Northern Ireland 2011
Assembly elections were held in Northern Ireland on May 5, 2011 as part of the UK election bonanza, covered in earlier posts which you’ll find scrolling down this page. Northern Ireland’s Assembly has 108 seats elected by STV in 18-multi member constituencies which elect 6 MLAs each. Given Northern Ireland’s troubled history, Northern Ireland is a consociational democracy, and a consociational democracy which takes the word consociationalism to its true meaning. The Northern Irish executive, led by a First Minister and Deputy Minister forming a powerful duo and various ministers, is neither elected through popular vote nor is it a traditional government seeking confidence of the Assembly. Rather, the makeup of the power-sharing executive is determined by the d’Hondt PR formula and cabinet seats are apportioned based on the number of seats held by a party in the Assembly. The largest party of the largest community gets the office of First Minister, while the largest party of the minority community gets the office of Deputy First Minister.
When talking Northern Ireland, we often talk in terms of communities. Politics is also tightly regimented along lines of community. Northern Irish parties are, with almost all parties identified to said communities. The Protestant or Unionist side includes the Democratic Unionist (DUP) and Ulster Unionist (UUP) parties with two smaller parties, the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). The DUP, led by the famous Reverend Ian Paisley between 1971 and 2008, was originally the more radical of the two main Unionist parties and the more right-wing of the two, being based in the evangelical Free Presbyterian Church. The DUP originally opposed power-sharing deals, but the growing influence of younger pragmatists within the party led to it to accept power-sharing, culminating in Paisley becoming FM in 2007. The UUP, long the dominant party of Unionist politics (and Northern Ireland), has been in terminal state since 2007 at the earliest and in bad straits for most of the twenty-first century as the DUP has outplaced it as the largest Unionist party. The UUP is often seen as the most moderate party, largely due to the work of its ex-leader David Trimble in favour of the Good Friday Agreement. The party has had a hard time adapting to life as the second fiddle in Unionist politics, and its desperate and ultimately failed linkup with the Conservative Party in 2009-2010 was one of their leadership’s desperate moves. The smaller parties, PUP and TUV, are much smaller in weight. The PUP is the only left-wing Unionist party, and is linked to the UVF paramilitary – a linkup which has divided the party and led to its only MLA walking out of the party in 2010. The TUV was founded in 2007 by former DUP MEP Jim Allister as a radical Unionist party opposed to power-sharing. Allister did well in the 2009 Euros, winning nearly 14%, but the TUV has since turned into an also-ran and personal machine for Allister.
On the Catholic or Nationalist side, the two parties are Sinn Féin (SF) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). SF, which we all know well, is the more left-wing and ‘republican’ of the two parties and was pretty much the political wing of the IRA. SF’s participation in the peace process was vital, and it has enjoyed more and more success as it moderated its position, allowing it to become the largest of the nationalist parties. The SDLP conciliates moderate nationalism with social democracy, and played a vital role in bringing SF to the table and making the power-sharing agreements work. Since then, however, the SDLP has suffered loses – like the UUP – and is now the second largest nationalist party. However, unlike the UUP which is still struggling to grasp that reality, SDLP has had less problems and it isn’t in a terminal condition.
The liberal Alliance Party (APNI) is a non-sectarian, cross-community liberal party. The Alliance is not exceptionally strong, but APNI candidate Naomi Long stunningly defeated DUP First Minister Peter Robinson in his East Belfast constituency in the 2010 general election. Furthermore, APNI was allowed a seat at the table – David Ford as Justice Minister – an exception to the d’Hondt formula of cabinet allocation. The Green Party (GPNI) also has one seat in the Assembly, and they’re cross-community as well.
Here are the results, marked by a low turnout of 54.5%
DUP 30% (-0.1%) winning 38 seats (+2)
SF 26.9% (+0.7%) winning 29 seats (+1)
SDLP 14.2% (-1%) winning 14 seats (-2)
UUP 13.2% (-1.7%) winning 16 seats (-2)
Alliance 7.7% (+2.5%) winning 8 seats (+1)
TUV 2.5% (+2.5%) winning 1 seat (+1)
Green 0.9% (-0.8%) winning 1 seat (nc)
PBPA 0.8% (+0.7%) winning 0 seats (nc)
UKIP 0.6% (+0.4%) winning 0 seats (nc)
PUP 0.2% (-0.4%) winning 0 seats (-1)
Independents winning 1 seat (nc)
(56 Unionists vs. 43 Nationalists, +1 Unionist and -1 Nationalist)
The overarching trend here is stability. There has been no drastic movements, with no party gaining over 2.5% more than its 2007 share of the popular vote and with no party losing or gaining more than 2 seats. The DUP remains the largest party and gains two seats, while Sinn Féin gained one seat. The second fiddle party within each community, SDLP and UUP, suffered loses (again). The Alliance gained the most, but fell short of gaining another seat in North Down by a handful of votes, that last seat falling to the Greens who held their seat there despite the retirement of the popular Green MLA there. Jim Allister’s TUV actually did very poorly, down further from its rather disastrous 4% in the 2010 GE. But Allister was elected on the last count in North Antrim.
Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness had hoped to become First Minister after these elections, which would have required SF placing first ahead of the DUP which it did in 2009 and 2010. But the DUP remained rather comfortably ahead of SF, and did roughly 5% better than in 2010. In this story, one of the main actors is Peter Robinson, the comeback kid. The First Minister had a rough ride in 2009 and 2010, with his wife Iris (a former MP and MLA) being embroiled in a sex scandal, a series of bad things which culminated in Robinson shockingly losing his East Belfast Westminster seat to the Alliance’s Naomi Long in May 2010. Since then, Robinson has been on the way back and his efforts paid off. With 28% first preference votes, he easily topped the poll in East Belfast and led the DUP to a strong showing after the 2009 disaster (at Jim Allister’s hands) and the setback of 2010.
The SDLP and UUP both suffered loses for the second consecutive election. There’s no hiding from the fact that both of these parties are in dire straits and must reinvent themselves in a way which prevents them falling further down the road of irrelevance. Their respective positions seem confused, and probably confusing to voters and members. The overall picture for the SDLP is bad, but not all that bad as it still managed to top the poll in South Down and Foyle (though not by a whole lot, especially in Foyle). The picture for the UUP is bad, and Tom Elliott’s recent outburst at his count in Fermanagh and South Tyrone only makes the whole thing worst. Elliott, the UUP’s leader since last year, has made no secret of his conservatism and his positioning within the right of the party (rather than, say, the civic unionism of David Trimble and Sylvia Hermon). Furthermore, in Unionist politics, competition for ‘ethnic intransigence’ seems to be a constant, and Elliott’s goal seems to be pushing the UUP into a TUV-lite position to the right of the growingly pragmatic DUP. At his count, Elliott attacked the “traitorous scum of Sinn Féin” and Shinners wearing “the flag of a foreign nation”. Perhaps Mr. Elliott should study the results of the TUV before acting like a Unionist dinosaur.
Northern Ireland seems to be consolidating into a two-party DUP and SF system, with the SDLP and UUP risking long-term extinction or irrelevance if such trends continue.
The Alliance did well, gaining a second seat in East Belfast where it won 26.3% of the overall first preferences, up 7.5% on its 2007 performance (the DUP won 44.1%, up 6.4% since 2007, in East Belfast). As aforementioned, it fell short of a second seat in North Down, that seat instead being held by Steven Agnew for the Greens. Agnew won roughly 8% of first prefs and was elected on the last count. The popular Alliance-turned-Indie-turned-Green Brian Wilson had won the GPNI’s first seat there in 2007, likely due to a large personal vote, but retired this year. His wife Anne was the APNI candidate who fell short of that seat, ironically enough. As a final note about North Down, the DUP did quite well there with 44% (up 10%) against a mere 10% for the UUP which has apparently not recovered from the Sylvia Hermon episode of 2010.
Jim Allister’s TUV did horribly, its paltry 2.5% result being the party’s lowest result in its brief existence. Even in Allister’s North Antrim, the TUV won only 12% of first prefs (10% for Allister himself), lower than the 16.8% he won there in 2010. Yet, Allister managed election on the ninth count. The TUV’s low showing shows the low weight of radical unionism in Northern Ireland, and Allister’s platform of being a thorn in the side of the executive probably won’t amount to much.
In East Belfast, both the PUP-turned-Indie incumbent Dawn Purvis and the PUP’s leader Brian Ervine lost out. Purvis was eliminated on the final count, after polling 5.3% of first prefs. Ervine won 4.6% of first prefs and was eliminated on the tenth count, right before Purvis. An Independent, David McClarty, was elected in East Londonderry on the seventh count with 8.6% of first prefs. McClarty ran as an independent after being deselected by the UUP. The UUP will now try to win him back (in order to get a second cabinet seat), but Elliott’s outburst won’t help considering McClarty commented that they made Jim Allister look like the Dalai Lama.
Of the smaller parties, the far-left PBPA won 5% in West Belfast and 8% in its Foyle stronghold but transfers weren’t good enough to get it a seat there. UKIP won 5.6% in South Down, where its candidate is a local councillor.
The new cabinet will have a DUP FM, a SF Deputy FM alongside 4 DUP ministers, 3 SF ministers, and one minister each from UUP, SDLP and Alliance. The Alliance will likely have two ministries overall, though, with David Ford likely to hold his Justice portfolio. If McClarty joined back up with the UUP, the UUP would get a second seat at APNI’s expense. The Alliance could take such matters into court, as could the UUP if they only get one ministries to the APNI’s two considering the APNI is half the size of the UUP.
Local election counts are underway, with the same trends showing up: DUP and SF stable, SDLP and UUP loses, Alliance gains.