By Steve Bell
One BBC headline described the local election in the north of Ireland, in which Sinn Féin came first, as a “tsunami”. Certainly the results confirmed a rising wave of progressive nationalism. The once proud majorities for unionism have disappeared inside Parliament, inside the Stormont Assembly, and now, inside local government.
The final results, conducted under proportional representation, saw an astonishing gain of 7.7% for Sinn Féin, achieving 30.9% of first preference votes. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) came second with 23.3%, losing 0.8% of its 2019 local election vote. Sinn Féin have now replaced the DUP as the largest party in local government. This builds upon Sinn Féin’s victory in the 2022 Assembly election when it became the largest party, with the entitlement to the First Minister’s post.
In the local election, Sinn Féin won 144 seats, a gain of 39 on 2019. It is now the largest party in 6 of the 11 local councils. The DUP won 122 seats, the same number it secured in 2019.
A unionist majority no more
The combined vote of the nationalist parties represent 41.8% of the votes cast, compared to 38.2% received by the unionist parties. The domination of the nationalist parties is observable in all political institutions. The “state” of Northern Ireland was set up to guarantee a unionist majority. A century later, its very rational has disappeared.
The only other parties to make gains were the Alliance Party (AP), which increased its vote by 1.8% to achieve 13.3%, and the Traditional Ulster Voice (TUV), which won a further 1.7% to reach 3.9%. In their different ways, these are further blows against the DUP. The AP is “neutral” on the reunification of Ireland, but has been winning a younger section of voters who are progressive on social issues, primarily from the unionist community, The TUV is to the right of the DUP, and is winning votes from the most regressive section of the unionist community.
The result was a tremendous validation for Sinn Féin’s election campaign. Presenting a large number of women and young candidates, the party focused on the defence of living standards and restoring Stormont. On BBC’s “Sunday Politics” programme, John Finucane, Sinn Féin MP for Belfast North, told the audience “Where we should go now is there should be an acceptance that the people have spoken now twice within the past 12 months. The voice is getting louder, the British and Irish governments need to pay attention to that voice and they need now to take action to prioritise the restoration of our Assembly.”
Parties supporting the return of the Assembly won nearly 75% of the votes cast. The case for its return would appear obvious. Not so, according to the DUP. Jonathon Buckley, DUP MLA, told the same BBC programme that holding the same number of seats had been “an astonishing result” for the DUP. He continued, “We see a bullying attitude from the Secretary of State, a gang-up from other political parties and a media narrative which laid all the blame at the DUP’s door. Evidently, the voters have come out and backed the DUP and backed them strongly.”
Evidently, actual evidence can be ignored. Instead the DUP defines its declining support as a growing movement. The DUP brought down the Assembly in February 2022, lost ground in the subsequent Assembly election in May 2022, despite the assumption it would gain in that election. Now it has lost its premier position in local government, after appealing for a stronger mandate to confront the British government. Only those with tunnel vision could announce “an astonishing result”.
The DUP leadership is more astute than the above suggests. The problem it faces is clear. Its aim to force a renegotiation of the Windsor Framework has failed, as did its earlier campaign to overthrow the Protocol. But its opposition, and boycott of the Assembly, has satisfied its core vote that it is acting in defence of the unionist community. Now, the British government has definitively ruled out renegotiating the Windsor Framework. The DUP leadership then has to choose between powerlessness, or undergo an awkward re-entry into Stormont with Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill as First Minister. The DUP is left with no practical focus for its “opposition”.
A way out for the DUP?
One fig-leaf has already been trailed by Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP’s leader. On 16th March, Donald said to the PA news agency, that the British government “…has already pledged to legislate to underscore Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom by way of amending the 1998 Northern Ireland Act.” and “…Mr Heaton-Harris [Secretary of State for Northern Ireland] said the government could address issues flowing from last month’s judgement by the UK’s highest court”.
The UK Supreme Court had, in February 2023, rejected an attempt by unionist politicians to get the Protocol overturned, who had claimed the Protocol breached the Acts of Union 1800. The Supreme Court ruled that a representative Parliament had carried the Protocol into legislation, and was therefore lawful. This means that different laws, including EU laws, can operate in Northern Ireland while not in Britain.
However, anxious to soothe fevered temperatures within the DUP, the British government offers to “underscore” the place of Northern Ireland in the UK. This appears to be a “reassurance” offered in routine negotiating procedures. Actual concessions will be heavily circumscribed. If the British government offers additional constitutional safeguards for the continuing participation of Northern Ireland in the UK that would breach the Good Friday Agreement. If the British government offers further economic safeguards in trading relations between Northern Ireland and Britain, then this would breach the Windsor Framework. The exercise could only result in a “form of words” about Northern Ireland’s place with no practical consequences, other than being a veil for the DUP’s return to Stormont.
Whether this route arises or not, the stark choice facing the DUP after the local elections remains. Its campaign targets are exhausted. Sinn Féin’s electoral victory will accelerate political progress in Ireland, north and south.