What to watch for in the Local Elections…

For those of us who love elections, the next few days are like childhood anticipation of Christmas. So here’s my list of things to watch for. I am not focusing on council seats gained or lost: Michael Hehir has done so comprehensively in his wonderful set of Slugger articles. Rather, I am looking at how party and bloc vote share might change compared to the 2019 local elections.

A quick note on terminology:

  • majority means over 50% of the vote;
  • plurality means a larger share of the vote than another bloc or party, but a share less than 50%.
  • I use minority to mean a party/bloc whose vote is smaller than another party/bloc.
  • EA: there are 80 electoral areas. Ten councils have seven EAs; Belfast has ten EAs. EA names are emphasised.

All candidates in 2019 were classed as either unionist, nationalist or middle-ground (MG), based on 2019/Assembly transfers and candidate/party statements.

What to Watch For #1: Overall Bloc Vote Share:

This election looks likely to be the first-ever occasion to see a nationalist bloc plurality. The drop in the unionist bloc vote has accelerated since Brexit, and this has shrunk the gap, rather than a significant rise in the nationalist vote bloc having occurred.

What to Watch For #2: Overall Party Vote Share:

  • The DUP was the top party in 2019, with 24.1%, closely followed by SF (23.2%), some 6,167 votes behind. If opinion polls and Assembly 2022 results hold up, SF will become the plurality party.
  • There is 2.6% between UUP, SDLP and Alliance. Alliance took third place in the Assembly election; they are likely to double-leapfrog here.

What to Watch For #3: Council-wide Bloc Vote Share:

The unionist bloc has a majority of the vote in six councils. The nationalist bloc has a majority in four councils (Derry & Strabane, Fermanagh & Omagh, Mid Ulster, Newry, Mourne & Down) and a plurality in Belfast.

  • Will the nationalist bloc become the majority bloc in Belfast (4.52% short)?
  • If unionist vote continues to drop, will they drop to being the plurality bloc in Armagh, Banbridge & Craigavon (which would involve a 5.39% drop); Causeway Coast & Glens (-6.36%); Antrim & Newtownabbey (-8.56%); and Lisburn & Castlereagh (-8.99%)?

EA Bloc Vote Share:

The unionist bloc had a majority in 35 EAs, and a plurality in five. The corresponding figures for the nationalist bloc were 29 and six. The MG-bloc was the majority bloc in three EAs and the plurality bloc in two.

What to Watch For #4: Antrim & Newtownabbey: Bloc Vote Share:

  • U-bloc majority (53.44%) in Antrim. Will this drop to a plurality?
  • U-bloc plurality in Airport (by 5.40%), Dunsilly (7.50%), Glengormley (10.82%): will the N-bloc become the plurality?

What to Watch For #5: Armagh, Banbridge & Craigavon: Bloc Vote Share:

  • Will Craigavon go from N-bloc plurality to N-bloc majority? It needs 3%. The U-bloc is 1.22% behind on 45.78%, so it could become plurality or majority bloc.
  • Lurgan: will the N-bloc drop (3.25%) from being majority to plurality?

What to Watch For #6: Ards & North Down: Bloc Vote Share:

  • Will the MG-bloc (50.47%) drop to plurality or minority in Bangor Central?
  • Bangor West: Will the U-bloc become majority, or will it drop to minority behind MG-bloc (49.66% versus 49.1%)?

What to Watch For #7: Belfast: Bloc Vote Share:

  • Lisnasharragh: MG-bloc just ahead of U-bloc (41.36% vs. 41.07%). Will U-bloc become plurality?
  • Ormiston: will U-bloc (47.99%) take majority or plurality from MG-bloc (51.58%)?
  • Castle (42.22%): could N-bloc become majority bloc (already plurality bloc)?
  • Botanic: could MG (33.87%) become the plurality bloc (N-bloc on 37.40% in 2019)?
  • Balmoral: could U (35.40%) become the plurality bloc (N-bloc on 39.13%)?

What to Watch For #8: Derry & Strabane: Bloc Vote Share:

  • Can the N-bloc become the majority bloc in all seven EAs by achieving this in Derg (49.86%) and Waterside (48.04%), or can U become the plurality bloc in these two EAs?

What to Watch For #9: Fermanagh & Omagh: Bloc Vote Share:

  • Enniskillen: can U (47.02%) become the majority bloc, or will N become the plurality bloc?
  • Erne North (54.04%): will the U-bloc drop to plurality bloc?

What to Watch For #10: Lisburn & Castlereagh: Bloc Vote Share:

  • Castlereagh South (41.31%): can the MG-bloc become the majority bloc?

What to Watch For #11: Mid Ulster: Bloc Vote Share:

  • Clogher Valley: the N-bloc gained 49.27% of the vote in 2019: can it become the majority bloc?
  • Dungannon: the N-bloc gained 50.42% in 2019: will it keep the majority bloc spot?

What to Watch For #12: Newry, Mourne & Down: Bloc Vote Share:

  • Rowallane: the U-bloc share was 54.55% in 2019. Could it drop to plurality bloc?
  • The Mournes (52.17%): could the N-bloc drop to plurality bloc status?

There will be many fascinating top-dog party tussles for vote share. The first party is ahead of the second party by the percentage indicated. (The EA location is given by the {number}, which stands for {1}=A&N; {2}=A&ND; {3}=AB&C; {4}=B; {5}=CC&G; {6}=D&S; {7}F&O; {8}=L&C; {9}=M&EA; {10}=MU; {11}=NM&D.)

What to Watch For #13: DUP-SF Dogfights:

  • Airport (0.64%) {1}, Clogher Valley (1.41%) {10}, Castle (1.83%) {4}, Dunsilly (3.93%) {1}.

What to Watch For #14: DUP-Alliance Dogfights:

  • Antrim (0.17%) {1}, Larne Lough (3.27%) {9}, Titanic (6.83%) {4}.

What to Watch For #15: DUP-SDLP Dogfights:

  • Craigavon (2.72%) {3}, Faughan (3.37%) {6}, Balmoral (3.78%) {4}, Waterside (4.49%) {6}.

What to Watch For #16: DUP-SF-Alliance Dogfight:

  • Botanic (0.85%) {4}.

What to Watch For #17: SF-DUP Dogfights:

  • Enniskillen (2.85%) {7}, Magherafelt (4.00%) {10}.

What to Watch For #18: UUP-DUP Dogfight:

  • Ballyclare (3.82%) {1}.

What to Watch For #19: Alliance-DUP Dogfights:

  • Lisnasharragh (0.85%) {4}, Bangor West (2.02%) {2}.

What to Watch For #20: SDLP-SF Dogfight:

  • Ballyarnett (8.94%) {6}.

What to Watch For #21: TUV-DUP Dogfight:

  • Bannside (9.34%) {9}: the only EA in 2019 where the TUV was the plurality party.

Even when the overall figures shift only slightly, there are always huge stories to tell at EA level. Will SF take top spot and make the withholding of First Minister spot from Michelle O’Neill even more unsustainable? Will the DUP see off the TUV threat and craft a narrative that enables them to return to Stormont? Will the UUP and SDLP continue to flounder; will their likely losses provoke an open existential debate? With the UUP and TUV likely stagnant or shrinking, and a likely nationalist bloc plurality, will the one-unionist-party debate become louder or pointless? If the nationalist bloc becomes the plurality bloc, it will be the most significant result in any NI election since 1918 as it would be the first time ever there will have been more nationalist votes cast than unionist votes.

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