A disillusioned, switched-off electorate goes to the polls – The Irish Times
It is said that all politics is local. In Northern Ireland, where political stalemate over post-Brexit trading rules has ground the wheels of devolved government to a shuddering halt, local administration must carry on.
Amid that political vacuum, voters on Thursday go to the polls to elect the councillors at the coalface of that administration for the first time since May 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic and Britain’s formal departure from the EU.
In the absence of a functioning Assembly at Stormont, these elections will inevitably be viewed as a referendum on the last year of limbo. But regardless of the political gridlock at national level, the bread-and-butter management of the street-by-street, neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood issues proceeds.
This was evident in one prominent local standoff last year. For two months, bins in the Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon (ABC) council area went unemptied.
Photographs of overflowing rubbish and piles of black plastic bags became the images of the strike, with the industrial action affecting all local authority services – from recycling centres and sports facilities to playgrounds and street cleaning – in every Northern Ireland council area.
The dispute – since resolved – was over pay, with unions arguing that salaries had not kept pace with inflation or the rising cost of living.
“The strike at ABC council did go on the longest and it was the most high-profile one and at no point did the public support waver, so the public played a part,” says Alan Perry, regional organiser with the GMB union.
“I think what it has done is highlight the role of local government. People are very much fixated on Stormont and what happens there, but they forget there’s another layer underneath, which is more personal, around the area they live in and what you actually pay your rates for.
“When you go to the polls next week, who are you voting for and what do they stand for and what are they going to bring to you within your local area?”
People across the North’s 11 council areas will on Thursday vote to elect 462 councillors. This campaign has slipped largely under the radar, with the public focus distracted by a number of high-profile events – the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, the visits of US president Joe Biden and former president Bill Clinton, and the coronation of King Charles – and comes at a time when many have been left disillusioned by the continuing powersharing hiatus at Stormont.
“There is a bit of fatigue around politics at the moment,” says David McCann, deputy editor of the Northern Ireland political website Slugger O’Toole. “People are feeling a bit of that apathy and frustration.”
Inevitably, this week’s election has been overshadowed by the wider political crisis sparked by the DUP boycott – part of its protest against the Northern Ireland protocol – of the powersharing institutions, which has led to the Assembly and Executive not functioning for more than a year.
As the DUP pondered its response to the latest EU-UK proposal, the Windsor Framework, over the spring, it was evident there would be no big move before polling day. Doing so would be to hand the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) and its leader, Jim Allister – a vocal critic of the DUP and what it terms the “union-dismantling” protocol – a stick to beat them with during the election campaign.
The most recent quarterly poll from Belfast firm LucidTalk, released earlier this month, had the DUP holding steady at 25 per cent, significantly better than the 21 per cent it took in the Assembly elections a year ago. If this number holds up on election day, the DUP will interpret it as an endorsement of its stance by its voters.
At the party’s manifesto launch, and in its election literature, the DUP has promised to “seek to re-establish the NI Assembly on a fair and sustainable basis by finishing the job of fully restoring NI’s position in the UK”, a heavily caveated statement, but one which nevertheless points to an intended direction of travel.
A good election, therefore, could potentially ease the way for a more confident DUP to return to the Assembly. A bad one – particularly if the TUV gains at its expense – will make this more difficult.
That said, there is still no expectation the DUP will rush back in. “Chances are they will go back in in the autumn,” says Jon Tonge, professor of politics at the University of Liverpool, “but they need a pretext to do so and at the moment it’s difficult to see where that pretext comes from.”
But, Tonge says, if the TUV’s number of seats remains small – they won a total of six in 2019 – “that helps the DUP, because they are very much still the undisputed kings of unionism, and it’s up to them to pick a time, and a time of their choosing, as to when to go back into Stormont”.
If this is the current context, as in most of the North’s recent elections, there are also broader trends at play, not least that of Sinn Féin’s electoral success and wider conversations around constitutional change.
“Sinn Féin is on the way to completing the set now – Assembly, councils, eventually Westminster seats,” says Tonge.
In last year’s Assembly election, Sinn Féin overtook the DUP in terms of first-preference votes and seats won, giving it the right to the role of first minister. The party is currently on 105 council seats, compared to the DUP’s 122.
“I think the DUP’s vote will hold up in the same way as their seats held up for the Assembly [in 2022] although they did take a percentage vote drop,” says Tonge, “but I still think even if their vote broadly holds up, there’s a better than even chance that Sinn Féin will overtake them to become the largest party in councils.”
“They certain can do it,” says McCann. “They can gain in places like Belfast, Lisburn and Castlereagh, in Newry, Mourne and Down as well, and maybe trying to make back a bit of ground in Derry and Strabane, where they took such a pummelling last time.”
In its campaign, Sinn Féin has emphasised the broader context alongside the local. Its election literature highlights the need to plan for Irish unity and a pledge to make health the “number one priority in a new Executive” alongside a list of achievements relevant to each local area.
The party is confident this message will work for it in this election. The Alliance surge was already well under way in 2019, when it gained 21 seats and increased its vote share to 11.5 per cent. It has performed better in every election since, and even if it were only to return the 13.5 per cent it polled in last year’s Assembly election, it can expect to gain seats. “Vote Alliance”.
The party is confident this message will work for it in this election. The Alliance surge was already well under way in 2019, when it gained 21 seats and increased its vote share to 11.5 per cent. It has performed better in every election since, and even if it were only to return the 13.5 per cent it polled in last year’s Assembly election, it can expect to gain seats.
“If Alliance gains less than 10 seats it would be a disappointment for them,” says McCann. Their increase, he says, would come at the expense of “the Ulster Unionists [UUP], there’ll be some SDLP, and a bit of the DUP as well”.
Both the UUP and the SDLP have struggled in recent elections, says McCann, and that trend is forecast to continue.
“They’re both set to lose seats; the question we’re talking about is how many? How big is the swing away from them?
“If it’s a small swing, if the SDLP come back with around 50 seats, they will be relieved, and if the Ulster Unionists come back with north of 65 seats, they will be relieved.”
Turnout could be crucial. In 2019, it was 53 per cent, compared to 64 per cent in last year’s Assembly election – and “significantly lower” in unionist majority councils than it was in those dominated by nationalists, says McCann.
“Last time, that depressed unionist turnout benefited Alliance.”
Yet with a disillusioned, switched-off electorate, it could prove even more of a challenge than usual to switch those voters back on.
“When you look at a lot of the party manifestos which were released last week, a lot of it did seem to centre around the wider issues rather than the local issues,” says union organiser Perry.
“It’s just the make-up of Northern Ireland. Let’s be honest – people tend to vote along traditional lines.
“I think we have to get into the mindset that you vote for the best candidate, but also the candidate that it is standing up for things that matter to you, and what they can deliver.”