Some Observations on the NI Assembly Election
3000 words on the DUP, UUP, the ‘pluralism paradox’, why candidate quality is overrated, the cautionary tale of the PBP, STV and tallies.
Back to the Future for the DUP
On the 16th of June 2016, the Northern Ireland football team defeated Ukraine 2-0 at the Euros. Just six weeks before that game in Lyon, the Assembly election had delivered the third of three almost identical results since the return of powersharing in 2007: DUP 10 seats ahead of SF, followed by the UUP and SDLP a further dozen or so back, followed by the ‘others’ (who at this stage were still largely a footnote in proceedings). Unionists with a small majority, Executive formed, rinse and repeat. Given the electoral convulsions of the years immediately following the Good Friday Agreement, the stasis which Northern Ireland’s politics entered into in the decade after St Andrews almost suggests a society which had become relatively at ease with itself. The demographic change long promised to carry the province to a United Ireland was not translating into gains for Nationalist parties, who were in fact by 2016 starting to slide backwards. The radical anti-Agreement shifts Unionism from 1998-2003 had not spelled the end of devolution and had been tamed by the broad church electoral coalition constructed under the DUP. As President Obama himself remarked, Northern Irish politics was at risk of becoming boring.
The football team in France that summer in many ways reflected this ‘at ease’ Northern Ireland. Their qualification spawned a dozen articles on how it represented a new chapter in Northern Ireland’s history and the team attracted unprecedented levels of goodwill from both communities. Even in that match against Ukraine, the first goal was scored by Gareth McAuley who grew up dreaming of playing for Rangers, the second by Niall McGinn who played GAA for Tyrone and soccer for Celtic.
Yet within a week of the win over Ukraine, the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union and the subsequent years of turmoil deciding if and how that should occur disrupted Northern Ireland’s politics to such an extent that it has never quite since returned to its ‘at ease’ position. The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union unsettled nationalists who had been sitting out elections in increasing numbers up until that point. Nationalist turnout surged in 2017 and has not really subsided since. The DUP’s decision to back Brexit, although it had little impact on the UK-wide result, cracked that broad church electoral coalition upon which it had built its electoral victories for a decade. In a manner reflective of similar realignment trends across Europe and the US, a number of wealthier, more liberal and cosmopolitan voters abandoned the party and have never returned to its fold or even the fold of broader unionism. The problem for the DUP was that whereas the UK Conservatives or the GOP were able to compensate those losses by attracting more socially conservative, working class voters - the nature of politics in Northern Ireland and the fact the DUP’s electoral base was so broad to begin with meant that this option was not available, meaning votes (at least initially) were only flowing in one direction away from the party.
As Brexit dragged on, the DUP not only failed to win back its lost voters, but began to lose more in another direction. Angered by the party’s perceived failure to prevent the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, its more conservative voters flocked to the hardline TUV in protest. Faced with disintegrating support on both flanks, the DUP was forced to pick a side to shift towards in order to stem the flow. In 2021 it opted to stem the flow to the TUV rather than the Alliance Party, (briefly) replacing Arlene Foster with a more fundamentalist leader and engaging in more ‘street politics’ over its opposition to the Protocol.
On paper this move made sense, of the 10 percentage points of the First Preference Vote the DUP had lost since 2016, approximately half of it was to the TUV compared with a third to the Alliance Party. However, without a meaningful ‘win’ on the Protocol, any changes the DUP made proved unconvincing and the party struggled to win back lost support. So at the start of the campaign the DUP played one of its last but most potent cards - the need to vote for it to prevent a Sinn Féin First Minister. This was a card had been a fixture of DUP campaigns for years, proving hugely successful in coalescing unionist support around it. However, this time it not only failed to win back lost unionist support, but proved to be another case of “When you tell your story, be careful who hears”. Although intended for unionists, the messaging ended up having a greater impact on nationalists, with many leaving the SDLP for Sinn Féin in the hope of delivering an historic first nationalist First Minister.
In the end, the DUP ended up winning back neither group it had lost since 2016 - finishing a distant 65,000 votes behind Sinn Féin. In terms of where it goes from here, the party’s position remains precarious. Wins on the Protocol are no closer to being delivered and its vote remains fractured. Now that a Sinn Féin First Minister has actually occurred, that card is likely to carry less power in the future. The temptation for the DUP here would be to refuse to form an Executive, and gamble on another election in 6 months time in the hope it could unite Unionist support around it and retake top spot. This strategy would be badly misguided, an election may succeed in winning back First Preference Votes from the TUV, however it would do little to improve the DUP’s seat count and would only risk further alienating sections of the electorate. Votes lost to the TUV in this election overwhelmingly flowed back to the DUP on transfers, and even with an additional squeeze on the UUP, it would be difficult to see such a gamble net more than 2 additional seats for the Party (unlikely to be enough given how well placed Sinn Féin would be to win several additional seats themselves).
The results of the election mean that the Protocol is here to stay in some shape or form. There will be mitigations, and the DUP would be wise to present these as wins as much as possible. The likely permanence of the Protocol oddly in some ways may end up providing opportunities for the DUP to resurrect its old voting coalition. With the Brexit issue largely settled and a border poll not a realistic near-term possibility, politics may return to a its more ‘at ease’ state from 2016. Northern Ireland (and the unionist community in particular) remains relatively conservative meaning there will still be a large space for the DUP. However, in order to fully exploit this it needs to move back towards the model it deployed from 2007-2016 and not the more fundamentalist approach it lurched towards over the past year. The TUV’s performance this week and the history of the DUP pre-2003 shows that firebrand fundamentalism has never been a majority opinion within unionism but the success of the DUP in the Robinson era shows that a loosely ‘Christian Democracy’, centre-right approach can win broad support. Jeffrey Donaldson still commands significant respect within unionism but may be too tainted by the events of the past six years to credibly make that sort of appeal. Nevertheless, there are several other figures who could play that role should the party choose to move in that direction.
No Time for Changing Course
As for the Ulster Unionist Party, its move in a more ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ direction did not create the gains it hoped for, but neither is it the disaster that some of its detractors claim it to be. The party’s vote is down, but not dramatically so. The single seat that was lost could have been retained had the party balanced better between its candidates and it came within 95 votes of making a gain in Foyle. It would be unwise for the party to panic in light of these results and move back in a more conservative direction. These election results have demonstrated that there isn’t enough room for two conservative unionist parties never mind three.
Fundamental change to a party’s image and position is built over many years, not a single election. The Alliance Party is a very good example of this. Up until a decade ago it was viewed as a ‘soft’ unionist party - almost all of its support came from very unionist areas in Greater Belfast and outside of that core it barely registered a presence (as recently as 2016 their candidate in Newry and Armagh received less than half as many votes as the '“Cannabis is Safer than Alcohol Party”). The victory they achieved in 2022 was not the product of a single election cycle but the result of a decade of repositioning to broaden its appeal beyond soft unionists that started with the Flag Protests, included Anna Lo’s comments on a United Ireland, their hard anti-Brexit stance, their liberal shift on social issues and running candidates from a more diverse range of backgrounds. All of this built credibility for the party’s platform of not just being a soft unionist party and eventually delivered votes far beyond its original base. The UUP should note that it was 5-7 years before the Alliance Party saw electoral rewards for its efforts at expanding its appeal - in that time it lost the Westminster seat in East Belfast, went backwards in the 2014 local elections and was stagnant at Assembly level. But crucially it stayed the course and when the right political circumstances arrived, it had built the necessary credibility to then exploit those circumstances. Had the UUP done similar over the past decade rather than continuously changing direction after each election, it may be in a much better position now.
The UUP changing tack again now would not only damage the party itself but would further narrow unionism’s appeal. While true that given the makeup of the unionist electorate, it is unlikely that a ‘liberal’ party will become its dominant voice anytime soon - it does provide a crucial option for those who are pro-union but put off by the DUP’s brand of politics. Even in seats where the DUP and TUV were still in the race, 15-20% of UUP voters transferred to Alliance instead. This suggests that were the UUP to move closer (or even merge) with the DUP, unionism as a whole could lose up to 20,000 further votes. A more liberal UUP distinct from a conservative DUP not only helps to detoxify the unionist brand (as the transfer friendliness of the party highlighted) but it also gives unionism a level of pluralism that the nationalism is distinctly lacking now that Sinn Féin have significantly weakened the SDLP. The worst thing unionism could do now would be to try and copy this monolithic template.
Without completely overhauling its direction, there are of course improvements that the UUP should be making. Its leading figures should pay less attention to social media and more time on the ground - but not in the way that its opponents often mean it, where “getting off Twitter” is often used as code for “meet some ‘real’ unionists”. The UUP should be getting off Twitter, but spending it talking to Hannah and her (formerly unionist voting) parents - not hanging around loyalist rallies.
The Pluralism Paradox
The unmitigated success story of the election is the Alliance Party surge. I think it remains to be seen if this is actually a sign of the emergence of a more pluralistic Northern Ireland or simply the birth of a ‘third block’ that is just as ingrained and tribal as the other two. The fact that as the ‘others’ block has grown, the block itself has become more monolithic suggests that the latter may actually be the case - but I don’t think these election results alone show enough to definitively say if this is true.
SDLP Show that ‘Candidate Quality’ Is Overrated Compared to Fundamentals
The big unforeseen trend of this election was the collapse of the SDLP in favour of Sinn Féin. One of the reasons why I think this was so unexpected was because many, particularly in the media in Northern Ireland attached too much importance to ‘candidate quality’. Listen to any of the BBC’s Red Lines podcasts in the run up to the election and a common refrain was that the SDLP would be ok because they had a great candidate in constituency X. In the end, this mattered little in the face of the underlying trend of nationalist voters towards Sinn Féin. Giving too much weight to candidate quality is not solely a Northern Ireland problem but it does seem to matter even less in its multi-seat system where people are not voting for a single individual to represent them.
People Before Profit Serve as a Cautionary Tale for all those on the Left
One undernoted aspect of the election has been the poor performance by the PBP and Gerry Carroll in particular. In this he serves as a cautionary tale for how the tendency for those on the hard left to prioritise ideological purity over the actual opinions of voters can lead to them to making significant unforced errors.
The PBP surge was arguably the story of an otherwise dull 2016 Assembly election. Carroll’s surge in West Belfast spooked Sinn Féin to the extent that it was arguably a factor in them collapsing the Executive and forcing another election less than a year later. Carroll was elected on a wave of left-wing populist and anti-austerity sentiment in a constituency that regularly ranks top in terms of deprivation across the whole of the UK. However, in the years since, his loyalty to Marxist doctrine over the views of his electorate has led him to squander the position he achieved in 2016. The first forced unforced error he made was his decision to take the old socialist view that the EU was an instrument of capitalism and hence argue in favour of a leave vote. In a 75% remain constituency, this was a decision that inevitably Sinn Féin exploited and led to his vote almost halving within a year. It cannot be emphasised enough how unforced this error was by the party - it could have quietly backed remain while making clear their general dislike of the EU (as Sinn Féin themselves did) but the weight they gave to ideological purity meant they simply couldn’t bring themselves to do take the sensible option.
Not learning from their mistake, earlier this year the party made a further unforced error - criticising Russian sanctions imposed after the invasion of Ukraine and even refusing the applaud Zelenskyy when he addressed the Irish Parliament. This likely had less of an impact on their vote than the decision to back Brexit or the general movement of nationalist voters to Sinn Féin but it again highlights how many hard left candidates simply cannot bring themselves to adopt popular positions if it means sacrificing a key tenet of their faith. From threatening to redefine left-wing politics in 2016, this time Carroll only scraped into the final West Belfast, pulling ahead of the DUP candidate on the last count by just over 500 votes.
We’ve got the hang of this STV thing
Over a century since the first STV election in Northern Ireland, and 25 years years since it started to be regularly used for the Assembly - voters finally seem to be realising the full weight that their vote can have if they transfer fully down the ballot. Transfer rates are much higher than they were in the past and contrasting the FPV vs seat performances of Alliance and the TUV only serves to highlight this. This is in stark contrast to the local elections in Scotland where parties and voters are still struggling to maximise their chances and influence respectively under the system. Compare Upper Bann with the Newlands ward on Glasgow City Council. In the former, transfers between parties were so strong that even less than optimal balancing from Sinn Féin was enough to cost them a second seat. In the latter, the SNP and Labour balancing was so poor that both missed out on a second seat despite each outpolling the Greens 4:1.
A Final Note on Tallies
In the absence of Exit Polls to give talking heads something to debate while the votes are being counted, Northern Irish elections have started to give much more coverage to tallies (these are informal estimates of votes at a very local level, usually collated by party activists). Tallies are so hyper-local that they can give a misleading and unrepresentative picture of the true result. If given too much weight, this can set in motion narratives about a party’s performance that can be difficult to dislodge even if later proven to be untrue. Early on Friday the narrative was set that the TUV were overperforming and the UUP were drastically underperforming. This was largely based on Twitter rumours and tallies based on a tiny handful of boxes that in the end proved to bear little resemblance to the final result. There is no doubt that tallies can provide useful initial information - but journalists should refrain from amplifying these in place of actual results and at least recognise that party activists may only be supplying them with the tally sheets they want them to see.