On Thursday 2nd May, Northern Ireland will once again go to the polls. Across 11 districts, voters will be charged with electing representatives to 462 local council seats which were last contested in 2014. A great deal has changed since then. So, what challenges will the main parties face in the upcoming poll?
In the 2017 General Election, the Democratic Unionist Party unexpectedly rose to centre stage, becoming part of a minority government with the Conservatives in Westminster. Whilst this confidence and supply deal was designed to bring Brexit votes over the line, the DUP have been steadfast in their opposition to the backstop. Their hostility has prevented Theresa May’s Brexit deal going through the House of Commons, adding to the uncertainty surrounding Northern Ireland’s future relationship with the European Union. Whether this Brexit stance will taint the performance of the DUP remains to be seen.
In recent years, Sinn Féin has changed significantly. Its historical associations with the IRA are far less prevalent nowadays under the fresh leadership of Mary Lou McDonald and her deputy, Michelle O’Neill. Without Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness at the helm, the party has a new feel, removed of its past that could have been off-putting for many voters.
Whilst previous Sinn Féin election campaigns have focussed on the slogan ‘Equality, Respect and Integrity,’ their local election campaign is currently centring around a message of ‘Rights, Equality and Irish Unity.’ In the current Brexit deadlock, the prospect of a border poll is becoming ever more likely and Sinn Féin are very clearly putting this at the forefront of their message to voters.
In 2017, the Ulster Unionist Party performed poorly at the ballot box, losing all of their Westminster seats in the General Election and 6 seats at Stormont in the Assembly Election. Under the new leadership of Robin Swann, the party faces a challenge to stand out from the shadows of the much larger unionist party, the DUP, which has been prevalent in the media from their Westminster activities. The ability of the UUP to hold onto their 88 seats from the 2014 local election will be clearly tested at the polls. Will current UUP councillors be ousted by their more hard-line DUP opponents?
In February this year, the Social Democratic and Labour Party formed a partnership with Fianna Fáil, the second largest party in both chambers of the Irish Parliament. Whilst this stopped short of a full merger, the link-up still came under fierce criticism, most notably from Claire Hanna MLA. She resigned from the party whip in opposition to the partnership. The upcoming local election will show whether this recent change has affected the standing of the party amongst voters.
Under the leadership of Naomi Long, the Alliance Party has almost assumed a populist message with an election slogan of ‘Demand Better’. The party, which is neutral on the question of the union, is trying to capitalise on voters who are becoming increasingly impatient at the inability of the main parties to work together for the resumption of the Stormont Assembly. To make any sorts of gains, the Alliance Party must be able to persuade voters to step outside of traditional green and orange lines.
Overall, this upcoming test at the ballot box could be a revealing barometer of Northern Irish political opinion, with wider issues at play in this electoral challenge. Whilst these factors are important, these are council elections where local issues can very much dictate the eventual result.
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