Reversal in UUP and SDLP fortunes is an opportunity for political progress
Local government elections held 40 years ago this week changed the face of Northern Ireland politics for ever, writes Alex Kane
Forty years ago tomorrow – May 30, 1973 – elections to the 26 'new' councils saw the first use of PR voting since the 1920s. Coming a few months after a White Paper which set out proposals for power-sharing and a few weeks before elections to an Assembly tasked to determine Northern Ireland's future governance, these were the most important elections since the creation of the state.
The elections were important, because they represented the first electoral tests for four new parties: Alliance, SDLP, DUP and Vanguard.
Alliance was particularly pleased, grabbing almost 14% and 94,000 votes, as well as pipping the SDLP to second place behind the UUP. Nevertheless, with almost 93,000 votes the SDLP had proved itself a force to be reckoned with. The UUP – with 41% and 287,000 votes – had a substantial lead over the combined 6% and 45,000 votes of the DUP and Vanguard.
UUP leader Brian Faulkner had reason to be satisfied. The White Paper was adamant that any new "Executive can no longer be based solely upon any single party if that party draws its support and elected representatives virtually entirely from only one section of a divided community".
But, on these figures, it looked as though he would be able to construct an Executive built mainly around the UUP and Alliance, limiting the SDLP to one minister and few committees chairmanships.
Even that prospect was too much for some elements of the UUP. Indeed, there was so much discontent at the prospect of power -sharing with the SDLP that all candidates were asked to sign a statement that they would "support the Statement of Party Policy issued on 9 May and, if elected, serve loyally as a member of the Unionist Party". Almost a quarter of candidates refused to sign, yet were still allowed to stand.
But Faulkner's confidence was misplaced. Alliance dipped to under 10%, while the SDLP rocketed to 22% and almost 160,000 votes. The DUP and Vanguard – with the UUP candidates who wouldn't sign the statement of support – picked up 32% and 232,000 votes.
This left Faulkner in an impossible position. Pro-power-sharing unionists had only managed 29% and 211,000 votes, leaving him with 24 seats to their 26. Worse: the SDLP and Alliance had 27 seats, meaning that any new Executive would not have a unionist majority.
It was always likely that any deal would be unacceptable to anti-power-sharing unionists, so it was strategically stupid of the SDLP to insist on the inclusion of a Council of Ireland in the Sunningdale Agreement a few months later.
At the Assembly elections 25 years later, David Trimble found himself in a position eerily similar to that of Faulkner. The UUP had 21% to the anti-Agreement unionist tally of 28%; both blocs were tied on 28 seats each, leaving Trimble dependent on the PUP's two seats and at the mercy of at least five anti-Agreement UUP MLAs.
Like Faulkner, the parties keenest to form an Executive with him (SDLP and SF) outnumbered him in seats: meaning that almost any deal was liable to collapse.
In January 1974, Faulkner stepped down as UUP leader. His new party, the Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, contested the Convention elections in May 1975, but only managed five seats.
Vanguard split in September 1975 when its leader, Bill Craig, voted in favour of voluntary coalition with the SDLP. Alliance never gained the percentage, or number, of votes of its first outing in May 1973, suggesting that the so-called middle ground in Northern Ireland is notoriously difficult to pin down.
Both the UUP and SDLP seem to be in a very long downward spiral to irrelevance and it seems unlikely that electoral recovery is possible.
Only the DUP is stronger now than it was in 1973, albeit locked at the hip with Sinn Fein, which only started contesting elections in 1981.
There is now, as in 1973, a huge gap in the electoral market. It will be interesting to see if, like 1973, new parties emerge to fill it.