Belfast Telegraph

Belfast City Hall Union flag: Unionists have only themselves to blame

By Bill White

We’re now in the build-up to new local council elections in May 2014. A major issue that will dominate the election for the new Belfast City Council will be the council decision in 2012 to remove the Union flag from the City Hall, and fly it only on designated days.

This was a democratic decision by the council, which is currently made up of 16 Sinn Fein, 15 DUP, 8 SDLP, 6 Alliance, 3 UUP, 2 PUP, and 1 independent (Frank McCoubrey). As such the unionist/nationalist breakdown comes out at: 24 nationalist/republican, 21 unionist (counting Frank McCoubrey as a unionist), with the Alliance party holding the balance with 6 members. So you can see why Alliance is getting a lot of flak from the unionists over the flag issue, with their decision to support designated days!

But how did this decision come about, and if you’re pro-flying-the-flag, who is at fault with this decision? Frankly the unionist parties have to shoulder some of the blame because of how badly they ran their council election campaigns in 2011. In particular, the UUP had a disastrous council election in Belfast, dropping to only three members.

The UUP’s decisions regarding candidate selection, candidate numbers in each electoral area, and their overall campaigns, were bewildering. It could be said, that these decisions gave away three seats to the Alliance party, or at least gave Alliance easier wins.

The Pottinger electoral area (part of east Belfast) showed up one of these silly UUP election decisions. The UUP had run three candidates in this area at the previous council election, and obtained 2,317 votes. What did the UUP decide to do in 2011? – run only one candidate who achieved only 786 votes, and of course ended up unelected.

This was one of those situations (admittedly uncommon) that required two UUP candidates to run to maximise the total UUP vote, therefore giving the best chance of getting at least one candidate elected. But the unionist hierarchy thought they were making a clever decision in trying to hog everything for their one chosen candidate – They were wrong!

Laganbank was another electoral area where the UUP showed little understanding of the electorate. This is an area with a large liberal unionist voter base overlapping with a strong alliance voter base. Yes, there is a traditional unionist voter base, mostly in and around the Sandy Row area, but this made up less than 10% of the total Laganbank electorate.

This 10% is the vote the UUP went after. As well as being only 10% of potential voters, the problem with this approach is the UUP are then directly head-to-head with the DUP for this same type of ‘traditional unionist’ voter. There is only going to be one winner in that sort of contest - the DUP, as they’ve had this voter base tied-up for years.

An analysis of the new electoral boundaries for Belfast City Council, which will be used for the forthcoming council elections in May, show the most likely outcome is another ‘hung’ council (between unionists and nationalists/republicans) with other parties eg Alliance holding the balance of power.

Although if anyone is going to get an overall majority it’s the nationalists/republicans, and it’s very unlikely that unionists will ever again have control of Belfast City Council. If unionists want to have any chance of gaining overall control of the council, then they will need to co-operate at election time, and carefully plan candidates and campaigns – although it’s a bit late to start this now for this coming May! In terms of getting a majority on the council, at least this planning and preparation will give the unionists the best of those two famous chances – slim and none!

Bill White is Managing Director of LucidTalk, polling partners to the Belfast Telegraph

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