General election 2019 – Sinn Féin up in North Belfast but down in Foyle and elsewhere

Sinn Féin has had a mixed year so far in 2019. The local council election in May saw them gain eleven seats and lose eleven seats, to finish with 105 councillors, as was the case in 2014. And they held their Northern Ireland seat in the European Parliament, topping the poll on first preferences but surprisingly finishing in third place behind the DUP and Alliance. In the south things were much more difficult, they lost nearly half of their council seats and two of their three MEPs. However, an impressive result for Sinn Féin was in the Dublin Mid-West by-election, in which they won a seat in the Dáil at the expense of Fine Gael. And we also saw John O’Dowd unsuccessfully challenge Michelle O’Neill for the position of Sinn Féin’s Vice President.

This election was a disappointing one for Sinn Féin, especially when it comes to their votes. They received 181,853 votes (22.8%), which leaves them as again the second largest party behind the DUP and the largest nationalist party. But their vote was down 6.7% from the 2017 general election, the largest decrease for any Northern Ireland party in this election, nearly a quarter of their vote in 2017 was lost. Despite this significant vote decline, Sinn Féin went into this election with seven MPs, and finished with seven MPs again, gaining North Belfast but losing Foyle.

Of their seven seats, four were very safe, and remain so despite a decrease in each constituency. Paul Maskey won in West Belfast with 20,866 votes and a majority of 14,672 (53.8%), no surprises there, however his vote was down 12.9%, this was the lowest Sinn Féin percentage vote in West Belfast since 1992, when Gerry Adams lost the seat to the SDLP. Francie Molloy won in Mid Ulster with 20,473 votes and a majority of 9,537 (45.9%), a decrease of 8.6% and the lowest percentage vote there since 1997, when Martin McGuinness first won the seat from the DUP. Mickey Brady won in Newry and Armagh with 20,287 votes and a majority of 9,287 (40.0%), a decline of 8.0% and their lowest percentage vote since 2001, they first won this seat in 2005. And Órfhlaith Begley won in West Tyrone with 16,544 votes and a majority of 7,478 (40.2%), down 10.6% and the lowest percentage vote since 2005.

South Down was a constituency that Sinn Féin won in 2017 for the first time. Chris Hazzard was elected for a second time with 16,137 votes (32.4%), his vote was down 7.5%, and his majority was narrower then 2017, the SDLP was 1,620 votes behind this time rather then 2,446 votes in 2017. They were helped by the fact that the SDLP vote was also down 6.0%, any sort of SDLP increase would have allowed them to regain this seat. But an even narrower victory for Sinn Féin was Fermanagh and South Tyrone, as is always the case. Michelle Gildernew won this seat with 21,986 votes (43.3%), her vote decreased by 3.9%. Sinn Féin was just 57 votes ahead of the UUP here, the smallest majority in any constituency across the UK (although Gildernew has won by even closer margins before, such as 2001 – 53 votes, and 2010 – 4 votes). The UUP vote also decreased by 2.3%, so as with South Down Sinn Féin benefitted from their opponent losing votes by a comparable amount to allow them to hold this seat by a narrow margin.

Foyle was the other seat that Sinn Féin was defending, Elisha McCallion had won this seat by 169 votes in 2017, after 34 years in which the SDLP had held this seat. But in this election, Sinn Féin received 9,771 votes (20.7%), their vote was down nearly half by 19.0%, while the SDLP decisively regained this seat by a majority of 17,110. This followed a disappointing local council election for Sinn Féin in Derry and Strabane in which they lost five seats, they are now tied with the SDLP as the biggest party on the council with eleven seats each, in 2014 Sinn Féin was six seats ahead. The scale of the Sinn Féin decline here is nonetheless remarkable, it appears that half of their voters in 2017 have gone primarily to the SDLP, but also some have likely gone to Aontú who contested this seat for the first time and had 4.3%, which would suggest that abortion remains an important issue to some voters. This is also the lowest Sinn Féin general election result in Foyle since 1992, in every previous election from 1997 to 2017 Sinn Féin always had over 10,000 votes in this constituency. A hugely disappointing result for Sinn Féin in Foyle.

There was one positive result for Sinn Féin, in North Belfast John Finucane gained this seat from the DUP’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds. Finucane received 23,078 votes (47.1%), 5.4% more then in 2017 when he ran for the first time. In contrast, the DUP vote was down 3.1% and Alliance’s vote was up 4.4%. Finucane’s majority over Dodds is 1,943 votes, nearly the opposite of 2017 when Dodds had a lead of 2,081 over Finucane. This was a historic victory not just for Sinn Féin, winning this seat for the first time, but it marks the first time ever that North Belfast has not elected a unionist MP. John Finucane’s vote of 23,078 votes was also the largest vote for a candidate in North Belfast since John Carson from the UUP in October 1974. Although it is worth noting that Finucane was helped by the absence of the SDLP, Green Party and Workers Party, all of whom ran in 2017 but not this time, they had a combined vote of 3,062 then.

Sinn Féin’s vote was down across other constituencies. In Upper Bann John O’Dowd came second with 12,291 votes (24.6%), 3.4% less then in 2017, though it was their second best result in Upper Bann after 2017. In East Derry Sinn Féin surprisingly finished in third place with 6,128 votes (15.6%), they saw a 10.9% decrease in their vote while the SDLP finished 30 votes ahead of them with a 9.9% increase, and Alliance was 207 votes behind with a 8.9% increase. Sinn Féin finished in fourth place in North Antrim, down from second in 2017 with the UUP and Alliance polling ahead, with 5,632 votes (12.8%), a 3.5% decrease from 2017. Similarly, Sinn Féin came fourth in South Antrim, compared to third in 2017. They received 4,887 votes (11.4%), down 6.7% while an 11.6% increase for Alliance brought them ahead of Sinn Féin for the first time in a South Antrim general election since 1997. Sinn Féin also finished fourth in East Antrim, receiving 2,120 votes (5.7%) down 3.6%. In Lagan Valley they received 1,098 votes (2.4%), a decrease of 1.1% finishing in fifth place. And in Strangford Sinn Féin finished in seventh place, behind the NI Conservatives and Green Party and ahead of UKIP, with 555 votes (1.5%), down 1.3% from 2017.

Sinn Féin would probably find a snap Assembly election difficult if their vote is down to the same extent as this election. Sinn Féin had 27.9% in the 2017 Assembly election, 5.1% more then the 22.8% they received in this general election. With 22.8% of the vote, Sinn Féin could find it difficult to defend their four seats in West Belfast, as well as their three seats in Newry and Armagh, Mid Ulster, West Tyrone and especially Fermanagh and South Tyrone. They also look potentially vulnerable in North Antrim, and possibly their second seats in Foyle and South Down. North Belfast and South Belfast are difficult to call, because the SDLP didn’t contest the former and Sinn Féin didn’t contest the latter, but last time Sinn Féin nearly lost their second seat in North Belfast, and South Belfast could be interesting as Sinn Féin is losing a prominent MLA there in Máirtin Ó Muilleoir. Their possibilities for gains are Upper Bann, East Derry and East Antrim, however on these results these all look quite unlikely.

The next local council election will also be intriguing for Sinn Féin based on these results. The disappointing results in Foyle make it difficult for them to regain any seats lost in May, though Foyleside will be one to watch considering they lost their second seat to an independent by less then 20 votes. In Fermanagh they will be trying to win back seats in Enniskillen and Erne East, which look unlikely on these figures. Other narrow results in May which look vulnerable includes Armagh, The Mournes, Glengormley Urban and especially Bannside, won by Sinn Féin by just 1.06 votes ahead of Alliance (this was the DEA in which TUV transfers saved Sinn Féin).

Sinn Féin will be delighted at the historic victory of John Finucane in North Belfast from the DUP, the first time ever that a nationalist MP has been elected in that constituency. However, their vote was down in every other constituency, including by some large margins, this cost them a seat in Foyle which went to the SDLP by a huge margin. However, they did defend their other seats, South Down remains marginal and Fermanagh and South Tyrone was extremely close as ever, and a drop in the Sinn Féin vote did not significantly impact on their four safe seats. An Assembly election will be a challenge for them, it will therefore be interesting to see whether they can strike a deal with the DUP to restore the Assembly and Executive, otherwise they could lose more representation.

General election 2019 – UUP vote is up but no MPs

2019 has been a difficult year for the UUP. The dominant political party in Northern Ireland for most of the twentieth century, they have spent most of the last twenty years in third place behind the DUP and Sinn Féin, and in the 2017 Assembly election they moved into fourth place behind the SDLP on seats. Following this year’s events, it could increasingly be argued that they are now the smallest of Northern Ireland’s five main parties. They lost the most ground in May’s council election, losing 13 seats from 88 to 75 with a 2.1% decrease in their vote. This was followed by the first ever European election in which the UUP did not return an MEP, their vote dropped by 4% and Danny Kennedy failed to defend Jim Nicholson’s seat, instead it went to Alliance.

The loss of their MEP was undoubtedly a consequence of Brexit and specifically the UUP’s ambiguous position on Brexit, something which their new leader Steve Aiken has tried to address. Under Mike Nesbitt in 2016 the UUP backed remain, but accepted the result and voted to trigger Article 50 in the House of Commons. But with Robin Swann as leader (who voted leave) they strongly opposed the various withdrawal agreements along with the DUP. Aiken took a slightly different stance, similarly opposing Theresa May’s and Boris Johnson’s deals, but insisting that the UUP would back remain rather then these deals, although he did not go as far as to back a second referendum or the revocation of Article 50, leading to an arguably complicated position.

The UUP received 93,123 votes, 11.7% of the overall votes and a 1.4% increase in their 2017 vote. They came in fifth place on both votes and percentage votes, and were the only one of the five main parties not to return any MPs. Until 2005, the UUP was consistently returned as the largest Northern Ireland party in Westminster, in 1959 and 1964 they won every seat in Northern Ireland. 2001 saw them lose several seats to the DUP, but it was in 2005 that they were reduced to just one MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon in North Down. Hermon left the party before the 2010 election due to their pact with the Conservatives, and they did not win any seats. However, in 2015 Danny Kinahan won South Antrim from the DUP, and Tom Elliott defeated Sinn Féin in Fermanagh and South Tyrone as a result of a pact with the DUP. Both lost in 2017.

The UUP’s best chance by far was Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where Tom Elliott was running again. He won in 2015 by 530 votes, but lost to Sinn Féin by 875 votes. For the third time Elliott had the benefit of being the only unionist on the ballot paper, DUP leader Arlene Foster signed his nomination papers and TUV leader Jim Allister was canvassing for him. Elliott received 21,929 votes, 43.2% of the vote, but a decrease of 2.3% from 2017. The Sinn Féin vote was down by a larger amount (3.9%), but this was not enough for the UUP to take the seat, as the SDLP and Alliance vote was up in the constituency. Ultimately Sinn Féin held this seat by just 57 votes, the narrowest majority in any UK constituency in this election, though there have been even narrower results in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, such as 2001 (53 votes) and 2010 (4 votes).

The UUP’s other key target was South Antrim. South Antrim was an ultra-safe UUP seat until 2000, when William McCrea took the seat for the DUP in a by-election by 822 votes. David Burnside regained the seat for the UUP in 2001 by 1,011 votes, but lost to McCrea in 2005 by 3,448 votes. McCrea held it in 2010 by 1,183 votes against then UUP leader Reg Empey. Danny Kinahan won in 2015 with a majority of 949, but in 2017 Paul Girvan regained the seat with a majority of 3,208. The tradition of South Antrim being a DUP-UUP marginal continued in this election, Danny Kinahan received 12,460 votes, 29.0% which was down 1.8% from 2017. The DUP vote was down more by 3.0%, but the DUP still held on to South Antrim with a majority of 2,689 over Kinahan. It is likely that both the DUP and UUP lost support to Alliance, who had the advantage of a well-known candidate in John Blair whose vote was up 11.6% from 2017.

One positive result for the UUP was North Antrim, where Robin Swann finished in second place with 8,139 votes, 18.5% which was a significant increase of 11.3% on 2017. Interestingly, the DUP vote was down almost equally, by 11.5%, it is also likely that Swann benefitted from the absence of a TUV candidate. It was the UUP’s best result since 2001, and it is probable that Swann will be safe in a future Assembly election, which wasn’t always the case in the past.

The UUP came third in a number of constituencies. Their new leader Steve Aiken ran in East Antrim, a surprise to many considering he is an MLA for South Antrim, and it has been a safe DUP seat since 2005. Aiken received 5,475 votes, 14.7% and an increase of 2.8%. However, he was 4,690 votes behind Alliance and 11,306 votes behind the DUP. This makes it very difficult for them to defend their two Assembly seats, the only success for the UUP in the last Assembly election is when John Stewart won a seat in East Antrim alongside Roy Beggs, both the DUP and Sinn Féin lost seats there. In Strangford Philip Smith received 4,023 votes, 10.7% and 0.7% down from 2017. A disappointing result for the UUP here, they held the seat until 2001, and it looks as though they have lost ground to Alliance, who were 6,611 votes ahead, the DUP were 13,682 votes ahead. Lagan Valley has always been a strong UUP area, and Robbie Butler did well with 8,606 votes, 19.0% of the vote and an increase of 2.2%. However, there was a massive increase in the Alliance vote which brought them 4,481 votes ahead of the UUP, while the DUP were 10,980 votes ahead.

There were some unexpected results for the UUP. For example, in Upper Bann, held by David Trimble until 2005, Doug Beattie finished in fourth place with 6,197 votes, with 12.4% his vote was down 3.0% on 2017, the big surprise here was Alliance ahead of the UUP in Upper Bann by 236 votes. In North Down, held by the UUP until shortly before the 2010 election, Alan Chambers finished in third place with 4,936 votes, 12.1%, which is a solid vote considering that they didn’t run here in 2015 and 2017, although they were probably hoping to gain some of Lady Hermon’s 16,148 votes in 2017, most appeared to have gone to Alliance who won the seat. In East Londonderry, a UUP seat until 2001, the UUP finished in fifth place with 3,599 votes, 9.2% and an increase of 1.6%. As with Upper Bann, it was a surprise to many that Alliance was 2,322 votes ahead in East Londonderry for the first time. In East Belfast the UUP received 2,516 votes, 5.9% of the vote and 2.6% more then 2017. It is likely that the UUP gained some support from the DUP, whose vote was down by 6.6%, they didn’t impact on Alliance whose vote was up by 8.2%.

In a number of majority-nationalist constituencies, the UUP finished in fifth place behind Alliance for the first time. In Newry and Armagh they received 4,204 votes, 8.3% and the same percentage as 2017, Alliance was just 7 votes ahead. In South Down they received 3,307 votes, 6.6% and 2.7% more then 2017, but Alliance had over twice as many votes with 6,916. The UUP received 2,774 votes in West Tyrone, 6.7% and a 1.6% increase on 2017, but Alliance was 1,205 votes ahead. And in Mid Ulster they received 2,611 votes, 5.9% and a decrease of 0.6%, Alliance was ahead by 915 votes.

Finally, the UUP had some disappointing results in the constituencies won by the SDLP. In South Belfast they received 1,259 votes, 2.7% and a decrease of 0.8%. South Belfast was a safe UUP seat until 2005, the scale of their decline at Westminster level, as well as Stormont and local councils, is significant. In Foyle, one of only two constituencies in which the UUP has not won an Assembly seat since 1998 (the other is West Belfast which they didn’t contest this time), the UUP finished seventh with 1,088 votes, 2.3% which is an increase as the UUP didn’t run here in 2017.

With an Assembly election very possible next year, the UUP will face some challenges in such an election. The 11.7% received by the UUP is less then the 12.9% that they had in the less Assembly election. Of their 10 seats, by far the most vulnerable is their second seat in East Antrim. They have less then one quota in this election, making it very unlikely they will defend their two seats unless they balance their vote extremely well and benefit from transfers from the other parties. East Belfast could be precarious if they only receive 5.9%, but it is likely that they will do better in Assembly elections here as they normally do. Fermanagh and South Tyrone could also be one to watch, but it is difficult to see the UUP losing out here as they are more transfer-friendly then the DUP, who are unlikely to win two seats. The remaining seven seats are all quite safe, as mentioned Robin Swann’s increase in North Antrim should help him retain his seat. However, on these results it is unlikely that the UUP will gain seats they have lost in the last few elections, such as South Belfast, South Down, Newry and Armagh, Mid Ulster, East Londonderry and West Tyrone, as well as second seats in South Antrim, North Down, Strangford, Lagan Valley and Upper Bann. An important aspect of an Assembly election will be whether Danny Kinahan and Tom Elliott decide to return to Stormont, both left the Assembly in 2015 when they became MPs, but haven’t had an opportunity to run again since losing their Westminster seats.

Finally, it is also worth looking at what could happen to the UUP in local councils. They had 14.1% of the vote, more then 11.7% in this election, therefore they could lose some seats if this result is repeated. The decline of their vote in the south and west of Northern Ireland could make it more difficult to defend a number of seats, such as Derg, Omagh, Moyola and Slieve Croob. And there are a number of second seats that look vulnerable because of these results, including four seats in Lisburn: Lisburn North, Lisburn South, Downshire East and Downshire West, as well as their second seats in Antrim, Ballyclare and Carrick Castle.

The UUP will undoubtedly be disappointed with this election. Despite a 1.4% increase in their vote and a solid overall vote of 93,123 votes, they did not win any MPs, making this the third House of Commons in modern times without a UUP voice. They will be hoping to gain additional ground before an Assembly election, and although most of their seats are reasonably safe, the risk for them is that they drop into fifth place at Stormont and local councils in the future.

General election 2019 – The SDLP returns to Westminster

2019 has been a very interesting year for the SDLP. It started with their partnership with Fianna Fáil, which didn’t really have the impact many anticipated and which both parties hoped for. The May local elections were a mixed result for the SDLP, despite some exceptional results such as Oldpark and Craigavon, they lost seven council seats (66 to 59), and their vote was down slightly by 1.4%. And despite a strong campaign, Colum Eastwood missed out on a seat in the European election, with the three seats going to the DUP, Sinn Féin and Alliance.

Therefore, this general election was extremely important for the SDLP. Having lost their three Westminster seats in 2017, it was essential for the SDLP that they regained representation in the House of Commons. And they delivered, winning two seats on 14.9% of the vote (+3.1% from 2017), a total of 118,737 votes. The SDLP came fourth on votes, after DUP, Sinn Féin and Alliance, and they had the second largest vote increase of any party with 3.1%, after Alliance’s 8.8% increase. As with Alliance, it appears that the SDLP’s opposition to Brexit was a decisive factor in their success, their two gains were from the DUP in South Belfast, a constituency which voted by nearly 70% to remain in the EU but was represented from 2017 to 2019 by a pro-Brexit DUP MP, and Foyle, which was represented by Sinn Féin from 2017 to 2019 at a time when many Brexit votes in the House of Commons were determined by less then seven votes, an MP taking their seat would have made the difference.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood was elected in Foyle with 26,881 votes, 57.0% and an increase of 17.7% from 2017. Sinn Féin, having won this seat in 2017 by just 169 votes, was 17,110 votes behind Eastwood, following a 19.0% decrease in the Sinn Féin vote. The scale of the SDLP victory here is highlighted by the fact that this was the largest SDLP vote ever in Foyle, narrowly surpassing John Hume’s 26,710 votes in 1992. Similarly, the largest SDLP percentage vote in Foyle was 51.5% for John Hume in 1992. And 17,110 is the largest majority ever in Foyle, the previous largest majority was 13,664 for John Hume in 1997. In fact, 17,110 the largest majority for an SDLP general election candidate ever. This is all especially impressive when it is considered that Foyle was seen as a marginal seat between SDLP and Sinn Féin in 2017, this is clearly no longer the case now.

The SDLP’s other gain was for Claire Hanna, who was elected in South Belfast with 27,079 votes, 57.2% of the vote and an increase of 31.3% on 2017. The DUP had won this seat in 2017 by 1,996 votes, Alasdair McDonnell had previously held this seat from 2005 to 2017. 27,079 votes is the largest SDLP vote ever in South Belfast, and the largest vote for a candidate in South Belfast since Robert Bradford from the UUP in 1979. 57.2% is also the largest percentage vote for an SDLP Westminster candidate ever, but only the second best vote for an SDLP Westminster candidate, the largest remains 31,523 for Eddie McGrady in South Down in 1992. Hanna’s campaign had been boosted by the absence of a Sinn Féin and Green Party candidate, but it is clear that there was an unprecedented swing to Hanna from all areas of the constituency to deliver this remarkable result.

The other target for the SDLP was South Down, which they had famously won from Enoch Powell in 1987 and held it until 2017, when it was lost to Sinn Féin by 2,446 votes. Most expected Sinn Féin to defend this seat, and Chris Hazzard did win again, but Michael Savage came quite close, with 14,517 votes, 29.2% and just 1,620 votes behind Sinn Féin. However, a 6.0% decrease prevented them from regaining this seat. There is a question that had they ran a more high-profile candidate, they might have taken this seat, but it was nonetheless close and remains a marginal seat between Sinn Féin and the SDLP.

East Derry was the other constituency in which the SDLP came second, Cara Hunter received 6,158 votes, 15.7% and an increase of 4.9% on 2017. The SDLP outpolled Sinn Féin by 30 votes, last time Sinn Féin was 6,458 votes ahead. There were a number of other constituencies where the SDLP came third with an increase of their vote, this included Newry and Armagh (9,449 votes, 18.6% and +1.7% from 2017), West Tyrone (7,330 votes, 17.8% and +4.8% from 2017), Mid Ulster (6,384 votes, 14.3% and +4.5% from 2017) and Fermanagh and South Tyrone (3,446 votes, 6.8% and +2.0% from 2017). The SDLP Assembly seats in Newry and Armagh, West Tyrone and Mid Ulster all look reasonably safe on these results, while Fermanagh and South Tyrone could be a possibility for a gain considering in 2017 their Assembly seat was lost to Sinn Féin by just 62 votes.

The remaining constituencies that the SDLP contested were comparatively disappointing. In West Belfast they finished fourth with 2,985 votes, 7.7% and an increase of 0.7%. In Upper Bann the SDLP finished fifth, behind Alliance for the first time, with 4,623 votes, 9.2% and an increase of 0.7%. In Strangford (always an SDLP target in Assembly elections, they have been the runner-up here in every Assembly election since 1998), they received 1,994 votes, finishing in fourth place with 5.3%, -0.9% from 2017. Similarly, in Lagan Valley they received 1,758 votes, in fourth place overall with 3.9%, -3.6% from 2017. The SDLP also came in fifth place in North Antrim (2,943 votes, 6.7% and +1.4% from 2017) and South Antrim (2,288 votes, 5.3% and -0.1% from 2017). And in East Antrim, the SDLP finished in sixth place behind the NI Conservatives with 902 votes, 2.4% and -0.9% from 2017.

With a snap Assembly election increasingly likely, it is worth considering the implications of these results for the SDLP. The SDLP had a stronger vote in this election (14.9%) then they did in the 2017 Assembly election when they received 11.9% of the vote. The challenge for the SDLP is that over 45% of their vote was for their two successful candidates, Colum Eastwood and Claire Hanna, who received 53,960 votes together out of 118,737. it is likely that both of their constituencies will be much more competitive at Assembly level, especially South Belfast in which Sinn Féin and the Green Party will be hoping to defend their Assembly seats, as well as the SDLP, DUP and Alliance, with the UUP hoping to regain theirs. Similarly, Foyle will see Alliance, People Before Profit and Aontú all looking to improve their vote at the expense of the SDLP and Sinn Féin, while the DUP will be hoping to defend their seat too. It will therefore be important to see who the SDLP co-opts into their Foyle and South Belfast seats in advance of this election, and whether they decide to target a third seat in Foyle and a second seat in South Belfast (both are possible but very unlikely). The SDLP will be looking for a gain in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, which they lost last time by a very narrow 62 votes, the decreasing Sinn Féin vote gives them a real chance. However, several of their seats are now very precarious, particularly Lagan Valley and Upper Bann, which were unexpectedly won by the party in 2017 having previously lost them in 2007 and 2016 respectively. Their second seat in South Down is also vulnerable, as is potentially North Belfast, which is harder to predict because the SDLP didn’t run there in the general election. Their seats in West Tyrone, Mid Ulster and Newry and Armagh all look reasonably safe, and their strong result in East Derry should help them following very close results in 2016 and 2017.

It is also worth looking at the possibilities at local council level for the SDLP. In May they had 12.0% of the vote, less then 14.9% in this election. They will be hoping that their strong vote in West Tyrone gives them a chance of regaining seats in Omagh and Mid Tyrone, and they will be hoping to win a seat in Moyola following a strong result in Mid Ulster (their candidate in Mid Ulster narrowly missed out in Moyola back in May). And a huge result in Foyle gives the party a good opportunity to defend their seats in Derry and potentially become the largest party on the council if they can gain ground from Sinn Féin. However, there are a number of seats in which a surge for other parties could complicate defending SDLP seats, such as Dungannon (the SDLP councillor there recently joined Aontú), Limavady, Bann, Causeway and Collin, as well as their second seats in Newry, Armagh and Craigavon.

This was undoubtedly an excellent election for the SDLP, regaining a presence in the House of Commons following the huge votes for Colum Eastwood and Claire Hanna. The close result in South Down means that this seat remains a Sinn Féin-SDLP marginal, rather then a safe seat for Sinn Féin, and the party retains a strong presence across the west of Northern Ireland. The 118,737 votes for the party is the best election result for the SDLP since 2005, with the highest percentage vote since 2010, although in every election from 1987 to 2015 they had returned at least three MPs (four in 1992). An Assembly election in 2020 could be difficult for the SDLP, without two key figures and a number of vulnerable seats, but it could provide some opportunities too.

2019 General Election – The Alliance surge continues

The most remarkable political development this year has been the Alliance surge. In the local council election in May Alliance nearly doubled its representation, increasing its number of councillors from 32 to 53, and gaining council seats for the first time in decades across Northern Ireland, including in places such as Derry and Omagh. This was followed several weeks later by the election of Naomi Long to the European Parliament, with 18.5% of first preference votes (105,928), the largest ever Alliance vote by both votes and percentages at the time.

However, heading into this general election there was speculation by many that the Alliance surge could be over. The reason for this speculation was that this was a First Past The Post election, and Alliance has traditionally done better in local and Assembly elections due to STV giving the advantage of transferable voting. Alliance’s only Westminster success previously was the election of Naomi Long as MP for East Belfast in 2010, defeating Peter Robinson who had been MP there since 1979. But Gavin Robinson regained that seat for the DUP following a pact with other unionist parties in 2015. An additional problem with the FPTP system was that there was a probability that a party could win 15-20% but not win any seats, which was a risk for Alliance and other parties.
The most obvious aspect of the election result in Northern Ireland is that the Alliance surge is a permanent change in local politics, rather then a one-off event in May. Alliance received 134,115 votes, 16.8% of the vote and up 8.8% from the 2017 general election. Alliance had the largest increase of any of the parties in first preference votes, with more then twice as many votes as in 2017. It was the largest number of votes that Alliance has ever received, their previous best was 105,928 in the European election, although Long’s 18.5% result in the European election remains the highest percentage vote, turnout was much lower in the European election when compared to this general election.

Alliance won one seat, with deputy leader Stephen Farry elected as MP for North Down. Farry becomes the third Alliance MP ever, following Naomi Long from 2010-15 and Stratton Mills, UUP MP for North Belfast from 1959 to 1972, he joined Alliance in 1973 but left Parliament in 1974. Therefore, Farry is the second directly-elected Alliance MP. He received 18,358 votes, a majority of 2,968 over DUP candidate Alex Easton, and even more votes then Lady Sylvia Hermon received in 2017 (16,148) and 2015 (17,689). The Alliance percentage vote in North Down was 45.2%, a massive increase of 35.9% from 2017, the largest swing to any party in Northern Ireland in this election. The previously best percentage vote for Alliance in North Down was 25.4% for Oliver Napier in the 1995 by-election. And 45.2% is the largest percentage vote for any Alliance candidate in a Westminster election, although the greatest ever Alliance percentage vote was in a local by-election, John Blair received 58.4% of the vote in the Antrim Line by-election in 1988. This victory in North Down was undoubtedly the biggest surprise of the election in Northern Ireland, and a huge victory for Alliance, giving them a presence in Westminster again, as well as making this the first time that Alliance is represented across all levels of government (local, Assembly, Westminster and Europe).

Alliance’s other key target was East Belfast, where leader Naomi Long was running. Long famously won in 2010, increasing her vote by 25% to beat Peter Robinson by 1,533 votes. Gavin Robinson reclaimed this seat for the DUP in 2015 and expanded his majority in 2017. Robinson held this seat for the third time in this election, but with a narrow majority of 1,819, the narrowest majority the DUP has had here since Peter Robinson first won the seat in 1979 by 64 votes. Naomi Long’s vote was up 8.2%, she received 44.9% of the vote, which is the second best Alliance percentage vote ever behind Farry in North Down, a lot more then the 37.2% in 2010, 42.8% in 2015 and 36.0% in 2017. And 19,055 votes is the best ever Alliance Westminster vote for a single candidate, as it is slightly more then the North Down result. It is clear from the result in East Belfast that it is no longer a safe seat for the DUP, it is likely to remain marginal with Alliance and Alliance has a very good chance of regaining this seat in the next election.

There were three other seats in which Alliance came second with over 10,000 votes. In East Antrim Danny Donnelly received 10,165 votes (27.3%, +11.7% from 2017), just 6,616 votes behind Sammy Wilson. Donnelly had nearly twice as many votes as UUP leader Steve Aiken, and this was decisively Alliance’s best ever result in East Antrim, their previous best was 9,132 for Sean Neeson in 1992. In Strangford Kellie Armstrong received 10,634 votes (28.4%, +13.7% from 2017), 7,071 votes behind Jim Shannon. A huge Alliance vote in Strangford, their previous best was 7,585 for Kieran McCarthy in 1992. And particularly impressive was Lagan Valley, where Sorcha Eastwood received 13,087 votes (28.8%, +17.7% from 2017), just 6,499 votes away from Jeffrey Donaldson. This is the first time ever that Alliance has outpolled the UUP there, and it is significantly more then their previous best result in Lagan Valley which was 7,635 for Seamus Close in 1997. In all three of these seats, there is a genuine chance for Alliance of winning these seats in a future general election for the first time ever.

There were a number of other constituencies with a large increase in the Alliance vote. John Blair more then doubled the Alliance vote in South Antrim, receiving 8,190 votes (19.1%, +11.6% from 2017). It is the best result for Alliance in South Antrim since 1979, when the constituency was significantly larger and included much of Lagan Valley as well as the Carrickfergus area of East Antrim. Blair is now certain to defend the Assembly seat in South Antrim held by former leader David Ford for twenty years. Nuala McAllister doubled the Alliance vote in North Belfast, up 4.4% from 2017 to finish with 4,824 votes (9.8%), the second best Alliance vote ever in North Belfast after the 1986 by-election. Patrick Brown more then quadrupled the Alliance vote in South Down, adding 10.3% to the 2017 vote to receive 6,916 votes (13.9%), the best ever Alliance vote there, significantly more then the UUP and nearly as much as the DUP. McAllister and Brown both have a strong chance of being elected to the Assembly in the next election, considering they were both less then 1,000 votes away in 2017.

A remarkable result was in North Antrim, Patricia O’Lynn came in third place ahead of Sinn Féin and the SDLP with 6,231 votes, up 8.5% from 2017 to 14.1%. It was the best Alliance result there since 1979, before the modern boundary changes which brought much of this constituency into East Antrim. In neighbouring East Londonderry, Chris McCaw more then doubled the vote to 5,921, 8.9% more then 2017 for a total of 15.1%. McCaw came fourth, ahead of the UUP for the first time and less then 1% away from the SDLP and Sinn Féin. It was Alliance’s best ever result in East Derry. And particularly impressive was Upper Bann, Eóin Tennyson finished in third place (ahead of both the UUP and SDLP for the first time here), with 6,433 votes, his 12.9% vote was 8.3% more then 2017, decisively the best ever Alliance vote there. Alliance has a credible chance of an Assembly seat in all three constituencies.

Even constituencies that have never had a significant Alliance presence had some impressive results. In Newry and Armagh Jackie Coade received 4,211 votes, 8.3% and 5.9% more then 2017, Alliance came fourth there for the first time ahead of the UUP. In Mid Ulster Mel Boyle received 3,526 votes, 7.9% and 5.6% more then 2017, also ahead of the UUP by nearly 1,000 votes. In West Tyrone Stephen Donnelly received 3,979 votes, 9.7% and a 7.4% increase from 2017, more then 1,000 votes ahead of the UUP. Fermanagh and South Tyrone saw a very strong result for Matthew Beaumont, who received 2,650 votes, 5.2% and an increase of 3.6% on 2017. All of these were the best ever Alliance results in these constituencies.

There were two constituencies in which a huge SDLP vote impacted on the Alliance vote because of voters uniting around one anti-Brexit candidate. In Foyle, Rachael Ferguson received 1,267 votes, 2.7% and 0.9% more then in 2017, this followed a historic comeback in the council election when Alliance gained representation in Derry after an absence of 36 years. To improve the Alliance vote despite a massive surge towards Colum Eastwood is very impressive. Finally, South Belfast was the only constituency in which the Alliance vote was down, Paula Bradshaw received 6,786 votes, 14.3% and down 3.9% from 2017. This was likely due to an unprecedented swing to Claire Hanna, as Sinn Féin and the Green Party had stood aside for her and voters wanted a candidate who was anti-Brexit unlike the DUP. South Belfast still remains a strong constituency for Alliance, Alliance received 24.5% of the vote in May’s local election there, ahead of DUP (22.9%), SDLP (15.3%), Sinn Féin (13.2%), Greens (9.5%) and UUP (6.1%).

Looking forward to a potential Assembly election next year, it looks certain that Alliance could gain a number of additional MLAs if they can replicate the 16.8% vote in this general election (they had 9.1% in the 2017 Assembly election). It is likely that Alliance would gain in North Belfast and South Down, both constituencies which Alliance missed out on in 2017 by a few hundred votes. If Alliance repeated these results in an Assembly election then they would have nearly a quota in Upper Bann, North Antrim and East Londonderry, giving them a very good chance of gains there. And gains could be possible in West Tyrone, Mid Ulster and Newry and Armagh, though that could require a significant decline in the Sinn Féin vote and Alliance to remain ahead of the UUP to gain most of their transfers, it’s unlikely but not impossible. Alliance also has a very good chance of a second seat in East Antrim, Strangford and Lagan Valley, with nearly 30% in each constituency and a quota of 16.7% required for one seat. And a second seat in North Down is a possibility following Stephen Farry’s historic Westminster victory.

Looking also at local councils, Alliance won 53 council seats on 11.5%, therefore with 16.8% then many gains could be likely. Alliance narrowly missed out in a number of DEAs back in May, which would be very probable gains on this result, such as Ballyclare, Bannside, Ballymoney, Limavady, The Mournes, Newry and West Tyrone. Alliance would also be looking at potential DEAs where they could gain a second seat, for example in East Antrim possible second seats include Knockagh and Carrick Castle, Lagan Valley includes possibilities for gains in Lisburn North, Downshire East and particularly Downshire West, North Down includes Bangor Central, and Strangford has a possibility in Comber. And the most likely of all is Antrim, where Alliance had nearly two quotas in May but just one candidate.

For Alliance, this was in many respects their best ever result. The victory of Stephen Farry marked the second time ever that an Alliance MP was elected to Westminster, and Naomi Long came very close to winning in East Belfast, reducing the DUP majority from over 8,000 votes to less then 2,000. There are real possibilities for Alliance for gains at local and Assembly level as well in the future, but this provides a remarkable conclusion to an unprecedented year of success for Alliance. The party will celebrate its fiftieth birthday next year, I think it is fair to conclude that 2019 has been the best year in the history of Alliance so far.

Ireland’s by-elections and their impact on the 2020 general election

Last Friday, four by-elections were held in Ireland following the election of four TDs to the European Parliament in May. It is fair to say that they did not go as expected.

A few weeks ago, in a previous post I wrote about my thoughts on the by-elections. Specifically, I felt that Fianna Fáil was the clear front-runners in Cork North-Central, Dublin Fingal and Wexford, with Fine Gael the second strongest party in each constituency. I expected Fine Gael to win the one seat they were defending, namely Dublin Mid-West, with independent Paul Gogarty in a solid second place.

In reality, Fianna Fáil won Cork North-Central and Wexford, with Fine Gael starting in second place in both constituencies on the first round, but falling behind Labour on transfers. Dublin Fingal saw a decisive victory for the Green Party, with Fianna Fáil in second place, Labour third and Fine Gael fourth. And Sinn Féin won in Dublin Mid-West, ahead of Fine Gael in second place and Gogarty third.

Following these by-elections, here is the current composition of the 32nd Dáil, with the changes since the 2016 election:

Fine Gael: 48 (-2)

Fianna Fáil: 45 (+1)

Sinn Féin: 22 (-1)

Independents: 22 (+3)

Labour: 7 (no change)

Solidarity-People Before Profit: 6 (no change)

Green Party: 3 (+1)
Social Democrats: 2 (-1)

Independents 4 Change: 1 (-3)

Aontú: 1 (+1)
Ceann Comhairle: 1 (no change)

This was clearly a good result for Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and the Greens, and a disappointing one for Fine Gael, Labour, Sol-PBP and the Social Democrats. It is worth looking at each of the four contested constituencies and what is likely to happen in each one during the next general election (likely to be next summer).

Cork North-Central

2016: 1 Fianna Fáil, 1 Fine Gael, 1 Sinn Féin, 1 Solidarity-People Before Profit

Fianna Fáil will be encouraged by the slight increase in their vote of 0.1% from 2016. They are guaranteed a seat, but it is unlikely that they will gain a second, they would require another significant increase for that. Fine Gael increased their vote by 3.3%, and Colm Burke looks certain to win a seat, especially as Dara Murphy has already resigned his seat before the general election. Sinn Féin increased their vote by 0.1%, they also have a safe seat. But it looks as though Labour could regain their seat here lost in 2016 to Sol-PBP. Labour had 9.7% in the by-election, compared to 4.4% for Sol-PBP. The Green Party also had a respectable 7.4%. Based on this by-election result, my prediction for 2020 would be:

1 Fianna Fáil, 1 Fine Gael, 1 Sinn Féin, 1 Labour (Labour gain from Sol-PBP)

Dublin Fingal

2016: 1 Fine Gael, 1 Fianna Fáil, 1 Independent 4 Change, 1 Labour, 1 Sinn Féin

The Green Party had a remarkable victory here. In 2016 Joe O’Brien had 4.6% of the vote, in the by-election he won with 22.9%, an increase of 18.3%. This suggests that the ‘Green wave’ seen in the local and European elections, particularly in Dublin, is set to continue. The 5% decrease in the Fianna Fáil vote makes it difficult for them to win a second seat as they will hope to do, but they have one safe seat. Fine Gael are in the same position, they have one safe seat, but with a 5.3% decline from 2016 there is not much chance of regaining a second seat. Labour will be encouraged by their 5.2% increase, and they look likely to defend this seat. The Sinn Féin vote was down 3.4% from 2016, they won the final seat then so they will probably be worried about losing here, but it is likely they will do better with a sitting TD running again and without having to compete with Clare Daly on the left. Therefore, I would predict:

1 Fine Gael, 1 Fianna Fáil, 1 Labour, 1 Sinn Féin, 1 Green (Green gain from Ind 4 Change)

Dublin Mid-West

2016: 1 Sinn Féin, 1 Fine Gael, 1 Fianna Fáil, 1 Solidarity-PBP

The biggest shock of the by-elections was Sinn Féin winning this seat rather then Fine Gael. Mark Ward won this seat with 24%, an increase of 1.3% from 2016. However, their victory could have a negative impact last year, as it is almost certain that Sinn Féin will not defend two seats with just over one quota. Therefore, it is very likely that Fine Gael will regain their seat here next year, although the Fine Gael vote was down 7.7% they are still the second largest party and will be confident of having nearly a quota from the first round. Fianna Fáil will be concerned about the 4.4% decline from 2016 but they should benefit from an incumbent TD running, plus this was clearly not a target for them in the by-elections. As in Cork, Sol-PBP could be in trouble with their vote dropping by 5.6%, they took the final seat in 2016 from Labour, but it looks very likely that Paul Gogarty will take their seat after finishing in third place with 12.7% in the by-election. I’m sure he will be hoping that Emmet Stagg also returns to the Dáil. 🙂

1 Sinn Féin, 1 Fine Gael, 1 Fianna Fáil, 1 Independent (Fine Gael gain from Sinn Féin, Independent gain from Sol-PBP)

Wexford

2016: 2 Fine Gael, 1 Fianna Fáil, 1 Labour, 1 Independent 4 Change

Fianna Fáil decisively won the by-election here, with Malcolm Byrne securing 31.2% of first preference votes, 4.6% more then in 2016. They are in a very strong position to defend their two seat in 2020. Fine Gael came second with 23.8%, despite controversial comments from their candidate Verona Murphy, 0.5% more then 2016. It looks likely that Murphy will run in the general election alongside the two sitting Fine Gael TDs, who are more likely to defend their seats. Labour will be encouraged by the 5.2% increase from 2016, their leader Brendan Howlin will almost certainly hold his seat. Sinn Féin will be targeting this seat, having missed out in 2016 by just 52 votes in 2016, they could take this seat but only if they can become more transfer-friendly and pick up a significant amount of Mick Wallace’s vote. Nonetheless, I think Wexford will be:

2 Fine Gael, 2 Fianna Fáil, 1 Labour

It is also worth looking at the implications of these by-elections for wider Irish politics. The combined first preference votes for each parties across the constituencies (and how it compared to the 2016 election) was as follows:

Fianna Fáil: 24.1% (-0.2%)

Fine Gael: 20.2% (-5.3%)

Labour: 14.2% (+7.6)

Sinn Féin: 13.7% (-0.1%)

Greens: 10.3% (+7.6%)

Aontú: 2.8% (N/A)

Solidarity-People Before Profit: 2.5% (-1.4%)

Social Democrats: 2.3% (-0.7%)

It is worth noting that there are a number of factors that will be different in the general election when compared to these by-elections, primarily turnout, as turnout was historically low in these by-elections and if the general election is held next May as is likely then turnout should almost certainly be higher.

Fianna Fáil will be pleased with these results, coming in first place overall on first preference votes, and crucially nearly 4% ahead of Fine Gael. However, if this result is replicated across the country next year then Micheál Martin is likely to be in the same position as Enda Kenny was in 2016, namely as leader of the largest party but significantly away from a majority. There are not a substantial number of possible gains for Fianna Fáil if their result is at roughly the same level as in 2016, but if Fine Gael lose some ground to other parties then Fianna Fáil would benefit by remaining in the same position.

These by-elections were disappointing for Fine Gael, but not necessarily devastating. It is worth noting that they were defending just one of the four seats, which was previously held by Frances Fitzgerald in Dublin Mid-West. Despite losing out this time, Emer Higgins looks set to regain this seat from Sinn Féin, and Colm Burke improved their vote in Cork North-Central which should ensure that he holds on to the seat vacated by Dara Murphy. Like Fianna Fáil they don’t have many opportunities for gains if their vote is at 20-25%, so their focus will be on defending their seats that were won in 2016.

A key aspect of these by-elections is the success of the left-wing parties, particularly the Green surge delivering a seat in Dublin Fingal and Sinn Féin winning in Dublin Mid-West. Although Labour failed to win any seats, they finished third overall on first preferences, and I think they are in a strong position to defend the seats they have and gain some seats narrowly lost in 2016 such as Louth, Dublin Bay North and Dublin Bay South. Sinn Féin are likely to defend the majority of their seats, but they will face a strong challenge to regain Meath West from Peadar Tóibín and the new Laois-Offaly from Carol Nolan, both are former Sinn Féin TDs who left the party over abortion. And the Greens will be hoping for a number of gains in Dublin particularly, which looks very likely, as well as possibly in Waterford.

For other left-wing parties the prospects are more bleak. Solidarity-People Before Profit did very well in 2016, primarily at the expense of Labour, so if Labour makes a comeback in 2020 then Sol-PBP is likely to lose some seats. Their strongest constituencies are Dún Laoghaire, Dublin South-West and Dublin West, but they could be in trouble in Cork North-Central, Dublin Mid-West and especially Dublin South-Central. Similarly, the Social Democrats have a good chance of defending their two seats in Dublin North-West and Kildare North, but they don’t have many other possibilities for gains apart from Dublin Central. It seems unlikely that they will regain their seat in Wicklow, where their TD elected in 2016 joined Fianna Fáil. And while Aontú had a good result, particularly in Wexford, it is unlikely that they will have much of an impact in the general election beyond Peadar Tóibín possibly defending his seat in Meath West.

The Irish general election next year could turn out to be completely different to these by-election results, due to a higher turnout and the need to balance votes across multiple candidates. But they do give an indication as to what is likely to happen, and based on what happened last week 2020 is set to be a fascinating year for Irish politics.

Looking back at the 2003 Assembly election 16 years later

The 2003 Assembly election took place sixteen years ago today. It was the second election for the modern Assembly established by the Good Friday Agreement, and it proved to be a fundamentally different election then in 1998. It is the only Assembly election to be held in winter so far, every other Assembly election has been held between March and June apart from 1982 which was in October.

This election marked a decisive turning point in Northern Ireland electoral politics, with the DUP and Sinn Féin overtaking their main rivals, the UUP and SDLP, as the dominant parties of unionism and nationalism respectively. Against the odds, the Alliance Party held their six seats despite speculation they would lose significant ground, but the smaller parties and independents lost the majority of their seats. Here are the results:

DUP: 30 seats (+10), 25.6% votes (+7.5%)

UUP: 27 seats (-1), 22.7% votes (+1.4%)

Sinn Féin: 24 seats (+6), 23.5% votes (+5.9%)

SDLP: 18 seats (-6), 17.0% votes (-5.0%)

Alliance: 6 seats (no change), 3.7% votes (-2.8%)

Independent: 1 seat (-2), 2.9% votes (-0.8%)

PUP: 1 seat (-1), 1.2% votes (-1.4%)

UKUP: 1 seat (-4), 0.7% votes (-3.8%)

Women’s Coalition: 0 seats (-2), 0.8% votes (-0.8%)

This election was unique in many respects, when compared to the other five modern Assembly elections. The most obvious example of the uniqueness of this election was that the two largest parties in terms of seats were both from the same designation, namely the DUP and UUP. Sinn Féin was the second largest party on first preference votes, but the UUP was more transfer friendly and finished three votes ahead despite starting 1.2% behind Sinn Féin. This has never been repeated, the 1998 election saw the UUP and SDLP emerge as the two main parties, and the DUP and Sinn Féin have consistently been returned as the two largest parties since 2007.

Looking at specific constituencies, there were a number of results that have not been repeated since. West Belfast was particularly notable in this regard, as this was the only time that the DUP won a seat in that constituency. Diane Dodds won the final seat by just 86.8 votes, the narrowest finishing result between two different parties, Sinn Féin came very close to winning a fifth seat while the SDLP lost their second seat to the DUP. This was also the only election in which South Belfast did not return any MLAs who designated as ‘other’, the Women’s Coalition had won a seat in 1998 which was lost to Sinn Féin in 2003, while Alliance has returned an MLA in South Belfast since 2007, plus the Greens since 2016. And in North Down just one ‘other’ MLA was elected from Alliance, in 1998 North Down elected two ‘other’ MLAs from Alliance and the Women’s Coalition, in 2003 the Women’s Coalition lost their seat to the DUP, and since 2007 both Alliance and the Green Party have both returned an MLA in each election in North Down.

The substantial increase in support for the DUP resulted in them finishing as the largest party for the first time in a non-European election, gaining ten seats from 20 to 30. However, the UUP managed to defend almost all of their seats, they won 28 seats in 1998 and 27 in 2003. The reason for this was because of the unexpectedly strong result for smaller unionist parties such as the UKUP and PUP, as well as anti-Agreement independent unionists. The UKUP had five seats in 1998, their only MLA re-elected in 2003 was their leader Robert McCartney in North Down, they lost three seats to the DUP in East Antrim, South Antrim and Strangford, while their seat in Lagan Valley went to the UUP. The PUP leader David Ervine was elected in East Belfast, but Billy Hutchinson lost his seat in North Belfast. The three independent unionists in North Belfast, East Londonderry and Upper Bann all lost their seats to the DUP. And there were some DUP gains from non-unionists, they gained two seats from the SDLP in West Belfast and East Antrim, and they gained a seat from the Women’s Coalition in North Down. Before the election, North Down MLA Peter Weir had left the UUP to join the DUP, so he technically gained a seat for the DUP in 2003. Based on these results it appears that anti-Agreement unionists united around the DUP in this election, while pro-Agreement unionists supported the UUP for the most part.

The contest between the nationalist parties was less complex. Sinn Féin gained six seats (from 18 to 24) and the SDLP lost six seats (from 24 to 18). Sinn Féin gained three seats from the SDLP in East Derry, South Down and Newry and Armagh, they also gained seats from the PUP in North Belfast, the UUP in North Antrim and the Women’s Coalition in South Belfast. The gains for Philip McGuigan in North Antrim and particularly Alex Maskey in South Belfast were significant as Sinn Féin had not previously had strong support in those constituencies. They had also been targeting South Antrim, where Martin Meehan narrowly failed to defeat Alliance. For the SDLP, they lost three additional seats to non-nationalist parties, two to the DUP (West Belfast and East Antrim) and most surprisingly in West Tyrone to independent candidate Kieran Deeny. This was a difficult election for the SDLP not only because of the loss of several seats, but also because of losing some of their most prominent leaders, for example John Hume and Seamus Mallon both retired from the Assembly in 2003, while Joe Hendron, who famously defeated Gerry Adams in the 1992 general election, lost his seat in West Belfast.

Alliance defended their six seats, despite a 2.8% decline in their first preference vote compared to 1998. Four of their candidates were elected by a reasonably decisive margin, Naomi Long in East Belfast, Eileen Bell in North Down, Séan Neeson in East Antrim and Seamus Close in Lagan Valley. Strangford was a close contest between Kieran McCarthy and the SDLP candidate Joe Boyle, the SDLP started with 165 more first preference votes, but ultimately McCarthy was elected 291.43 votes ahead, primarily through UUP transfers. The key contest for Alliance (and probably the most interesting STV count in modern Northern Ireland politics) was between Alliance leader David Ford and Sinn Féin’s Martin Meehan in South Antrim. Meehan initially had a lead of 902 votes over Ford, and over the course of nine rounds over two days, this lead narrowed until Alliance gained a narrow lead on the ninth round following the election of the four unionist candidates. The eleventh and final round saw the distribution of nearly 3,000 SDLP votes, there was an expectation from many at the time that Meehan would narrowly reach the quota and win the final seat, instead while Meehan received 16.7% of SDLP transfers, Ford received 9.6%, resulting in Alliance winning the final seat 180.56 votes ahead of Sinn Féin.

Assembly elections use the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, which can result in some interesting and unconventional transfers. Some examples of this occurred in Lagan Valley, where UUP candidate Jeffrey Donaldson had the largest vote of any candidate with 14,104 votes (2.39 quotas). The only candidate elected following the distribution of Donaldson’s surplus vote of 8,210 was DUP candidate Edwin Poots, not any of his UUP colleagues. Later in the count on round seven, the surplus vote of UUP candidate Billy Bell was redistributed, and Alliance candidate Seamus Close received more transfers from Bell (45%) then Bell’s UUP colleague Norah Beare (41%). And in Strangford an interesting result was following the elimination of Danny McCarthy, who was an independent candidate but ran for the SDLP in 1998. 20% of McCarthy’s transfers went to his former party the SDLP, and 35% went to Alliance. The North Down count was particularly unusual because all of the votes across every round were distributed at full value, for most of the count it appeared that all of the candidates might have been elected under the quota, however Leslie Cree (UUP) and Eileen Bell (Alliance) were both elected on rounds twelve and thirteen respectively, followed by the other four candidates on the final round.

There were some extremely close final results across several constituencies. The closest result by far was in Foyle, Sinn Féin candidate Mary Nelis was elected 8.47 votes ahead of her Sinn Féin colleague Raymond McCartney. The second closest result was in South Down, SDLP candidate Margaret Ritchie was elected 36.44 votes ahead of another SDLP colleague Eamonn O’Neill. The closest result between two different parties was West Belfast, when DUP candidate Diane Dodds was elected 86.8 votes ahead of Sue Ramsey from Sinn Féin. And in South Belfast SDLP candidate Alasdair McDonnell was elected 127.43 votes ahead of outgoing Women’s Coalition MLA Monica McWilliams.

There was also a number substantial changes on the support for the parties, with several parties gaining or losing over 10% of the vote. The biggest increase in support for any party was in Strangford, where the DUP vote increased by 20.2%, other constituencies with a large increase in the DUP vote were North Down (+16.6%), Upper Bann (+13.0%), North Belfast (+12.9%), East Antrim (+11.9%) and South Antrim (+10.5%). The UUP vote narrowly increased overall, but in Lagan Valley they had a massive 15.4% increase compared to 1998, primarily due to the large vote for Jeffrey Donaldson. In contrast, the UKUP vote in North Down decreased by 10.8%, and similarly in every other constituency. Sinn Féin had a particularly strong increase in Newry and Armagh (+13.8%) and South Down (+11.4%), while the SDLP vote decreased in most constituencies, most notably Foyle (-11.7%), West Tyrone (-11.1%), Newry and Armagh (-10.4%) and South Down (-10.2%). And although the Alliance vote was down in almost every constituency compared to 1998, South Antrim was the exception, with an increase of 0.5% which played a decisive role in Alliance retaining that seat against a strong challenge from Sinn Féin.

The 2003 Assembly election represented a significant change from the previous election in 1998. The success of the DUP and Sinn Féin set a precedent for the various elections from 2007 onwards, with the UUP and SDLP continuing to lose ground to their rivals on each of the designations. The other shock of this election was the smaller parties losing most of their representation, Alliance did well to hold their seats, and Kieran Deeny did remarkably well to top the poll in West Tyrone on a campaign focused on retaining the local hospital in Omagh. But the UKUP and PUP lost seats and the Women’s Coalition failed to return any MLAs. This did not become a permanent trend, 2007 saw gains for Alliance and the Greens, while the 2010s began with Naomi Long elected to Westminster and finished with her being elected to the European Parliament (hopefully Westminster again too but we’ll find out after 12th December).

Dáil by-elections – November 2019

Four by-elections will be held for the Dáil on 29th November. This follows the election of four TDs to the European Parliament in May, Billy Kelleher (Fianna Fáil, Cork North-Central), Clare Daly (Independents 4 Change, Dublin Fingal), Frances Fitzgerald (Fine Gael, Dublin Mid-West) and Mick Wallace (Independents 4 Change, Wexford).

Dáil by-elections are a regular occurrence, with most Dáil terms having at least a few by-elections. However, this is the first time since 1945 that four or more by-elections have been held on the same day. Also, as a general election looks certain next year, all the parties will want to do well and look for potential gains as well as where they are vulnerable. In particular, no party wants to lose seats, e.g. Fianna Fáil will want to defend Cork North-Central while Fine Gael will be trying to defend Dublin Mid-West.

It is worth looking at all four constituencies in detail, using the 2016 general election and 2019 local election as the clearest indicators of who might win:

Cork North-Central

This constituency takes in roughly half of Cork city, north of the River Lee, as well as the more rural Blarney area. In the 2016 general election four parties won the four seats, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and Solidarity-People Before Profit. Fianna Fáil topped the poll on first preferences, with Billy Kelleher winning 27.9% of the vote, they also did well in 2011 with Kelleher defending his seat despite the collapse of Fianna Fáil across the south. Fine Gael took 17.8%, they have lost some ground since the 1990s but they have a safe seat. Sinn Féin made their breakthrough in 2011 and in 2016 they came second with 19.5%, while Solidarity-People Before Profit surprised many by taking a seat with 15.7%, Labour were previously strong there but their vote dropping by nearly 20% from 2011, down to 7.3%.

The 2019 local election results in Cork North-Central would suggest that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will likely be the main contenders. Fianna Fáil took one seat in the North East LEA with 24.2%, while Fine Gael also won a seat in the same LEA on 17.2%. Labour won a seat with just over 10%, as did the Workers’ Party on 7.7%, while Solidarity had a disappointing 5.1%. Sinn Féin also failed to win a seat on 7%. In the North West LEA Fianna Fáil did particularly well, winning two seats on 27.3%, while Fine Gael narrowly missed out on a second seat with 14.9%. Sinn Féin did well here, with 23.2% and two councillors elected. Solidarity won the final seat on 7.5%, while Labour missed out with 4.5%. Although the constituency is mostly around Cork city, the rural areas outside the city tend to favour Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, in Cork County Council Fine Gael won 20 seats on 31.9%, and Fianna Fáil won 18 seats on 33.7%.

Fianna Fáil will be hoping that Councillor Pádraig O’Sullivan can defend this seat that they previously held with Billy Kelleher, he topped the poll in the Cobh LEA, which is part of the Cork East constituency. Fine Gael is standing Senator Colm Burke, a former councillor for the Cork North-West area, Lord Mayor of Cork in 2003 and MEP from 2007-09. They are likely to be the two front-runners, with Fianna Fáil hoping to hold their ground as the largest party here in 2016, Fine Gael will be hoping that Colm Burke’s experience and hard-work in the constituency will help to improve their vote. It is unlikely that any other candidate has a great chance of winning.

Dublin Fingal

This constituency is based around the area north of Dublin, including the towns of Balbriggan, Skerries, Malahide and Swords, as well as Dublin Airport. In 2016 the five seats went to five different parties (Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour, Sinn Féin and Clare Daly as an independent). Fianna Fáil came out on top on first preferences with 23.5%, however it was Fine Gael that narrowly missed out on a second seat with 20.2%. Labour held a seat here with 10%, despite their decline almost everywhere else, and Sinn Féin took the final seat on 8.7%. Clare Daly was the second candidate elected with 15.7%, she had previously been elected to the old Dublin North constituency in 2011 with 15.2%.

The Dublin Fingal constituency roughly corresponds with the Fingal County Council, which gave us some fascinating results in the 2019 locals. Fianna Fáil did particularly well in Swords, winning two seats on 26.8%, and Rush-Lusk, where they also won two seats on 24.8%. They topped the poll in Howth-Malahide with 18.1%, but in Balbriggan they only took 4% and didn’t gain a seat. Fine Gael balanced their vote very well in Howth-Malahide, winning two seats with 20%, and two seats in Castleknock with 27.3%. They won a seat in Balbriggan with 19.6%, but they narrowly missed out in Rush-Lusk (13.3) and Swords (5.7%). Sinn Féin topped the poll in Ongar with 23.8% and also won in Swords with just 7.1%. Other then that it was disappointing for them, missing out in Balbriggan, Howth-Malahide and Rush-Lusk. Labour will be motivated by winning seats in every LEA apart from Ongar, with some impressive results including Blanchardstown-Mulhuddart (17.8%), Howth-Malahide (13%) and Balbriggan (12.3%). Similarly, the Greens are in a strong position, topping the poll in Castleknock with 27.3%, also winning in Howth-Malahide (17.4%), Balbriggan (14.6%), Swords (10.6%) and Ongar (8.8%).

Like Cork North-Central, this looks set to be a Fine Gael versus Fianna Fáil contest. Fianna Fáil are confident that Senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee has a very good chance, especially following a strong result in 2016, had Fianna Fáil balanced their vote better they could have taken a second seat rather then Sinn Féin taking the final seat. Fine Gael will be hopeful that Senator James Reilly can return to the Dáil, he is a former Health Minister who narrowly lost his seat in 2016. Both Labour and the Greens could be in with a chance following their strong local results here, Councillors Duncan Smith (Labour) and Joe O’Brien (Green) have the best chance for their parties in these by-elections. But I anticipate it will come down to Fine Gael versus Fianna Fáil.

Dublin Mid-West

This constituency was created for the 2002 general election, it is based around the areas of Clondalkin, Lucan, Rathcoole and Saggart. Palmerstown was added for the 2007 election, giving this constituency four TDs rather then three. In 2016 four parties won the four seats (Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and Solidarity-People Before Profit). In 2011 Labour and Fine Gael had two seats each, it was a devastating loss for Labour, who only took 5% in 2016, a drop of 25% from the 30% they had in 2011. Sinn Féin topped the poll with Eoin Ó Broin with 22.7% (interesting fact for Belfast readers, he previously represented the Oldpark DEA from 2001 to 2005). While Fianna Fáil won 16.2% and Solidarity-People Before Profit had 10.7%. Fine Gael may have lost a seat but they remain the largest party here with 26.4%, down less then 5% from 2011. The Social Democrats did well in 2016 and were the runners-up with 6.1%.

The local election results here provide some interesting results. Fine Gael did very well in Clondalkin, winning two seats with 25.5%, one of whom will be their candidate Emer Higgins who topped the poll. They also won a seat in Lucan with 21.3%, but in Palmerstown-Fonthill former TD Derek Keating narrowly missed out on a seat with 7.4%. Fianna Fáil took 15.9% in Clondalkin winning one seat, 14.2% in Lucan winning one seat, and 15% in Palmerstown-Fonthill winning a seat. Labour had a strong result for former TD Joanna Tuffy, who was elected in Lucan with 9.2%, but their other victories were outside of the constituency. Sinn Féin won a seat in Clondalkin with 12.1%, but missed out elsewhere. And the Greens also won seats in Clondalkin (8.2%).

Fine Gael are the likely favourites here. Councillor Emer Higgins will be hoping to defend the seat vacated by former Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald. It is also very close to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s Dublin West constituency, he has already been out and about there. Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin should do well but are unlikely to win, similarly Labour would regain some support compared to 2016 but it is difficult to see Joanna Tuffy returning to the Dáil this month. One especially notable candidate is Paul Gogarty, an independent councillor for Lucan since 2014, he was previously a Green TD here from 2002 to 2011. He is especially well known for his use of unparliamentary language during a Dáil debate: “F*** you Deputy Stagg!” The Green candidate could do well but Gogarty is likely to have a strong personal vote and could finish second, but it looks like this is Fine Gael’s to lose.

Wexford

This constituency takes in the entire county of Wexford. It elects five TDs, and in 2016 the result was two Fine Gael, one Labour, one Fianna Fáil and independent Mick Wallace. Fine Gael balanced two of their three candidates very well to hold two seats on 21.6%, the Sinn Féin candidate was just 52 votes behind on the final round (they had 10.1%). Fianna Fáil had the most votes with 26.7%, but didn’t balance as well as they have one prominent TD in James Browne. Labour held their seat here with current leader Brendan Howlin, who has been a TD since 1987, he was the first candidate elected with 14.8%. Mick Wallace’s vote was 11.1%, down from 2011 when he topped the poll with 17.6%.

Fianna Fáil came out on top in Wexford during the local election, with 30% and 12 councillors. This included two seats in Enniscorthy, two in Kilmuckridge, three in New Ross, one in Wexford and on in Rosslare. Most importantly for them is Gorey, where they won three seats, because that is where their candidate Malcolm Byrne represents. Fine Gael won 9 seats on 25.1%, this includes two in Enniscorthy, two in Gorey, two in Rosslare, one in Wexford, one in Kilmuckridge and one in New Ross. Labour took two seats, both in Wexford LEA where they had an impressive 34.3%, but across the county they were on 8.9%. Sinn Féin also won two seats on 7.6%, in Gorey and Wexford LEAs. And Aontú surprised some by winning a seat in Rosslare, on 8.3%. 

Based on these results Wexford should be a straight-forward contest between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Fianna Fáil will not have the problem of balancing their vote as in 2016, and Malcolm Byrne has the advantage of a high profile after securing almost 70,000 votes in the European election. Geography is important to larger constituencies like Wexford, and Fianna Fáil has the advantage of a strong presence in north Wexford like Gorey, and in the west around New Ross, they are weaker in the south towards Rosslare. Fine Gael also have a strong candidate in Verona Murphy, head of the Irish Road Haulage Association. They should do particularly well in Rosslare and Enniscorthy as well as potentially New Ross. Labour will be hoping for a strong showing especially outside Wexford Town to consolidate their position, although Brendan Howlin should be safe in a general election. This is probably the most difficult of the four constituencies for Sinn Féin and the Greens. Finally, it is worth mentioning Aontú candidate Jim Codd; although he almost certainly won’t win the election, he would probably win the award for best election slogan – “Give Codd the Nod.”

Looking at these four elections, it appears that we have two constituencies with a straight Fianna Fáil versus Fine Gael contest with Fianna Fáil slightly more likely (Cork North-Central and Wexford), one which is Fine Gael versus Fianna Fáil with the potential for a Labour or Green surprise (Dublin Fingal) and one which is very likely to be Fine Gael although there is an outside chance for a prominent independent (Dublin Mid-West). No matter who wins, these will be especially fascinating elections in the lead up to an Irish general election which is set to be very unpredictable.

Some thoughts about election pacts in Northern Ireland

So, a general election has been called for 12th December. Posters are already going up, and bar charts have taken over Twitter highlighting recent polls and previous elections. However, when a general election is called in Northern Ireland, the initial discussions always focus on electoral pacts.

Before looking at pacts in the 2019 general election, it is worth recalling the history of election pacts in Northern Ireland. Unionist parties have a particular history of co-operation through pacts, in the February 1974 election unionist parties opposed to the Sunningdale agreement united to win 11 out of 12 seats, with SDLP leader Gerry Fitt the only pro-Sunningdale MP returned in West Belfast. Co-operation declined after that, in 1979 the DUP took East Belfast and North Belfast from the UUP (by 64 votes and 995 votes respectively), and in 1983 a remarkably close result in East Antrim saw DUP candidate Jim Allister (now TUV leader) lose to the UUP’s Roy Beggs by 367 votes. The Anglo-Irish Agreement provided another catalyst for unionist electoral pacts. The DUP, UUP and UPUP agreed not to challenge each other in 1987 and 1992, but by 1997 relationships had deteriorated, and in 2001 and 2005 the DUP targeted UUP seats and took almost all of the unionist-majority seats apart from North Down.

Today, unionist pacts are unlikely in strongly-unionist constituencies such as North Antrim, East Antrim, Strangford and Lagan Valley. However, unionists continue to co-operate in areas where a non-unionist candidate has a strong chance. For example, since 2010 there have been various agreements in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, an ultra-marginal seat won by Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew in 2001 and 2005. Independent unionist Rodney Connor lost by just 4 votes in 2010, and former UUP leader Tom Elliott won by 530 votes in 2015 because of DUP support. Gildernew reclaimed the seat from Elliott (despite DUP support again) in 2017 by 875 votes. Also, in 2015 and 2017 the UUP stood aside for the DUP in North Belfast to help Nigel Dodds to defeat Sinn Féin candidates Gerry Kelly in 2015 by 5,326 votes and John Finucane in 2017 by 2,081 votes, and in 2015 the UUP endorsed the DUP in East Belfast which allowed Gavin Robinson to narrowly defeat Alliance MP Naomi Long by 2,597 votes, who had dramatically won the seat from Peter Robinson in 2010.

Nationalist parties have not had formal pacts in the past, but there have been some occasions when a single party has stood aside. The most recent example of this was in 2010 when Sinn Féin decided not to stand in South Belfast, allowing the SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell to win the seat with a majority of 5,926, as opposed to 1,235 in 2005 and 906 in 2015. Both Sinn Féin and the SDLP stood in all 18 constituencies in 2015 and 2017, despite calls for an anti-Brexit pact in the latter.

This time, we have seen an unprecedented discussion about pacts and parties standing aside in certain constituencies. All of the five main parties apart from Alliance are standing aside in at least one constituency. The DUP instigated things by announcing they would stand aside in Fermanagh and South Tyrone for the UUP’s Tom Elliott (even though the UUP have not announced a candidate yet). The UUP reciprocated by saying they will not run in North Belfast against Nigel Dodds, even though incoming leader Steve Aiken had pledged the UUP would contest every constituency. At midnight last night, it was announced that the SDLP would stand aside in North Belfast, East Belfast and North Down, and at noon today Sinn Féin said they would not stand in South Belfast, East Belfast and North Down.

The reasoning of the DUP and UUP for co-operation in two constituencies is that they want to regain Fermanagh and South Tyrone from the abstentionist Sinn Féin MP Michelle Gildernew, and prevent John Finucane from defeating Nigel Dodds and becoming another abstentionist MP in North Belfast. Sinn Féin and the SDLP have both said their decisions are not part of a pact, and they want to maximise the remain vote by advocating that voters tactically vote for the strongest anti-Brexit candidate in those four constituencies.

I don’t like pacts for several reasons, but before giving my reasoning I want to reiterate that I believe that First Past The Post is an appalling voting system which is fundamentally unsuitable for a divided society like Northern Ireland. While AV is also flawed, it is still much better then FPTP, and it is a shame that voters did not opt for this system in 2011. In any case, Single Transferable Vote (used for local, Assembly and European elections in Northern Ireland) is the best system as it encourages all parties to participate and maximise democratic representation, while avoiding the key problem of FPTP that votes can be ‘split’ or ‘spoiled.’

Pacts limit the democratic choices for voters. It also ignores the complexities of politics in Northern Ireland by simplistically suggesting that voters are only concerned with one issue. For example, it would be wrong to think that every UUP voter in North Belfast will vote for Nigel Dodds, or that every SDLP voter will vote for John Finucane. For UUP voters who oppose Brexit and are socially liberal, or SDLP voters who want an MP who will take their seat in the House of Commons, there is another choice, Alliance candidate Nuala McAllister, who topped the poll in the Castle DEA with 1,787 votes in the local election.

Another problem with pacts is that they can expose contradictions within parties. As I highlighted earlier, unionist parties in the past have organised pacts for almost every constituency in the past. However, there is a clear problem if a pact only involves a few constituencies. For example, in this election the UUP will be encouraging people to vote for Nigel Dodds in Glengormley, but just around the corner in Carnmoney and Mallusk, UUP members will be canvassing for Danny Kinahan, hoping he can defeat the DUP’s Paul Girvan in South Antrim. Also, the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood will be competing to win in Foyle against Sinn Féin MP Elisha McCallion, but at the opposite end of the A6 road SDLP members in their deputy leader Nichola Mallon’s constituency will not have a party colleague to vote for.

This particular pact undermines some of the criticisms that the UUP and SDLP have of the DUP and Sinn Féin. The UUP have been very critical of how the DUP have used their influence at Westminster, both on Brexit and with the institutions designed to deal with legacy cases. This will be key to their debates in South Antrim and Upper Bann, but will these issues just be ignored in North Belfast and Fermanagh and South Tyrone? On the other side, the SDLP have rightly called out Sinn Féin for abstaining from Parliament and missing some decisive Brexit votes where they could have made the difference. In Foyle, where Sinn Féin beat the SDLP by just 169 votes in 2017, abstentionism will be the number one issue, but in North Belfast the SDLP seem to be telling voters to vote for an abstentionist candidate, just to stop a pro-Brexit DUP MP.

I believe that Alliance is right to stand in all 18 constituencies. Alliance has just had its best local election result in 42 years, it is now represented in almost every council. And in the European election, Naomi Long was elected by voters across Northern Ireland as one of our three MEPs. Now polls suggest that Long could retake East Belfast, Paula Bradshaw is one of the favourites to win in South Belfast and John Blair is a front-runner in South Antrim. It would be wrong for Alliance to look for votes in certain elections, but not others. (And before anyone mentions it, I had just started primary school when Alliance stood aside in some constituencies in 2001, I would not have supported it and in retrospect it was not a good idea).

This will be a fascinating election, and it is a shame that other parties have limited the choices for voters in a number of constituencies. Alliance is likely to be the only party contesting all 18 constituencies, working hard and campaigning for votes from every voter in Northern Ireland. After the local and European elections, I look forward to seeing the Alliance surge continuing.

The Problem with the Good Friday Agreement

I was too young to vote for the Good Friday Agreement, but if I had been more then fifteen years older I would have voted for it. I believe it was necessary to promote a democratic system for Northern Ireland which was legitimately viewed and supported by all sides of our community. It was also necessary to end the thirty-year conflict which had engulfed Northern Ireland and bring us into a period of peace and stability. Despite their institutions being inactive for nearly three years, the 1998 Agreement has proven to be successful in its fundamental purpose of ending the terrible violence which people in Northern Ireland endured for a long time, and because of that we should be grateful for the Agreement and its authors.

However, it is not perfect, in fact it is seriously flawed in several respects, and although I continue to support the Agreement I think it is fair to highlight its flaws and deficiencies. The most obvious problem with the Agreement is that it has not resolved the fundamental ethno-national divisions in Northern Ireland, instead it merely seeks to manage and accommodate them. Northern Ireland’s society is primarily divided between those who support a united Ireland (nationalists) and those who want Northern Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom (unionists). This division is not just political, it is also viewed by many from a religious perspective due to the fact that most nationalists come from a Catholic background and most unionists come from a Protestant background. And the division between unionists and nationalists dominates many aspects of public life, for example schools are overwhelmingly either Catholic controlled or state schools that are almost entirely Protestant. Similarly, some public housing areas are entirely composed of residents from one side of the political divide.

The Agreement and its successors has never sought to address this, instead it could be argued that they have entrenched the ethno-national divide and institutionalised sectarianism through the designation system in the Assembly, in which MLAs can designate as ‘unionist’ or ‘nationalist.’ If they designate as anything else then they will be counted as ‘other,’ for example Alliance MLAs designate as ‘United Community,’ while the three MLAs from the Greens and People Before Profit who were elected in 2017 designated as ‘socialist,’ ‘feminist’ and ‘European,’ but all are counted as simply ‘other.’ This is not just a formality, it has massive implications for the running of the Assembly and certain key votes. Initially the First Minister and deputy First Minister were elected by a cross-community majority of MLAs, and on one occasion three Alliance MLAs had to briefly re-designate as ‘unionist’ in order to save the Agreement and its institutions. St. Andrew’s changed the appointment of the First Minister and deputy First Minister so that the largest party of the largest designation nominates the First Minister, and the largest party of the second largest designation nominates the deputy First Minister. This is arguably worse then the original method because it removes the formal approval process of the Assembly and gives more power to the larger parties, which clearly suits the DUP and Sinn Féin particular. Following the Hillsborough Agreement, the Justice Minister is elected by a cross-community vote. Also, any Assembly vote can be subject to a petition of concern, which if signed by thirty or more MLAs forces a cross-community vote, either through parallel consent (a majority of members voting, plus a majority of unionists and a majority of nationalists), or a weighted majority (60% of members voting, plus 40% of unionists and 40% of nationalists).

The designations system has never been subject to serious reform, despite it being clearly the most problematic aspect of the devolved institutions. The obvious solution is to abolish designations and introduce a two-thirds weighted-majority for the aforementioned issues which are currently subject to a cross-community vote. This was suggested by Alliance in 2002, but was unfortunately rejected by the UUP and SDLP. It seems even less likely that the DUP and Sinn Féin will consider any changes. The designations system and the use of cross-community votes disproportionately effects the parties which are intended to represent everyone rather then just one side of the community by making their votes count for less, such as Alliance, the Greens, People Before Profit and previously the Women’s Coalition. It prevents any realignment of politics towards the typical left-right socio-economic divisions in most democracies, and undermines a key aspect of representative democracy by making the votes of some Assembly members count for more, meaning that not all MLAs are equal. It also ignores the diversity of groups within Northern Ireland, by assuming that the only two groups worthy of special representation are unionists and nationalists. There are many other groups in our society who are underrepresented in the Assembly, for example there has only ever been one MLA from an ethnic minority background, Anna Lo who was the Alliance MLA for South Belfast from 2007 to 2016, and there has only been one MLA from the LGBT+ community, John Blair who succeeded David Ford as Alliance MLA for South Antrim last year. This lack of diversity is disappointing when compared to Westminster or the Oireachtas, and might be a consequence of our focus on unionist-nationalist divisions to the detriment of everyone else in our society.

Another problematic aspect of the Agreement is the lack of emphasis on overcoming the divisions in our society. Although the UK and Ireland did incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into their domestic law, giving Northern Ireland citizens direct access to the courts to enforce their rights, there has been no significant progress on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, which could be more important in the future if a future UK Government attempts to bring Northern Ireland out of the ECHR. 

Integrated education and mixed housing are referenced in the 1998 Agreement, in the section entitled Reconciliation and Victims of Violence which says:

“An essential aspect of the reconciliation process is the promotion of a culture of tolerance at every level of society, including initiatives to facilitate and encourage integrated education and mixed housing.”

At the time of the 1998 Agreement, 11,910 children were educated in 43 integrated schools. In October 2016 there were 65 integrated schools and 23,088 pupils. This is significant progress, but the education system still remains overwhelmingly segregated in Northern Ireland, with more then 90% of schools remaining almost entirely Protestant or almost entirely Catholic. But there has not been much of an initiative from various Education Ministers (all Sinn Féin or DUP since 1998) for integrated education, instead they have favoured shared education, which is an improvement over complete segregation but still falls short as it can perpetuate a culture of ‘others’ within schools primarily based around religion. Housing also remains largely segregated, with only limited progress since 1998.

On balance the Good Friday Agreement has proven to be a success, as its primary intention was to end the prolonged period of violence in Northern Ireland. However, it has proven to be more about conflict management then conflict resolution. Northern Ireland remains as divided along ethno-national lines as it was in 1998, possibly more so because of the emergence of the DUP and Sinn Féin as the dominant parties of unionism and nationalism respectively, rather then the more moderate UUP and SDLP. But more recently we have seen the unprecedented success of the ‘other’ parties, especially Alliance who had a historic victory in the 2019 European election with Naomi Long winning one of the three Northern Ireland seats in the European Parliament. Two electoral statistics reiterate the scale of the increase in support for non-aligned parties: in the 2003 Assembly election the vote for Alliance, Greens and the Women’s Coalition was 4.89%, this was the election in which the DUP and Sinn Féin became the dominant parties in their respective designations. In the 2019 European election, the vote for Alliance, Greens and two non-aligned independents was 20.97%. The Assembly and its institutions should reflect that through the abolition of community designations for MLAs and an alternative system which treats all MLAs as equal: unionists, nationalists, and others.

Why the UK needs a written constitution

Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue Parliament in order to limit the possibility of MPs stopping a no-deal Brexit on 31st October is shameful and disgraceful, but it highlights a more significant problem beyond the Brexit debate. That is the unwritten UK constitution and the fact that it simply isn’t good enough.

Although the UK constitution is not codified in a single document, as is the case across most of the world, it does have a constitution in the sense that it does have fundamental constitutional principles, such as parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law. Most of these constitutional principles emerged through historical statutes, for example the rule of law was a key part of the Magna Carta 1215 and the Petition of Right 1628, while parliamentary sovereignty was a central aspect of the English Reformation, Civil War, Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the Act of Union 1707. The most obvious reason why the UK has never adopted a written constitution is because there has never been a single massive political event which has forced the complete restructuring of the UK constitution, unlike Germany which adopted the Grundgesetz after the Second World War, or South Africa which adopted a new constitution after the end of Apartheid.

However, I believe that the UK constitution is no longer fit for purpose, and a written constitution should be created as a priority. One of the main reasons for this is the ambiguous relationship between the various branches of government, i.e. legislative, executive and judicial. The Brexit debate has been central to this. Remember in 2017 how then Prime Minister Theresa May intended to unilaterally initiate the Article 50 negotiations with the EU, until the Supreme Court held in Miller v Secretary of State for Exiting the EU that only Parliament had such power? The Government’s argument was that they were entitled to trigger Article 50 using the royal prerogative, which is also normally use to prorogue Parliament. In most other countries this sort of extremely important decision-making would clearly be set out in their written constitution. Johnson’s recent decision to prorogue Parliament highlights the disproportionate influence that the executive has over the legislature, contrary to the apparent principle of parliamentary sovereignty.

Another ambiguous aspect of the UK constitution concerns the appointment of the Prime Minister. This is a position which has gradually developed over time, and most of their powers are a result of the aforementioned royal prerogative, which legally remain with the monarch but in reality are used by the Prime Minister on their behalf. The office of Prime Minister was not established by a specific statute or document, and the only qualification is that the monarch appoints the person most likely to command the confidence of the Commons, which means it is usually the person who leads the largest party in the Commons. However, the ambiguous method of their appointment generally leads to mid-term new Prime Ministers being referred to as ‘unelected’ because they haven’t faced the public in a general election. I think this a consequence of the ‘Presidentialisation’ of UK politics, i.e. that like US Presidents, Prime Ministers should have a direct mandate from the public before taking office, which is now the case with some newer offices such as the Mayor of London. In contrast, the Irish Constitution is very clear about the appointment of the Taoiseach, they are nominated by a simple majority of Dáil Éireann (crucially unlike the UK, TDs directly vote for the Taoiseach), then they are formally appointed by the President, who must appoint whoever the Dáil supports. This would resolve the unambiguous question of whether the Commons directly supports an incoming Prime Minister during a parliamentary term.

Another problem with the UK’s uncodified constitution is the impact of devolution creating a constitutional imbalance. Despite the UK being a unitary state, significant powers have been devolved to regional assemblies and parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There are substantial disparities between the powers in each institution, with Scotland the most powerful and Wales the least. On balance devolution has been a success, but some in England probably feel understandably underrepresented, especially as England has probably the most centralised and disunified system of government in Europe. The easiest way to resolve this disparity would be to create a fully federal UK, like the USA or Germany, in which England would be divided into roughly equal regions each with a local assembly with exactly the same powers as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and there is a clear distinction between the powers of local, regional and national institutions. The nine European parliamentary constituencies could provide such a model for the political division of England.

The other important flaw with the absence of a written constitution is the absence of a clear protection for human rights. The UK has no fundamental rights (i.e. rights that represent a higher authority then ordinary law and which Parliament cannot simply revoke). The Human Rights Act 1998 represented an extremely important step for human rights in the UK, but it is not strong enough. Although it incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law, it did not give the Supreme Court the power to strike down legislation which violates human rights, instead they can only issue a declaration of incompatibility. Normally Parliament acts to fix such declarations, but there are exceptions, such as prisoners voting. In Ireland and the USA the Supreme Court can strike down laws that violate their constitutions, however neither country has a particularly impressive list of fundamental rights. In Germany the first nineteen articles outline the basic rights, they are inviolable and cannot be removed, and they directly bind the legislature, executive and judiciary. Unlike these countries, in theory the UK Parliament could pass whatever laws it wanted, no matter how extreme or to whatever extent they violated human rights. This is an uncomfortable position for any legislature to be in, and would be resolved by having a written constitution with a full and justiciable Bill of Rights. Such a Bill of Rights would be particularly welcome in Northern Ireland, especially as it was a key aspect of the Good Friday Agreement.

The final point I want to consider is the use of referendums. The use of referendums in the UK is something I would like to consider in greater detail another time, but in the context of this debate it is clear that they do not fit well with the current UK constitution, in particular with parliamentary sovereignty. They are only legally binding if parliamentary legislation indicates so, which could be overturned by further legislation, and they put MPs in the unfortunate decision of forcing them to believe that they must carry out a decision which is against the interests of their constituents and the country. After all, we elect MPs on the basis that they will use their judgement in our best interests, and if we disagree with them we can vote them out. Referendums create a further mandate which does not comply with this representative role of MPs. There is also the additional problem that referendums are generally only used when the Government is divided, and they are used as a political tool to simplistically resolve an often extremely complex situation, i.e. EU membership or electoral reform. Ireland handles referendums much more effectively, they are the only way to amend the Constitution, giving the people the final say on the supreme law rather then politicians, but because they are only used for a specific purpose they cannot be abused by a Government which wants to avoid a difficult decision. Although the Irish model can have the unfortunate side-effect of forcing referendums on minority rights and social issues, such as same-sex marriage and abortion, these votes have been respectfully held and not subject to the numerous controversies of the UK’s 2016 referendum.

The UK’s uncodified constitution has worked well for a very long time. However, it has been substantially changed by modern innovations such as devolution and human rights, and it was inevitable that the entire constitutional framework would face a challenge in the future. Brexit is that challenge, it has highlighted all the flaws of the UK’s unwritten constitution, and exacerbated the need for reform. Hopefully the need for a written and codified constitution and subsequent developments towards this change might be the only positive thing to come out of this otherwise disastrous Brexit process.