We are now in the home stretch of the 2023 local government election campaign. Such a low-key campaign that has been overshadowed by the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and the coronation of King Charles.
Yet this Irish News-University of Liverpool-Institute of Irish Studies poll shows us there could be big changes on the way in the political make-up of our councils.
The poll confirms what we already know: Sinn Féin is on a roll. Normally underperforming relative to their strength at assembly level, they are set to beat their all-time 2011 high of 24.8 per cent with a score in this poll of just under 30 per cent. Not only would this be a record result for the party, but it would also be the strongest performance that a nationalist party has ever achieved at a local election since 1973. They would be a dead cert to be the largest party of local government and could add a further victory of seeing unionism no longer being a majority on a majority of councils.
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The DUP are stable at 23 per cent, which is better than their assembly result, but marginally down from their 2019 local election result. Since the introduction of so-called super-councils in 2014, the party has consistently lost seats at the local government level and with this score, they will likely return as a diminished force. Recognising the pressure they are under, the party are running fewer candidates in this election, a strategy that saved many seats last May. They can take some comfort that they are still by a considerable margin the most preferred party within unionism but they are a world away from their heights in the mid-2000s.
There is also good news for Alliance. On 14.5 per cent, they would secure a decent number of gains (mostly at the expense of unionism), particularly in places such as Mid & East Antrim, Lisburn & Castlereagh and Ards & North Down. The jump in first preferences mixed with being very transfer-friendly would see the party comfortably come third not just in vote share but also the number of councillors elected. In terms of council strength, this poll would see Alliance overtake the UUP in seats on three key unionist majority councils.
For the once-dominant forces in Northern Ireland politics, I return to the same themes that I have been saying about them for the past year. The story again is one of decline for the UUP and SDLP. It is a story that their activists are tired of hearing but the electorate is showing no signs of moving back. For the UUP, the 12.8 per cent score will be disappointing, because not only is it down from their 2019 result but also this makes them vulnerable to Alliance and in some places their two major unionist rivals.
The situation is worse for the SDLP; a score of 8.3 per cent would see the party decimated in a host of council areas such as Causeway, Coast & Glens, Newry, Mourne & Down and Belfast. The swing away from the party alongside the rise of Alliance would see candidates unable to stay in counts long enough to benefit from critical transfers. If this score is accurate, the party is essentially facing the same problem as last May with the added problem of losing much of the talent it needs for its future.
Some of the smaller parties are worth highlighting here. The TUV result of 5 per cent, whilst up from 2019, would see the party fail to make a major breakthrough as they lack the ability to gain transfers. A result like this would likely see the party return to its former strength of 2014. The key challenge of broadening its appeal outside of Mid & East Antrim will be a real test.
Lastly, the Greens will be happy with their score of 2.7 per cent. This shows the party holding its own and whilst it would not be making major gains, it would give some hope that marginal council seats that were gained in 2019 could be retained.
For an election nerd, local elections really are the gold standard. Local factors mixed in with party strength make it hard to project seat results. Who turns out and where they turn out can have a huge impact on the results. Getting out the vote will be the real mark of success for all of these parties.
:: Dr David McCann is an election analyst and deputy editor of Slugger O'Toole.