Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: DUP remains party many on social media love to hate, but it keeps winning elections

Counting gets underway at Belfast City Hall
Counting gets underway at Belfast City Hall
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

As election candidates, pundits and counters catch up on sleep this Bank Holiday Monday, how is the 2019 local election best analysed in terms of all the main parties?

The DUP remains the party that many on social media love to hate - but one that keeps on winning elections. Invited to submit my private predictions to the team on BBC NI's The View last Thursday, I forecast the party would win 122 seats - which duly transpired. Much as I would love to claim this as psephological genius, it seemed obvious that the DUP vote would hold up, with little change to their seat tally.

For a full breakdown visit our Election hub and check out the results from each council: Antrim and Newtownabbey --- Ards and North Down --- Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon --- Belfast --- Causeway Coast and Glens --- Derry and Strabane --- Fermanagh and Omagh --- Lisburn and Castlereagh --- Mid and East Antrim --- Mid Ulster --- Newry, Mourne and Down

Weak competition from the UUP (and TUV), clear messages from the leader, the non-appearance of the RHI report, much trumpeting of extra cash for Northern Ireland via the confidence-and-supply deal and a detailed manifesto (even if the 30-odd pages was half the 2014 length) equalled DUP success.

The DUP's base remains pro-Stormont but anti-Irish Language Act - and mainly in favour of Brexit. An 'Executive first, talks later' approach makes sense in terms of the Assembly blame-game but does nothing to address the issues of concern.

The party will be pleased with the good performance of its gay candidate, Alison Bennington. As Jim Wells denounced her candidature, the televised condemnations of his outburst from Arlene Foster allowed the DUP to move nearer the completion of a long journey from religious sect to modern political party in image terms - even though policy on same-sex marriage has not changed one iota.

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What about the UUP? Belfast was a disaster; most of the rest mediocre, with a few high spots. A 2% decline in first preference vote share and a loss of 13 seats was acknowledged by some party figures as disappointing whereas others seemed in denial.

This was an opportunity wasted, in that local elections represented the best opportunity for a strong showing. My forecast was 95 seats. If - and it's a big if - the UUP can retain its European Parliament seat later this month though, that would be adequate compensation.

The big story of the election was the rise of the centre ground. Sightings of Alliance west of the Bann had been as common as those of Jim Wells at Pride but Naomi Long's party improved its position across the country. I forecast a mere 3 seat gain and the actual figure of 21 surpassed even party expectations.

This led to some commentary, largely speculative and probably mythical, that UUP moderates had deserted the party and given their first preferences to Alliance, amid talk of Alliance-leaning and DUP-leaning wings of the UUP. Based on analyses of previous UUP (and Alliance) voting patterns over the past decade, this seems unlikely.

The UUP vote held steady (it was the share that dropped) and the UUP voter identifies as unionist, funnily enough. Alliance voters tend to say 'neither' to the unionist or nationalist question. The Alliance vote rose significantly.

So the likeliest explanation, amid improved turnout, is the emergence of new voters, those who eschew the unionist versus nationalist game and probably and promisingly for the party - but this is more speculative - younger electors, who normally do not vote.

Of course, Alliance benefited from UUP and SDLP transfers, but this has always been the case.

For Sinn Fein it was a treading water type of election, 105 seats for the second consecutive local election and 15 below my expectations.

The gap in council seats between the party and the DUP narrowed slightly but not through any gains in Sinn Fein's haul. But given that the SDLP's vote share fell by more, to the lowest in its local election history, Michelle O'Neill will not be unduly perturbed. Moreover, the array of independent republicans and anti-abortionists will be less likely to chip away at Sinn Fein's percentage vote in bigger contests.

So, a fine performance by Alliance. And I'm not going to rain on any parade on a Bank Holiday Monday. But before the end of unionist versus nationalist, or Orange versus Green politics is hailed, it's worth noting that the party has taken 46 years to get to a local election vote share 2% lower than it achieved in May 1973…

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool

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