There is a bizarre lack of energy around today’s council elections in Northern Ireland, despite high-stakes contests within and between communities.
Unionism’s Brexit drama has come to a head with the signing of the Windsor Framework. The DUP is asking voters to maintain its place as the largest party across the North’s councils, endorsing its Stormont boycott and strengthening its hand for final changes to the Windsor deal. Some opinion polls put the DUP and Sinn Féin tantalisingly close, with the DUP only a few percentage points behind.
Sinn Féin is asking voters to make it the largest party in local government, as a signal to restore Stormont and to embed the lead it won in last year’s assembly election. This can happen at the expense of the SDLP, which faces a historic defeat.
Alliance could be expected to continue its “surge”, which began in the last council election in 2019. Sinn Féin’s boycott of Stormont provoked that phenomenon of voter frustration. The DUP’s boycott might have a similar effect.
So why is today, by common consensus, the dullest election in years?
It is not because this is a council contest where everyone is really arguing about Stormont. There were three elections in 2019 – council, European and Westminster – all of which were about Stormont, and which gripped public attention.
A sense of repetition and falsity may explain the current weary mood.
Everyone is exhausted by unionism’s Brexit drama, unionists included. The DUP has obviously been waiting until today’s election is out of the way before commencing a sullen return to work. Polls show most DUP voters support the boycott, putting the party in the absurd position of having to tone down its key stance on devolution and the Windsor Framework, in case it is too successful. Specific policy pledges in its manifesto look ridiculous while it is obstructing devolution, as little can change in councils without a functioning executive and assembly. DUP calls for unionist unity – united around itself, naturally – have provoked hollow laughter across the spectrum of unionist opinion.
The contest to be the largest party in Northern Ireland, which the DUP and Sinn Féin are both trying to exploit, has already been won. Sinn Féin took the top spot last year at Stormont, the place where this confers advantage at the institutional level. It still matters in a council election at the symbolic level, but that Rubicon has been crossed.
Nationalism’s sense of manifest destiny means it never thinks of itself as circling the wagons; it must always be on a roll
The demise of the SDLP also feels like something that has already happened. The party did so badly in last year’s assembly election it no longer qualifies for the executive. Its council campaign has strayed close to admitting defeat, with leader Colum Eastwood begging voters not to punish the SDLP because they want to punish the DUP.
Although it is widely noted that unionist unity would be a mistake, there are fewer voices warning nationalism it is making the same blunder: consolidating around one deeply flawed party that cannot win votes beyond its own community. Nationalism’s sense of manifest destiny means it never thinks of itself as circling the wagons; it must always be on a roll.
Alliance is experiencing a comparable problem. It is the unaligned party of any significance, accounting for 17 of the 18 assembly members who designate as “other”. The 18th is from People Before Profit, which does not designate as nationalist on republican principle.
Until 2019 Alliance shared the centre ground with a competitive and growing Green Party. The Greens experienced their own surge in Belfast in the council election that year, tripling their vote to 6 per cent, just over half Alliance’s tally. But they have since been wiped out at Stormont by a combination of Alliance dominance and an ill-advised “anti-Brexit” pact – in reality, a nationalist pact – during the 2019 general election. Polling now puts the Greens on 1 per cent.
This increasingly looks like a pyrrhic victory for Alliance. The political story of the past few years has been of Northern Ireland entering a new 40-40-20 balance of three substantial minorities. It turns out the Greens were necessary to make up those numbers. While Alliance’s vote hit 18 per cent in 2019, it has since settled down at about 14 per cent in elections and polls – not quite enough to make its reform agenda an undeniable imperative.
The Greens did not merely bulk out the centre ground: they created a sense there was more going on there than the rise of one party. Alliance’s success is not a fluke but fortunes can turn, perhaps more easily than its new voters realise. The party’s first test at the polls was exactly half a century ago, in the council elections of May 1973. It won 14 per cent.