up and listened.” DUP MLA Christopher Stalford and Sinn Féin’s John O’Dowd both claimed that their parties had achieved “solid” results.

However, Mr Stalford acknowledged that the electorate had delivered a message to the DUP and Sinn Féin.