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Alex Kane: Council elections are just a little bit of history repeating...

The context of this week's council elections has echoes in the 1973 contest, fought 50 years ago this month – and which saw the DUP, SDLP and Alliance go to the polls for the first time, writes Alex Kane

UUP Brian Faulkner, pictured left, with secretary of state William Whitelaw, pictured centre. Whitelaw said the May 1973 council elections had delivered a "healthy majority" in support of power-sharing proposals
UUP Brian Faulkner, pictured left, with secretary of state William Whitelaw, pictured centre. Whitelaw said the May 1973 council elections had delivered a "healthy majority" in support of power-sharing proposals UUP Brian Faulkner, pictured left, with secretary of state William Whitelaw, pictured centre. Whitelaw said the May 1973 council elections had delivered a "healthy majority" in support of power-sharing proposals

THURSDAY'S election falls just 12 days short of the 50th anniversary of the election to the 26 new councils on May 30, 1973.

That was an important election: the first one following the prorogation of the NI Parliament in March 1972; the first time PR (STV) had been used in an election here since the 1920s; and the first electoral outing for some new political parties, including the DUP, Vanguard, Alliance and the SDLP. It was also a warm-up for the assembly election due a month later, on June 28.

The return to PR was a particular concern for the UUP which, having governed NI for the previous 50 years, feared that the internal divisions which had dogged unionism since 1968 might result in a drift of its traditional vote to new right-wing/loyalist vehicles.

There was also a further concern that Alliance, whose key founders and players would have been broadly pro-Terence O’Neill, would sweep up the quieter, liberal wing of the party. And coming hard on the heels of a UK White Paper that had included mandatory power-sharing in a new assembly and the recognition of an ‘Irish dimension’ (a paper which the UUP’s governing body had endorsed, followed by a walkout of 100 delegates) there was concern that the party could take a significant electoral hit.

But it fared better than expected, winning 233 of the 526 seats, with a 41.4 per cent share of the vote. The DUP, Vanguard and a grouping known as the Loyalist Coalition won 70 seats between them, with a combined 14 per cent of the vote. Brian Faulkner admitted later that he had expected Ian Paisley and William Craig – the two big beasts to his right – to have done better and believed he had taken "the wind out of their sails" before the assembly election.

He would also have been pleased that Alliance, still broadly pro-Union back then, had won 63 seats on a remarkable 13.7 per cent share (the second largest in individual party share); reckoning it would be a useful power-sharing partner further down the line.

The election was a huge test for the SDLP, preparing to finally supplant the Nationalist Party as the primary political voice of nationalism and opposition in Northern Ireland. It might have been expected to do better than 13.4 per cent and 83 seats, but it did establish itself, and comfortably so, as the largest nationalist vehicle, as well as the largest party in three of the new councils.

The British government and NIO were happy enough with the outcome. The UUP, SDLP and Alliance (whose support would be crucial if the new assembly was to survive) had won just under 70 per cent of the overall vote in a 68 per cent turnout.

William Whitelaw, the secretary of state, noted his satisfaction that a "healthy majority" had used the council elections as a way of endorsing the new form of local government and hoped for a similar result on June 28, when the new assembly – followed by a new power-sharing executive – would be elected and appointed.

But as is so often the case in Northern Ireland, it should never be assumed that a result in one vote will be repeated just weeks later. On a 4 per cent increase in turnout, up to 72.3 per cent, the SDLP added 67,000 votes and a 9 per cent vote share rise to 22 per cent. Alliance, on the other hand, which might also have been expected to increase votes and share actually fell by 28,000 and 4.5 per cent.

Meanwhile, Faulkner had a bit of a nightmare. Of the 32 UUP seats only 24 formally supported the party’s position on the White Paper. That’s because party rules, as they did in the selection process for the 1998 assembly, allowed constituency associations to select both pro and anti-candidates. So, while Faulkner’s 24 seats still meant the UUP was the largest party overall, it’s share of the vote was just 29.3 per cent, only 7 per cent ahead of the SDLP.

The DUP and Vanguard, having won less than 7 per cent of the share and 44,000 votes a month earlier, rocketed up to 21 per cent and 154,000. Other anti-White Paper loyalists accounted for another 3 per cent and 20,600.

But when you added on the UUP’s anti-White Paper votes and seats it meant Faulkner had 24 seats and 211,362 votes (29.3 per cent) to his unionist/loyalist opponents’ 26 seats and 235,773 (32.6 per cent). From day one, in other words, the numbers were against him: as they were against David Trimble 25 years later, on June 25 1998.

Ironically, the result of the referendum a few weeks earlier would have suggested that he, like Faulkner before him, should have done much better.

So, what happened between May and June 1973 and May and June 1998? I suppose the most straightforward explanation is that polarity trumped the desire for genuine reconciliation, particularly on the unionist side.

In May 1973 and 1998 it looked as though moderate unionism, along with potential power-sharing partners, had carried the day. Faulkner certainly thought so in 1973, as Trimble did in 1998. Yet the anti-White Paper and anti-Good Friday Agreement lobbies within unionism were able to rally voters on both occasions in June (in part, I think, because both Faulkner and Trimble were too sanguine with their own campaigns) and make life very uncomfortable for moderates.

Fifty years on and both the SDLP and UUP are fighting for electoral survival. Northern Ireland – politically and electorally – is more polarised now than it was in 1973 and 1998: the champions of moderation on both occasions are presently in danger of permanent isolation.

Interestingly, the DUP, which did for both Faulkner and Trimble now finds itself in the shoes of both men; hounded by a post-GFA rise in unionism and loyalism which seems determined to reject both the assembly and devolution altogether. A repetition of what happened in May 1974, when the Sunningdale assembly was toppled.

The council election in May 1973 had a huge impact on the assembly election in June. The referendum in May 1998 had a similar impact on June’s assembly election. Will Thursday’s election have that sort of impact on the ongoing assembly impasse this June? Yes. It will depend on the numbers once the counting is done because those numbers will determine whether Jeffrey Donaldson can risk a reboot of the executive or accept that devolution is probably down for another generation.

The other thing to look for is whether Alliance, which from June 1973 until 2018 or so hovered in high single figure support, can continue to grow in an increasingly toxic environment.

I don’t suppose any of you are all that surprised by that conclusion. It is, after all, Propellerheads/Shirley Bassey territory: “And I’ve seen it before, and I’ll see it again. Yes, I’ve seen it before, just little bits of history repeating.”

There’s something about June, after all, which brings political chickens home to roost. A clucking nuisance best sums it up.