Dr David McCann – The three-party state is here to stay

Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill. Picture by Hugh Russell
Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill. Picture by Hugh Russell Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill. Picture by Hugh Russell

NEARLY a year on from the last assembly election and less than 60 days out from the local government poll, it is fascinating to see how public sentiment has not moved away from the big three parties in Northern Ireland.

In fact, The Irish News-Institute of Irish Studies-University of Liverpool survey shows that if anything the DUP, Sinn Féin and Alliance are strengthening their grip on their respective positions in the political field, leaving their nearest rivals struggling to stay afloat.

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The UUP and SDLP would have comforted themselves that over time voters might have buyer's remorse, but this poll is showing none of that is happening.

Sinn Féin is once again above 30 per cent in a northern survey, which will give the party a spring in its step heading into the next electoral battle. If a snap election is on the horizon, Sinn Féin would be confident of holding its own and potentially looking for gains in Upper Bann and South Down. What’s more is that with the Good Friday Agreement anniversary coming up and its strengthened electoral position, it gives Michelle O’Neill another opportunity to present herself as the first minister in waiting, confident and comfortable with other high-profile figures.

The good news continues for Jeffrey Donaldson. Not only is the DUP recovery now being picked up in various polls, but it is also going to be seen as a vindication of his 'wait and see' stance over the Windsor Framework. Donaldson can boast that his party is by a decent margin the most preferred option for unionist voters. In electoral terms, the DUP would be confident of holding all current seats, along with a potential gain in North Antrim. The party will take comfort in the TUV falling back to 4.8 per cent.

On the other side of the political fence, Alliance continues to perform strongly. Its rise in support shows no signs of falling back and if anything, it has space to grow. Naomi Long will be happy that those new voters who have moved over to her party in recent years, now seem to be firmly in the Alliance camp. Alliance gained many seats last May with narrow margins, so this will reassure marginal seat holders. Moreover, it will give council candidates a renewed sense of confidence in a popular party brand. Here the good news stops.

The once dominant UUP and SDLP are seeing yet another poll with them performing poorly and showing no signs of recovery from last May. The only comfort that Doug Beattie can take is that his party is polling better than the SDLP. With no assembly it is difficult for the UUP to gain any attention, but there should be some serious consideration within its ranks about future strategy if the institutions are restored. Opposition should be a port that is being seriously considered. With this score of 11.3 per cent, the party might not be in free fall but it does need a period of rebuilding.

Lastly, the SDLP continues its fall in support to a historic low score of under 7 per cent. During the campaign last year, it brushed off sagging poll ratings as wrong only to find on count days, they were accurately picking up the electorate's disillusionment with the party. On this rating, the party would likely lose two assembly seats and this will give local election candidates some trepidation as it faces into a campaign. The next set of elections will be fight or flight for the SDLP.

After the last election, I wrote for this paper saying “Welcome to the three-party state” and how stands this state nearly a year on? More solid than it did in the days after the last election. This poll is showing that voters are not shifting away Sinn Féin, DUP or Alliance, in fact the trend is going with all three.

The local elections have been used by voters in the past to make a protest against gridlock or unhappiness at what has been going on at Stormont. With so much hanging in the balance between getting the institutions restored or not, they will be hugely consequential for all the five parties.

:: Dr David McCann is an Ulster University politics lecturer and deputy editor of sluggerotoole.com.