In Northern Ireland, however, the powers of its 462 councillors are relatively limited. Unlike their counterparts in other parts of the UK, for instance, their responsibility doesn’t extend to areas like housing, transport, education, or social care.
Still, in many democracies, local elections are often characterised by political scientists as ‘second order’ contests, meaning that they are seen as less important by voters and the media compared to general elections; local issues, meanwhile, hardly dominate the campaign. Instead, in between ‘first order’ elections, local elections give voters the chance to give governing parties a ringing endorsement of their national performance or, more typically, the chance to cast a ‘protest vote’ in the hope that they take note and change course ahead of the next general election.
Without a functioning Assembly or Executive at Stormont, of course, voters in Northern Ireland weren’t exactly able to cast their verdict one way or another on the performance of parties in government, but they could give their verdict on parties’ performance in general since the last Assembly election. So, what were the main messages they were sending?
In many ways, the results of May’s council elections can be understood as reaffirming the new political landscape at the Assembly level, most notably in reaffirming Sinn Féin as the largest party. Incidentally, this wasn’t the first time that Sinn Féin received more first preference votes than any other party in a local government election – it narrowly emerged on top in 2014. But this was the first time that it took the most council seats, and this time the sheer increase in its vote share – up nearly 8 points on the last local elections – placed it comfortably ahead of the DUP. Sinn Féin now holds 144 council seats, gaining ground in each of the 11 council areas.
Just as Sinn Féin galvanised nationalist voters last year with the tangible prospect of Michelle O’Neill becoming a ‘First Minister for all’, squeezing the SDLP, it successfully tapped into a widespread sense of frustration that Michelle O’Neill remains only ‘First Minister Designate’. One year on, Sinn Féin can credibly claim a reinforced mandate to allow her to lead – jointly with the DUP – a new Executive.
Alliance also made gains, although more modest. Building on its ‘surge’ of 2019, it increased its vote share by two percentage points to return an additional 14 councillors, consolidating its position as Northern Ireland’s third-largest party – and highlighting the ‘others’ as a third, and pivotal, bloc. It placed a further squeeze on the SDLP from the middle, along with the UUP in the other direction, by appealing to those frustrated with ‘ransom politics’ and traditional divisions.
The DUP, meanwhile, had a better election than many of its candidates might have feared. Its vote share was down on 2019, but only by a single percentage point, and it managed to avoid any net losses in seats: it won 122 in 2019 and returned with precisely 122 councillors this year. In doing so, it avoided significant defections by its supporters to the more hardline TUV or to the more pragmatic UUP.
However, holding the line was not the goal the DUP publicly set itself during the election campaign. Having boycotted the devolved institutions in protest over the Protocol, the DUP claimed that the subsequent Windsor Framework failed to sufficiently address its concerns and so did not represent a basis for the party to return to Stormont. The party’s leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, called on voters to ‘strengthen the pro-Union voice’ to help the DUP ‘finish the job’.
He wanted a convincing mandate to show the UK government that it needed to go further in protecting what the DUP deemed to be fundamental unionist interests. A reduced vote share for his party hardly amounts to one. There is plenty of evidence that unionist voters largely dislike the post-Brexit arrangements that have emerged for Northern Ireland, but it’s by no means the case that unionist voters are united or enthusiastic in thinking that Stormont can only return if and when further changes to the Windsor Framework are secured. The DUP appears to have mobilised its core supporters, but its uncompromising position has failed to galvanise a broader coalition.
Instead, the total unionist vote share fell below the nationalist vote share for the first time in a local government election. Taking into account independents as well as political parties, Brendan O’Leary and I calculate that unionist candidates took 40% of first preference votes while nationalists took 44%; ‘others’ received the remaining 16%. Moreover, as the map on page 3 illustrates, nationalist councillors hold an overall majority in four council areas (up from three) and unionists hold a majority in two (down from six).
Part of the explanation for these results may be a question of mobilisation. If we directly compare the raw vote tallies between the 2022 Assembly and the 2023 local elections, we can see that all blocs saw an absolute decrease – and this is unsurprising, as overall turnout was higher in the Assembly election. However, the decreases were not even: the total number of nationalist votes across Northern Ireland was down by 31,000 (-9%), the total number of votes for ‘other’ candidates was down by 20,000 (-14%), while the total number of votes for unionist candidates was down by 66,000 (-18%).
Now, this kind of aggregate comparison comes with a good degree of caution: most notably, these are two different levels of election and the eligible electorate in each has changed, even in the space of a year. Nonetheless, given the relatively close proximity between the two contests and the fact that the same basic issues that were on the agenda in May 2022 were the same basic issues that featured heavily in the May 2023 campaign, these intra-bloc differences are both relevant and striking.
In short, Sinn Féin emerges from these local elections in a stronger position as it calls for the restoration of the Assembly and Executive with Michelle O’Neill as First Minister; indeed, 7 in 10 voters supported parties that endorse this basic stance. The DUP emerges weaker, having failed to mobilise widespread support for its ongoing boycott of devolved government. All roads surely lead back to Stormont, but for now it’s only in Northern Ireland’s councils where locally elected representatives are making decisions.