Posted By: April 23, 2014

Brian Feeney, Irish News ( Belfast). Wednesday, April, 23, 2014


IN EXACTLY a month tellers will be counting the results of the May elections. Now that Easter’s over, the parties are starting their campaigns, though Sinn Fein had their posters up a week before Easter and glossy inserts in newspapers a couple of weeks before that. Those were for the European elections, a foregone conclusion. With Jim Allister in the lists to queer the pitch for the DUP, Sinn Fein will top the poll again. It remains to be seen how far behind them the UUP trails with the SDLP bringing up the rear. Will the SDLP top 60,000 votes? The council elections are another matter: 26 go down to 11 and then everyone will have a year to contemplate the fallout because the new councils don’t begin to operate until 2015. The new wards and council boundaries make for a lot of imponderables. For example, with much bigger councils and fewer councillors (though still too many) an individual candidate is not going to be as well known across the whole district as now. On the other hand that could favour independents as people vote for someone local they know.

Nicholas Whyte, probably the north’s best psephologist, has risked a detailed projection on the Slugger O’toole website. Like everyone else he only has the 2011 elections to go on for each new district and has estimated the party strengths in each new council district on that basis. The outcome is strangely predictable.

First, there is unlikely to be the sectarian ‘carve-up’ that many predict. It’s true that, given this is the north of Ireland, one side or the other will predominate in almost every council, but it’s unlikely that any party will win an outright majority anywhere. The DUP have a good chance in three councils, their best chance being the new Lisburn and Castlereagh which is 66 per cent unionist. Their other prospects are North Down and Ards and Mid and East Antrim.

Sinn Fein could possibly win outright in two west of the Bann councils, Mid-Ulster and Fermanagh and Omagh but in both cases the SDLP and Independents are likely to deny them the overall majority. The most interesting council is Belfast, the biggest with 60 councillors and the most fraught after the emotions of the past 18 months. The new Belfast council will take in twinbrook and Poleglass from Lisburn and a chunk of the old Castlereagh. It is 47 per cent nationalist to 42 per cent unionist in terms of voting.

Whyte projects 19 Sinn Fein seats, eight SDLP, 17 DUP, six UUP, eight Alliance and one PUP. If he’s right, Alliance will hold the balance of power again between 27 nationalists and 24 unionists.

Still, remember these are projections based on 2011 votes. A lot has happened in Belfast since then so that no one knows whether Alliance will have been badly damaged in east Belfast but paradoxically strengthened in places like Dunmurry and Drumbo with voters disgusted by the ‘fleg protesters’ and UVF inspired riots.

Again, the UUP has been seriously weakened by the silly carry-on of its inexperienced leader as he weaves about between the DUP and TUV trying to appear relevant. How many former UUP votes from Castlereagh wards will go to Alliance as a result?

Belfast is also the most difficult to project because of the alphabet sea of fringe parties fighting seats in the city like the Greens, Workers Party, Eirigi, IRSP, and where their transfers will go, if anywhere.

Apart from Belfast what you can say with certainty is that, knowing the sectarian composition of all 11 councils, six have a unionist majority and four a nationalist majority, and while it’s unlikely either the DUP or Sinn Fein will enjoy a clear majority in any, they will dominate in that they will have the last word in allocating the baubles local councillors love like chairs of committees and mayor and deputy mayor.

What will provide some entertainment will be the unseemly and shameless squabbling over those baubles in the year before any of the new councils have their first sectarian dogfight in the chamber. You can be sure that there will be plenty of shadow dogfighting while the councillors spend their first year sparring.