1. Shinners on a roll
This was a spectacular result for Sinn Fein, by any measure. The ambition of dominating Irish politics, North and South, as a prelude to national reunification, continues apace. A whopping 7.7% added to the party’s vote share, with an additional 39 seats, is also powerful testimony to their iron discipline and ability to conduct an effective ground game and get their vote out.
But what else does it mean? Well, every election – Westminster, assembly and locals – will now be seen as a proxy border poll. How can it not when Northern Ireland is such a contested place and the drumbeats of change grow ever louder?
The bizarre intervention from Ulster Unionist, Danny Kennedy – who complained on the BBC’s election programme that it wasn’t fair that Sinn Fein was sweeping up council seats, describing it (disgracefully) as a form of ‘benign apartheid’ because Unionists couldn’t get a look in – underscores how traumatic this result is for many on his side.
They are certainly treating the result as a proxy border poll. But with talk of Unionist voters refusing to come out to vote, is the sense that constitutional change is now utterly mainstream as a talking point serving to demoralise them?
You don’t need to be Dr Freud to point out that when some people sense that something has become highly likely, they begin to ‘price-in’ that change is coming, altering their thinking and expectations about it. Clearly, this doesn’t apply to die-hards, but, then, referendum campaigns are always won by convincing moderates. Is the fight going out of moderate Unionists?
2. United Irelanders can now command a majority of the vote
As the Belfast News (Hate?) Letter, for once a bastion of impartial understatement, put it: ‘The combined nationalist vote was larger than the combined unionist vote, which has never happened before in a Northern Ireland wide election.’
Pro-United Ireland parties (Sinn Fein, SDLP, People Before Profit and Aontú) won 41.5% of the vote. Pro-UK parties (DUP, UUP and TUV) won 38.1%. Another 15% was won by Alliance and the Greens (with most of those transfers no doubt heading to Nationalist parties).
Another 5.3% of the vote went to independents. Analysis from David McCann over at Slugger O’Toole, suggests the winning candidates broke 10-6 for pro-United Irelanders (with three others difficult to assess).
Are we beginning to see the consequences of demographic change working its way through the electorate, with young Nationalists now making a decisive difference? Was this election the tipping point? If this is indeed a paradigm rather than a blip, then what better evidence is there that the constitutional positional of Northern Ireland needs to be put to the test? Perhaps the outcome from the next cycle of Westminster, assembly and local elections should be the determining factor for calling a border poll?
3. No point sacking Eastwood or Beattie
Staring down the barrel of yet another defeat, Colum Eastwood reached for his familiar refrain: ‘I take responsibility.’ But then, well, doesn’t. The SDLP lost 20 councillors and saw their vote share recede by another 3.3%. To be fair, there’s no point in him quitting. No-one else in his party has any better ideas.
No need for Doug Beattie to walk the plank either, after another dismal performance from the Ulster Unionists. He’s their fifth leader in 13 years. (They only had six in the first 58 years of the party’s existence). Obviously, there’s little talk of a ‘Beattie bounce’ these days. (Not unless they are referring to a ‘dead cat bounce’). Like the SDLP, the UUP is similarly holed below the electoral water line. Dead on its legs and swaying about hoping for the end of the round. (Insert your own metaphor).
Both leaders have the same problem. They need to convince their respective parties to accept reality. Neither the SDLP or UUP will never again be in pole position – so both need to accept their relegated status on the grid, becoming parties of influence rather than power.
Keeping going head-to-head with their larger rivals is clearly a counsel of despair for both Eastwood and Beattie. They need to focus on developing a coherent position in terms of their policy platform and concentrate on solidifying what remains of their voter base. In that time-honoured formulation, they need to serenely accept the things they cannot change, the courage to change the things they can and the wisdom to know the difference.
4. Good(ish) day for Donaldson
There’s no getting around it, this was a good result for the DUP. Yes, they trailed Sinn Fein, both in numbers of council seats won and especially in the share of the vote, but, remarkably, they held what they had, winning exactly the same number of seats as they did in 2019 (122) and seeing their share of the vote drop only marginally, by 0.8%. Pressure from the more liberal UUP and more hardline TUV failed to materialise.
What does this mean? Well, the worst is over for Jeffrey Donaldson. At last, he now has some room for manoeuvre. The TUV bubble has burst and the quiet realists among the DUP’s ranks know (and hope) that a return to the assembly is on the cards after the summer, once all that marching and pallet-burning stuff is done with.
The DUP needs a period of stability while it repurposes itself. Rather than picking futile rows with Westminster that it invariably loses, the DUP needs to show that it is in control of local events. Ironically, the best way of doing that is to return to Stormont.
5. Bad(dish) day for Naomi
The relentless rise of centrist, constitutional agnosticism, heralded by academics and liberal commentators as Northern Ireland’s bright, pragmatic future, was unceremoniously halted in this election. Alliance gained just 1.8% more votes (and an extra 14 councillors), while the Greens lost 0.3% of their vote share and three councillors. Including their leader, Mal O’Hara.