‘We held off a machine. Sinn Féin is a machine’: Smaller parties regroup after NI elections

Greens suffer biggest political casualty with party leader Mal O’Hara losing seat

Walking out the back gates of a stifling Belfast City Hall at teatime on Saturday evening, the Green Party’s Brian Smyth looks anxious.

“We’ve a long night to go. We’re all a bit sore but we’re still standing. We held off a machine: Sinn Féin is a machine. And maybe there’s something there for the smaller parties to learn from,” he tells The Irish Times.

The Greens suffered the biggest political casualty in the North’s council elections with its party leader Mal O’Hara losing his seat in north Belfast – a year after his predecessor, Clare Bailey, stepped down after losing her Assembly seat.

“Mal’s vote actually went up, that’s the heartbreaking thing but he got caught by the Sinn Féin surge and transfers to the SDLP,” says Smyth, lapping Donegall Square for some air, a day after being elected to the Lisnasharragh area in the east of the city.


Sinn Féin’s remarkable electoral success across the North’s local government areas was reflected in Belfast City Council chambers, which, when formed in 1973, was dominated by the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).

Sitting at the top of City Hall’s magnificent marbled staircase on Saturday afternoon under a towering bronze statue of the Earl of Belfast, Frederick Richard Chichester – an Eton-educated author and composer who died in Naples in 1853 aged 25 from scarlet fever, he was known for his famine relief work and poetry lectures to the Belfast Working Men’s Association – is a group of Sinn Féin members spanning generations.

Joking and chatting among themselves in the lull before the next set of results, a bystander quietly observes how the party is “cleaning up”.

“I know they’re referred to as a machine but for some there can be a demeaning value to that, like they’re a ‘nudge nudge wink wink’ army type of party. They’re not. Sinn Féin in 2023 is a very different to Sinn Féin that was emerging from the Troubles,” reflects political commentator Chris Donnelly on Sunday morning.

“The ability to get six people out of seven elected in Black Mountain or five out of six in Colin [electoral areas in west Belfast] – it’s astonishing levels of efficiency. The bonds have not been broken with the traditional base in working-class areas. But they’ve also broadened their appeal to getting a quarter of the votes in leafy Malone in Balmoral [an affluent area of south Belfast].”

The euphoria from Friday’s first election count in City Hall continues among Sinn Féin activists on Saturday – party president Mary Lou McDonald and Stormont First Minister designate Michelle O’Neill were greeted by a stampede of wellwishers on day one – but noise levels are lower as people scan phones in anticipation of the overall outcome.

By close of play, it emerges Sinn Féin has broken through the 30 per cent barrier in a council election – winning a staggering 144 seats across the North’s 11 councils, almost one in three votes went to Sinn Féin – leaving the once-dominant DUP in its wake.

Leaning against the circular Rotunda on the first floor of City Hall, DUP party leader Jeffrey Donaldson has his arms folded waiting for the next set of results on Saturday.

A young DUP councillor whispers in his ear that The Irish Times would like a word and there is a pained expression on Donaldson’s face.

He agrees however and is affable while insisting that, “overall, from our party’s point of view, I think it’s a really good election. Our objective was to consolidate.”

Mid-flow, he is interrupted by newly-elected DUP councillor, Andrew McCormick, who stops to shake his hand.

McCormick (31) is from a working-class background in the east of the city and has spent his career working in community development jobs. He is a first-time councillor.

“I worked in Lenadoon [a republican area in west Belfast] for around six to eight months when I was younger and it made a real impact on me, just in terms of growing up and the divisions that we have in Northern Ireland, and especially in Belfast. It was my first real experience of being part of a community that is separate from the community that I grew up in. The way people treated me in Leadon was just unbelievable, I realised it was the same issues that we were all going through,” McCormick tells me.

Donaldson is aware of the criticism around DUP west Belfast candidate Ian McLaughlin, who represented a group linked to loyalist paramilitaries, and has been elected to represent a west Belfast council area.

He is keen to highlight the “positive young people like Andrew coming through”.

“I recognise and realise that unionism needs to connect with the younger generation. ... like any party we also need to connect with young people,” the DUP leader says.

After midnight, it emerges that just 17 of the 60 seats in Belfast will be held by unionists across three parties.

The DUP secured 14 – down one from the 2019 council elections – and the once mighty UUP managed to return just two. The TUV has its first member elected to Belfast, Ron McDowell, who picked up Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) leader Billy Hutchinson’s seat.

Mr Hutchinson was a former loyalist prisoner who played a key role in the negotiations leading up the Belfast Agreement. It will be the first time since 1981 that the City Chambers will have no loyalist representation.

A bid by Anne Smyth, mother of BBC NI director, Adam Smyth, to take a second TUV seat, failed.

At 22 seats, Sinn Féin has upped its representation at City Hall from 18 in the last elections, making it the largest party. The Alliance Party is now the third largest in Belfast, holding 11 seats, a make-up mirroring that of the collapsed Stormont Assembly.

SDLP are in fourth position, with five councillors, defying the odds after some polls predicted they would go down to only one seat. Independent candidate Paul McCusker, a former SDLP councillor who topped the poll in the last local election, is also elected. People Before Profit lost two seats and returned just one councillor.

Five hours after Brian Smyth’s anxious teatime walk around City Hall, the results are finally through. Amid jubilant scenes, his two party colleagues are elected after tightly run contests in the Botanic area of south Belfast and more unionist-dominated Ormiston in the east of the city.

“We still here, we’re grafters,” he tells The Irish Times.

“If I hadn’t put the work in over the past four years, I would have been out on my arse yesterday. And it was the Protestant working-class areas along the Ravenhill and Cregagh roads we worked, not the leafy suburbs of east Belfast. They all know I’m a Cliftonville fan [an Irish League soccer team with its home grounds in a nationalist area of north Belfast] and from the New Lodge.

“It’s been a rough couple of days but it’s also been hopeful. I need to go away and reflect on it.”