Aontú: Their impact on Sinn Féin and the SDLP

Aontú have so far secured four council seats (albeit temporarily and not concurrently) in the North since they were founded in January 2019: two people from the SDLP gene pool and two from the Sinn Féin gene pool. Before the local government election, sitting councillors Fergal Lennon (Sinn Féin – Craigavon) and Rosemarie Shields (SDLP – Mid Tyrone) left their parties and joined Aontú. Neither of these two candidates were successful in that election and the sole elected Aontú councillor was the former Sinn Féín member, and retired Shantallow GP, Dr. Anne McCloskey. She has since been joined by the former SDLP councillor Denise Mullen who left the party in July after she abstained on a vote on same sex marriage, doubling the Aontú representation in Northern Ireland, from one to two.

Aontú’s social media output seems primarily focused on attacking Sinn Féin, peppered with a number of attacks on the SDLP. But Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín, himself a former Sinn Fein representative in the South, has made statements in the past suggesting that a number of SDLP members and representatives will move towards Aontú. Back in January, Tóibín stated that he hoped that seven of their candidates would be current SDLP or Sinn Féin councillors. Whilst this clearly was not the case, it was true that a number of Aontú candidates were formerly associated with both Sinn Féin and the SDLP, from former Sinn Féin MLAs Francie Brolly in Limavady and Gerry McHugh in Erne East to former SDLP activist Macartan Digney in Downpatrick.

Aontú clearly believe that political space has been created for them as both Sinn Féín and the SDLP have changed their positions on abortion and gay rights in recent years. Speaking in Belfast in January Mr. Tóibín said:

“I believe over the last year that Sinn Féin has narrowed its ideological space, both economically and socially. It has flipped its policy on a number of social issues. In 2015, the party would have been openly pro-life. In 2018, they’ve gone the opposite direction.

I also battled internally for the last two years to make sure I could be part of the Oireachtas team on an equal basis, but because I had a difference of opinion on the issue of abortion that just wasn’t allowed. I wasn’t given the chance to equally participate in the organisation.”

When asked about his hopes for attracting support from traditional Sinn Féin, SDLP, Fianna Fáil, and Labour voters, as well as his party’s platform beyond the abortion debate, he said:

“We are for the unity of the Irish people North and South and we will be reaching out the hand of friendship to people from a Protestant background, people who wouldn’t have been able to vote for Sinn Féin in the past, for many reasons.”

In terms of where Aontú are attracting their support and votes from, there are two ways of looking at the local government results to determine this: looking at the 16 DEAs where they ran candidates to see how their vote impacted on the SDLP and Sinn Féín vote, and considering where their transfers went when Aontú candidates were eliminated.

Aontú ran candidates in 16 of the 80 DEAs in Northern Ireland, compared to Sinn Féin who ran candidates in 66 DEAs and the SDLP who ran in 61 DEAs. Aontú polled 7,459 first preference votes which was 1.1% of the total votes cast in the election but if we only focus on the 16 DEAs which they contested, they polled 5.3% of the vote. This indicates that Aontú either were very particular about which DEAs they fielded candidates in, or they only had a small field of candidates who could be persuaded to stand.

In the areas where they did stand their success was mixed: Dr. Anne McCloskey was the only candidate elected; she was the only candidate to poll over 1,000 votes; and was only one of six Aontú candidates to poll more than 500 votes. High profile Aontú candidates, such as the aforementioned former Sinn Féin MLAs Francie Brolly and Gerry McHugh, polled poorly, taking 337 and 174 votes respectively. 

Whilst Aontú may not have seen as many councillors elected as they would have hoped, when we drill down into their DEAs it is clear they had some impact on both the SDLP and Sinn Féin vote – although the extent is debatable. Of the 16 DEAs in which Aontú stood, the SDLP vote decreased in 12 and the Sinn Féín vote decreased in 7. The impact on the SDLP was clearly greater and the combined SDLP vote in these 16 DEAs was down just over 2,000 (and this figure is partially masked by an increase of almost 1,000 votes in Craigavon where the SDLP ran an exceptional campaign and actually picked up a council seat), whereas the Sinn Féin vote was up almost 700.

In terms of Aontú transfers, we can see that in fourteen of the sixteen DEAs they contested, their transfers can be analysed (it is not possible to analyse the other two as in Ballyarnet Dr. Anne McCloskey was elected and her transfers never came into play, and in Rowallane Aontú were excluded as part of a double elimination so it is not possible to determine which of their votes transferred to which candidates).

It is worth noting that these figures should be taken with a pinch of salt as the number of non-transferable votes can be higher if the candidate is eliminated when multiple others have already been excluded or elected. That being said, there are three distinct patterns when it comes to Aontú – transfers to Sinn Féín, the SDLP and those which transfer to no other candidate.

An identical percent of Aontú transfers (29%) went to both the SDLP and Sinn Féin, which is the same proportion of votes that transferred from Colum Eastwood to Martina Anderson in the European election, whilst 33% of Aontú votes were non-transferable. When analysing transfers a balance has to be struck between arguing that transferred votes are votes which are simply ‘returning home’, i.e. that these are really SDLP or Sinn Féin voters who voted for Aontú as a protest but would ultimately support one of the more established parties, or arguing that Aontú are successfully winning votes away from the SDLP and Sinn Féín. It will be interesting to see whether these patterns continue in future elections and whether there are areas where Aontú win seats from the SLP and Sinn Féin, even where Aontú transfers save or win seats for them. Equally, it will be interesting to see what proportion of Sinn Féin and SDLP transfers end up going to Aontú in future, but for that to happen Aontú will have to start outpolling these parties.

Speaking on The Nolan Show on 21st August (36mins in), Mr. Tóibín said that:

“In many areas in the North of Ireland the vote between Sinn Féín and the DUP is finely balanced so if a republican or a nationalist decides not to vote for Sinn Féin and vote for an alternative republican voice the danger happens then that the seat is lost to a member of the DUP, which obviously has the opposite political view. It is interesting that when Aontú fought the local elections in the North we did far better in large nationalist communities where the balance wasn’t finely tuned. Where the communities were 50/50, where a particular nationalist or republican seat was only two or three hundred votes in a majority, there we found it very difficult to make a breakthrough because republicans were unwilling to lend their vote to an alternative republican voice.”

This statement is somewhat, unsurprisingly, borne out by the facts: in areas where the combined nationalist and republican vote was significantly larger than the unionist vote, Aontú performed better than in areas where the difference between the two blocs was smaller. In Ballyarnet, where Aontú recorded their largest share of the vote, and won a seat, 90% of voters opted for a nationalist or republican party. Similarly in areas such as Benbradagh and Carntogher, where Aontú polled 9% and 8% of the vote respectively, the total nationalist and republican vote was over 68% and 75% respectively. Conversely in Rowallane, where Aontú only polled 1% of the vote, the combined unionist vote was 48%, compared to a combined nationalist and republican vote of 25%. In Craigavon, where they polled 2% of the vote, the combined unionist share of the vote was 46%, compared to the total nationalist and republican vote of 47%.

In the Irish local government election, which occurred three weeks after the local government election in the North, Aontú ran 53 candidates, including three sitting councillors, but only won three seats (out of 949). They won seats in Cavan, Meath and Wexford and the 25,660 votes they polled made them the eighth largest party, with their vote share of 1.5% almost identical to their share of the vote in the North. For any new party winning seats in your first election is always the aim, as it gives you credibility and the ability to build a profile before the next parliamentary election, but prior to that election, Peadar Tóibín had said he expected Aontú to win six seats. Based on their own expectations, these first elections, north and south, will have been a disappointment for the party.

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