Council Elections Background: Belfast…

This council has 60 councillors in 10 District Electoral Areas (DEA’s). The party with the most widespread representation at the last election was the DUP which won seats in 8 of them. SF came close with councillors in 7, while Alliance and SDLP each managed 6. Behind them came the Greens in 4, PBPA in 3 and PUP in 2.

Belfast is one of only two councils which did not see the election of an Independent candidate.

Both unionists and nationalists lost out equally as the others increased their vote share by 10% points.

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10 seats changed hands, one in each of the DEA’s. The Greens made all of their gains from the UUP, in Botanic, Castle and Lisnasharragh. The UUP also lost a seat to the DUP in Balmoral and to Alliance in Ormiston. The other Alliance gain came from SF in Titanic. SF did pick up a seat from the SDLP in Black Mountain, but dropped another to PBPA in Collin. PBPA also took the PUP seat in Oldpark. Finally, the TUV lost its only Belfast seat to the DUP in Court.

The full make-up of the council in 2014 and 2019 can be seen in the chart below.

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Alliance, Greens and PBPA each recorded a 4% gain in vote share. It is also notable how a relatively small fall of 2.8% in its vote can cost a mid-sized party almost all of its seats – as the UUP found. This happens when the party’s support is geographically widely spread, leaving it dangerously thin in many places. Compare that to the even bigger vote loss for the geographically much more concentrated PUP which only resulted in one seat loss. This is a worrying precedent for the SDLP who start in the election in Belfast this year from a similar position to that of the UUP before the 2019 election.

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In case you are wondering who accounts for the missing Other Other votes, these are almost all NI21.

Over the last four years three councillors left the parties for which they were elected. In December 2021 Titanic councillors John Kyle (a PUP councillor since 2011) and Carol Howard (elected for Alliance in 2019) both switched to the UUP. Kyle will not be standing again, while Howard will be contesting Ormiston for her new party.

At the end of the term Paul McCusker, who was elected for the SDLP in Oldpark in 2019, announced that he would be contesting the coming election as an Independent.

The Assembly election showed further erosion on the unionist vote, compared to shares at the 2019 council election. Only East Belfast recorded an increase (+3), with North, West and South -1%, -4% and -8% respectively. The nationalist share change was a near mirror image, -1% in East, +4% in North, +9% in South and +10% in West.

Most of the decline in the unionist share was driven by the DUP, while the UUP recorded a small increase in East (+2%) and the TUV a more substantial 7% in North.

Most of the nationalist increase was accounted for by SF, which was up 8% or 9% everywhere except East Belfast (-1%). While the SDLP held its share, apart from North Belfast where it fell by 5%.

In total Others slipped back compared to 2019, substantially so in West (-6%) wholly due to a fall in the PBPA vote. In North the fall was 3% (-1% Green and -2% Alliance). South and East both recorded slight reductions of 1% point, with the Greens -2% in East.

Taking the Assembly performance with more recent opinion polling, SF go into this election in Belfast hoping for substantial gains with the SDLP and PBPA fearing losses. Changes involving the other parties are likely to be limited.

Outlook by DEA

As well as giving the historical data for the last election in 2019, each table contains two projections.

The first, headed ‘Based on Ass’22’, shows an estimate for the change in the party quota based on the change in its vote between 2019 and 2022 in the relevant constituency or constituencies. I then show where this might put a seat under threat or present a possible gain.

The second projection is changed in the light of the headline figures in the latest Lucid Talk poll. However, since the detailed tables are not published until later, I have been unable to use some of the information I normally rely on.

I have departed from the Assembly vote and the Lucid Talk poll in one respect. I have assumed that Independents who were elected in 2019 will hold onto all or most of their vote in this election, based on the tendency for this to happen in previous council elections.

Please remember that this is not intended to be a prediction. In contrast to my conservative treatment of Independents seeking re-election, I have included party gains and losses which are a long shot, as well as those which are more likely. This is to reflect the degree of uncertainty inherent in making these estimates. Treat them as a guide as to what to look out for, or for making your own judgements.

My Best bet for each DEA is just a bit of fun. It is too simplified to capture all the possibilities and may therefore be wrong as often as it is right.

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Description automatically generated with medium confidence Of the five outgoing councillors (one of whom was co-opted) only 1 of the DUP members is not standing again. And that second DUP seat is looking distinctly wobbly.

Sinn Feín has put up a second candidate, but there are unlikely to be enough transfers to get him across the line. Better placed is Alliance with a range of potential transfer doners.

The possibility that both the Alliance and Sinn Feín take seats from the SDLP and UUP also exists.

Best bet: Alliance gain from DUP

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Description automatically generated with low confidence All seven outgoing councillors are on the ballot again. Two of them are Sinn Feín co-optees.

There is no sign of a dent in Sinn Feín’s dominance, but plenty of potential transfers around to see the PBPA home even on a reduced vote.

Best bet: No change

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Description automatically generated Only the outgoing Sinn Feín councillor is not contesting the election this time.

The TUV candidate stood in the last election as a South Belfast Unionist.

The SDLP is facing a strong challenge from Sinn Feín. Its best chance of doing so is if Alliance is poorly balanced, releasing transfers from ‘other’ parties early. While Alliance seems to be hoping that unionist transfers would give it a chance of overtaking both the SDLP and Sinn Feín to take the SDLP seat. However, the decision of the DUP to run 2 candidates may tie up unionist transfers too long to help Alliance.

I’m dithering about my best bet here – so much so that I keep retyping it. But there are not three nationalist seats here, so either Sinn Feín or the SDLP must be disappointed. And given where the momentum seems to lie at the moment I have plumped for…..

Best bet: Sinn Feín gain from SDLP

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Description automatically generated Five of the six outgoing councillors are up for re-election, two of them were co-opted. The exception is Sinn Feín.

Both the SDLP and Green are hanging on by their fingertips against the threat of a resurgent Sinn Feín. Green looks to have the stronger grip. However, if the SF surplus is really as large as this estimate suggests it could be, then there is chance that SF transfers could see the SDLP returned at the expense of the Green.

Best bet: Sinn Feín gain from SDLP

Only half of the outgoing six councillors are standing again – 2 Sinn Feín and the PBPA.

Two Independents are on the ballot paper. Tony Mallon, who describes himself as a social libertarian, contested West Belfast in 2022 as an Independent netting 129 votes on a cross-community, pro-life, “anti-woke”, control-immigration manifesto. Julieann McNally is a campaigner for improved Care Home conditions who believes that “big party interests will always override grassroots community interests”.

This time there are no unionist candidates. At the last election half of unionist voters did not transfer.

Sinn Feín look poised for a gain at the expense of either the SDLP or PBPA. If so, we are in for a transfer race between them. How Aontú voters would split between them is anybody’s guess. It could be very close.

Best bet: Sinn Feín gain from PBPA

All the six outgoing councillors are seeking re-election apart from 1 DUP.

I have not found the platform of the Independent, Geoffrey Wilson.

If you are looking for a surprise result you are unlikely to find one here. The DUP appears to have three of the four unionist seats sown up tight. And although the PUP shows little sign of life as a party, Billy Hutchinson should be sufficiently well established to withstand the TUV which starts from a very low base. Sinn Feín face no substantial opposition from within nationalism. Indeed the only question is why they have not run three candidates in order to try to build the nationalist vote.

Best bet: No change

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Description automatically generated Neither of the two outgoing DUP councillors are up for re-election, the four from other parties are.

The SDLP’s prospects of retaining their seat in the face of the Sinn Feín challenge hinge on being able to get transfers. Since there are unlikely to be many to be had from the ‘others’, they will have to look to the UUP. That is only likely to happen if the TUV overtakes the UUP.

Best bet: Sinn Feín gain from SDLP.

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Description automatically generated with medium confidence The six outgoing councillors will be on the ballot paper – although two of them were co-opted.

No one can know how much of the 1.8 of a quota Paul McCusker won as an SDLP candidate he will retain now that he is running as an Independent. Even if he keeps only 40% of it (the 0.7 of a quota I have used for the estimate), he has a good chance of winning a seat. But he could even do better that that. The other factor in his favour is that he nearly trebled the SDLP’s 2014 vote share, which speaks to his abilities.

PBPA only gained a seat last time because there was no second SDLP candidate.

The unionist vote could be close to providing them with a second seat – but they would have to do that under their own steam. There will be very few transfers available for either a DUP or a TUV candidate from outside unionism.

Best bet: Independent McCusker and Sinn Feín both gain a seat from SDLP and PBPA.

Of the seven councillors elected in 2019 only 1 Green, 1 DUP and 1 Alliance are going forward again, plus a co-opted Alliance.

Alliance are clearly hoping to pick up the Green seat. Balancing 4 candidates well enough is tough, however. It is very possible that unionist transfers will come into play before the struggle between Green and Alliance has been settled. Historically Alliance would receive far more than the Green, but Alliance would have to share them between three or four candidates. That could shift the balance in favour of the Green.

It is unlikely that either PBPA or the SDLP will take a large number of votes. The TUV’s vote prospects are more uncertain, but both the DUP and UUP seats look quite safe.

Best bet: No change

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Description automatically generated Of the six outgoing councillors only two are competing this time – the UUP and one of the DUP’s.

That the PUP are unable to put up a candidate in a DEA where they actually won a seat last time speaks volumes. The TUV had no candidate last time so lack the essential history for a good estimate of their potential. However, organisation and people resources must give the DUP a significant edge, making them favourites to take the PUP seat.

Sinn Feín look destined to retain their role as runner-up. The only time that they won here was in the election after the arguments over flag flying at City Hall, when a highly effective local campaign to encourage unionist voters not to transfer to any non-unionist delivered a seat to Niall Ó Donnghaile. Essentially the Sinn Fein problem here is that if they don’t seal the deal on first preferences, there are simply no sources of significant transfers to be had.

Best bet: DUP to take seat vacated by PUP.


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