Local government elections do not tend to galvanize the political zeal of the electorate in quite the same ardent fashion as their Assembly and Westminster counterparts, but the results of the 2019 Council elections are undeniably remarkable. The rise of the centre parties may mark the genesis of an indelible shift in the political climate and reflect the societal change which has already begun within Northern Ireland.
The election campaign commenced unspectacularly in the same weary tribalistic fashion of elections past. As Sinn Fein launched their campaign in the atypical surroundings of the Unionist citadel of Ballymena, their inaugural message of opposing Brexit and Tory/DUP cuts was contradicted by their general public output which certified an Irish Unity referendum as an immediate possibility and stressed the importance of victory in the local government elections as pivotal in eliciting any future referendum triumph.
Not to be eclipsed on the tribalistic electioneering front, Arlene Foster issued the DUP’s call to arms as she characterised the election as one which would act as a litmus test of public desire for a border poll. As Mrs Foster made her rallying cry for Unionist unity, her intention to frame this election as a nominal border poll was not only to create an Orange and Green headcount but to continue with her growing aspirations to shape the DUP as the broad church of political Unionism. An ambition which was exemplified in the selection of the party’s first openly gay candidate, Alison Bennington.
Yet the climacteric event in this campaign was not a political rally or debate, nor an exchange or a policy, but rather the tragic murder of Lyra McKee in Londonderry on a fateful Thursday night. The ubiquitous anguish of the general public, as such an appalling reminder of Northern Ireland’s bloody past, was administered to the main political leaders through the acerbic tone of Fr Martin Magill’s speech, at a funeral which caught the eyes of everyone.
In the wake of such a tragedy, public desire for a sectarian election was minimal and the poignant events which came in the aftermath in remembrance of the journalist, led to both the DUP and Sinn Fein relinquishing their original message in fear of appearing distasteful.
In the absence of traditional electioneering, the campaign that proceeded was at best understated. Yet, in a low-key campaign, enthusiasm did not evaporate but rather acceded to issues which are of greater substance. Voters had time to quietly consider the general political discourse, a discourse which is indisputably pervaded by the overarching failure of Stormont and the dismal failure of the main parties to govern.
It is this failure of the principal governing parties which I attribute to the success of smaller parties. The Green Party and People before Profit represent a friendly outlet for voters to register their displeasure at the current political stalemate; they derive electoral benefit from their position on the governmental periphery. As impressive as some victories may be, such as Aine Groogan’s poll-topping performance in Botanic, their success should not be overstated as a radical political realignment.
There is, however, a more profound reasoning to be discerned from an increased Alliance vote that soared by 4.8% and yielded 21 extra seats. A surge which is intertwined with a deteriorating Ulster Unionist vote which saw the party lose thirteen seats and 2.1% of their vote in comparison with the previous local government elections in 2014.
One such reason can be viewed as the impact of the national political debate on Brexit. As a party which campaigned for remain in the 2016 referendum, the Ulster Unionist Party have now become a party for the implementation of leave. With the DUP and TUV also articulating a strong Brexit message, those of a Unionist persuasion who advocate for the United Kingdom remaining in the EU were left without a suitable candidate. Unable to break the constitutional voting boundaries based on a singular issue, these voters required an electoral home and found their need accommodated with the constitutionally neutral but unapologetically pro- EU Alliance Party. A party with a Remain message which is so effectively articulated by leader Naomi Long and amplified by her popular presence in the media.
However, the implications of this shift to Alliance extend further than Brexit for the UUP and to a lesser extent, on the results of this election, the SDLP. Both parties now face an existential question in that they are not viewed as being sufficiently vigorous on the constitutional question but neither do they appeal to centrists who desire moderate pragmatism.
This is an issue of identification that will not diminish but rather intensify as the bloody grip of Northern Ireland’s past loosens. As this country grows into a post-conflict society, it increasingly is developing a ‘Soft’ Unionist voter. One that is not adequately represented by the rousing tribalism and social conservatism of the DUP but is confident enough within it’s Unionism to seek a progressive choice on Northern Ireland’s political spectrum. Indeed, the decimation of the extreme TUV is further evidence that Unionist voters are liberalising in favour of social progressivism.
Of course, voters may choose to revert to their voting tendencies and return to their safe electoral homes. This could become especially true should the upcoming talks process yield significant progress. This outcome is highly unlikely but even if this did occur, one would expect this to increase the vote of the primary parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein.
It should also be noted that the Alliance vote has been prone to fluctuation, with the party recording 14.4 % of the vote in the 1973 general election that descended to only achieving 2.1% in the 1999 European elections.
Where this vote guides the party is unknown, but it holds a sense of purpose that may yet cement Alliance’s position as Northern Ireland’s clear progressive choice. Lasting change is not constructed instantly but gradually, and as Northern Irish society continues to modernise, the 2019 local government elections may be remembered as an election which brought the conception of progressive change.
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