With over one week since voting closed, and exactly one week since the counting of votes commenced, I am utterly unashamed to admit there is rather the Assembly election-shaped hole in my heart. I suppose this was to be expected, given my excitement at finally being able to participate in an Assembly election, from watching the campaigns unfold to dropping my vote into the ballot box for the first time. Although I had always followed Assembly elections in the past despite not being eligible to vote, it is a different feeling altogether to follow results, knowing that your vote is included in the tallies.
It also means that for the first time, I can offer my thoughts on the Assembly election, having actually been able to participate myself.
Once the counting of votes commenced, it soon became apparent that there would be upsets and surprises along the way towards filling the Assembly chamber. However, the overall feeling, soon to be realised, was that it would be a case of ‘same old, same old’ at Stormont, with the DUP returned as the largest Unionist party, and Sinn Féin returned as the largest Nationalist party. In terms of other parties: Alliance came through with eight seats, the same result from the previous mandate, whilst the SDLP and Ulster Unionists had, by their own standards, a poor showing at the polls.
Once votes were totalled, and the final tally called, it was noted that generally it was a loss of sorts for all of the ‘big five’ in terms of votes cast in their favour. All saw a decrease in accumulated votes, and not one party polled over 30% of the vote:
The DUP received 29.2% of the first-preference vote, the largest of any of the big five, but still recorded a 0.8% loss in votes.
Sinn Féin received 24.0% first-preference votes, but saw a 2.9% drop.
The UUP received 12.6% of the first-preference votes, but saw a 0.7% decline in their vote.
The SDLP received 12% of the first-preference votes, and recorded a 2.2% decrease in their vote.
Alliance received 7.0% of first-preferences, and recorded a loss of 0.7% of their vote.
We saw also how the overall Nationalist vote declined, following the trends from previous elections, and a surge in votes for periphery parties outside of the ‘big five’. There was a strong, consistent voting turnout, dispelling prior fears of a substantial decline in electorate turnout. However, there was still a significant percentage of the electorate who did not vote, as turnout was recorded at 54.91%.
Essentially, the Assembly Election of 2016 can be summarised as follows:
DUP campaign was a master-class
I have to hold my hand up and admit I was wrong that the constant refrain of ‘Arlene Foster’s DUP candidates’ and ‘keep Arlene as First Minister’ would eventually distance voters. Judging by the votes acquired and seats collected by the party, their campaign was basically a master-class. The message was clear and consistent, and acted as a rallying cry for Unionist-inclined voters. When the theme of your campaign resonates and connects with voters, it will translate into votes. It is noticeable then that the DUP was returned as a the largest party, and whilst recorded votes for the dropped slightly, it did not lose seats, which had at one time been predicted.
On the same note, I had criticised the constant reference to the position of First Minister, and the symbolic importance attached to same. Now, whilst I still remain convinced that too much of the campaign was spent discussing this, and I am certain young people/first-time voters were turned off by the discussion, traditional Unionist voters must have been convinced by the arguments. Again, it was a clear and consistent refrain, with a target audience.
The SDLP and UUP suffered from their lack of vote management
I mentioned earlier that the SDLP and the UUP, who had been hoping to see a strong resurgence translating into an equally-strong election performance, did not have a good election by their standards. The UUP returned with 16 seats, with party leader Mike Nesbitt having predicted the party would take 18 or 19. The SDLP had been hoping to hold on to their previous 14 seats, but suffered two overall losses, as well as losing Deputy Leader Fearghal McKinney in South Belfast, party Whip Karen McKevitt in Newry and Armagh, and party stalwart Dolores Kelly in Upper Bann.
Simply put, both parties may have suffered from a touch of over-confidence, but I feel their respective performances largely stem from poor selection and vote management. Note that I do not mean ‘poor selection’ in the form of chosen candidates to contest seats; I mean ‘poor selection’ in where to contest and in the number of standing candidates.
The UUP stood multiple candidates in areas where they should have stood one – East Antrim, East Belfast, and South Antrim spring to mind. In a STV election, it is crucial to manage your candidates’ votes, especially in terms of first and second preferences. Standing too many candidates risks splitting the vote, and can result in only one, or indeed none of your candidates being elected. In South Antrim, my neck of the woods, the UUP were buoyed by a surprise General Election victory last year. Perhaps thinking this would be replicated at Assembly level, it stood three candidates in a DUP stronghold. The result being the incumbent UUP MLA for the constituency, Adrian-Cochrane Watson, was eliminated at stage four of the count. There was only one UUP candidate elected – Steve Aiken – and he had to wait until the seventh and last count to be elected.
The SDLP struggled with vote management in areas where it stood several candidates. In tightly-contested South Belfast, the party really should have returned both MLAs. Instead, Claire Hanna was returned and Fearghal McKinney eliminated. My issue with McKinney is he was selected to contest the wrong constituency. As a former television presenter and journalist, his face was recognisable and popular with a certain generation. South Belfast however has a sizeable youth vote, and those voters would not have known him.
In a similar vein, Karen McKevitt was an incumbent MLA for South Down, but was chosen to contest Newry and Armagh instead- a choice which cost her a seat. The party also had to focus disproportionally on Foyle, as Sinn Féin opted to move Martin McGuinness from Mid Ulster to Foyle to put the SDLP under pressure. This focus ensured party leader Colum Eastwood and stalwart Mark H Durkan were returned, but it cost the party time and attention in other marginal constituencies.
45-46% of the electorate did not vote
It says a lot about our standards of election turnout that the final result of 54.91% was greeted with a sigh of relief. You may say, “but Leah, that’s over half of the registered electorate, surely that is good enough?” The fact of the matter is that it isn’t, not really.
45% is still a number of some significance. (Remember that 45% voted for Scottish Independence in the Scottish referendum in 2014.) It suggests there are voters who feel disenchanted, and/or disillusioned with the political system in Northern Ireland. It suggests a continuing disconnect between politics and people in this state. If citizens are choosing not to vote, parties need to find out why. Otherwise, no party can claim to represent all citizens.
Moreover, note how I previously outlined the voting breakdown among the five main parties. Not one polled 30% plus of the vote – and that is 30% of the vote from 54.91% who voted. You can see why there are some in Northern Ireland who feel there is a democratic deficit at Stormont.
Nationalism saw another decline in turnout and votes
Nationalism may be suffering a malaise: the pattern of declining Nationalist turnout was further underscored following the 2016 Assembly election. The combined Sinn Féin-SDLP share of the overall vote was merely 36%, marking the lowest combined share of the vote for the parties at Assembly, Westminster or European level since the 1992 Westminster election which saw the SDLP and Sinn Féin gather 23.5% and 10% of the overall vote respectively. The consistent decrease in Nationalist turnout has become a pattern that surely cannot ignored by either party; both parties must ask questions here. From comments issued by both the SDLP and Sinn Féin elected representatives following the election last week, it appears neither party actually knows what exactly is going on with Nationalist voters.
Now, declining turnout can be explained in one of two ways:
1) Discontent with the status quo, and/or increasing alienation from ‘your’ party based on its political performance, or
2) Apathy derived from complacency- sometimes voters who adhere to tribal politics do not vote, because they believe ‘their’ party is secure enough as it is, thank you very much.
I will probably address the decline of the Nationalist vote in another post (it deserves one in its own right), but I feel that what is essentially happening is that Nationalist voters are not rejecting Nationalism, but rather are sending a message to Nationalist parties. It is a case of ‘rebel’ votes to jolt the parties awake, to remind them of their pledges to deliver on change, and simply to keep them on their toes.
Rise of smaller parties
No summary of the Assembly elections in 2016 is complete without mentioning the surge in votes for the periphery parties, and the performances of Eamonn McCann and Gerry Carroll of People Before Profit Alliance, and Claire Bailey of the Greens. Simply put, this was an amazing showing by all three candidates, who were duly elected MLAs.
I had expected Carroll to nab a seat, but the sheer size of his victory – polling first with 8,299 votes, over 3,000 more than the quota and his nearest rival – was something else. This was a shake-up in West Belfast, a traditional Sinn Féin stronghold, and caused the party to lose one of their five seats. This victory was long in coming: Carroll had contested the General Election in 2015, and came second to Paul Maskey. The incumbent MP did poll 19,163 votes to Carroll’s 6,798, but saw a loss of 16.8% of the vote, with Carroll polling at 19.2%. Carroll had also contested the 2011 Assembly election, and whilst finished outside the sixth place, still came eighth with 1,661 votes and 4.8% of the vote. Basically, People Before Profit had been gaining support and momentum in the background over five years, which saw that fantastic first place come to fruition.
Eamonn McCann, who has been contesting elections since 1969, was finally elected as a People Before Profit MLA for Foyle. He is a well-known political activist, especially in relation to civil rights, and has worked as journalist and commentator for a variety of newspapers and television stations over the years. He has a reputation as a powerful orator and debateur, so he will surely enlighten the Assembly chamber over the next five years. Mr McCann again gained on momentum over five years in Foyle: in 2011, he polled 3,120 votes and 8.0% of the vote (he actually polled more first preferences than Column Eastwood, who would eventually become the SDLP party leader). McCann may have had to wait until the eighth and final stage to be elected, but he had polled 4,176 first preferences and 10.5% of the vote. His election meant that incumbents Maeve McLaughlin (SF) and Gerard Diver (SDLP) were both outpolled, and were unelected. In sum: in both West Belfast and Foyle, Nationalist parties lost out to People Before Profit.
Claire Bailey of the Greens had been widely tipped to take a seat in South Belfast, where she was a popular candidate, especially among the youth and liberal voters. She polled an impressive 3,521 first preferences and some 9.6% of the vote, more than the unfortunate SDLP Deputy Leader Fearghal McKinney. She had to wait until the 12th and final stage of counting to be a confirmed MLA, but I think it is telling she was confirmed with the two DUP candidates, Emma Little-Pengally and Christopher Stalford. The DUP was pleased to see both these candidates elected, but Bailey forced a tight contest, acting as a metaphor for the electorate change in South Belfast. Her election marked a historic moment for the NI Greens, as the party saw their second ever MLA elected.
Periphery party surge v master class campaign
I suppose what intrigued me most about the election campaign and the subsequent result was trying to determine what exactly was the reason behind the voting. I think it comes down to asking whether it a case of the DUP gaining votes because of their successful campaign, or did the other parties lose due to various reasons?
Arguably, Sinn Féin and the SDLP lost out in Foyle and West Belfast (Carroll’s strong polling in the latter constituency nearly cost SDLP’s Alex Attwood his seat) because of the emergence of an alternative left-wing party in People Before Profit. The two Nationalist parties traditionally occupy left-wing ground, so to be outflanked in their strongholds must have been something of a shock.
The UUP arguably lost due to over-confidence in polling predictions, and their poor vote management. But they probably also lost Unionist votes from those who could have been swayed from the DUP. The UUP could have capitalised on some DUP voters’ disillusionment after the party’s long stint in government. They failed to do so, perhaps because the campaign message was never really clear, for example on the issue of whether the party wanting to go into the Executive, or Opposition. By contrast, as I outlined previously, the DUP message was concise, clear and consistent: keep Arlene First Minister, and prevent Sinn Féin from becoming the largest party at Stormont. As the UUP did not prove themselves to be the viable, alternative Unionist party, I think some potential swing voters followed the tried and tested ‘stick with what you know’ method.
Another party which lost was Alliance. The rise of the Greens illustrated the growing role of social issues in Northern Ireland, be it on same-sex marriage or abortion. This is especially true among young voters and first-time voters. The Greens designate as Other, and argue for a shake-up of the traditional tribal politics. Sound familiar? It should. The Alliance party has been portraying itself as the alternative political party for those who are alienated by green versus orange politics since its founding in 1970. Yet, whilst the Greens gained two seats, Alliance could only retain its original eight. The party cannot argue it suffered from a lack of demand for new politics: the Green surge, especially in South Belfast, is evident that such a demand exists. All the main parties recorded a decrease in their vote share, and all main parties must now consider the importance of social issues and rights. But Alliance must also consider a rising challenge to their main ‘Other’ title.
I feel the aforementioned points are food for thought as it is, but I will leave you with some final contemplations.
I think the new focus and discussion of social issues made a visible impact in constituencies such as North Down and South Belfast. These constituencies saw strong inroads made by the Greens. I do however think the DUP rally cry boosted Unionist turnout across board, resulting in their impressive performance. Impressive, in that despite spending many years as the largest party at Stormont, they did not lose any seats in 2016.
My own constituency of South Antrim may have seen a shock upset in 2015 in the General Election, with Danny Kinahan of the UUP dethroning the Rev William McCrea of the DUP. Kinahan polled some 32.7% of the vote, a 2.3% increase for the UUP. McCrea polled 30.1%, recording a 3.8% decrease for the DUP vote.The statistics showed there could have (arguably should have) been a potential loss for the DUP here in 2016. The DUP however romped home, seeing all three incumbent MLAs returned. The UUP, who saw only one of three candidiates elected and the loss of their own incumbent, simply failed to capitalise on the gains made the previous year, and perhaps forgot that Assembly elections are more competitive and more complex in terms of voting method than Westminster elections – Kinahan was elected using First Past the Post, after all.
Given the rise of People Before Profit in both Foyle and West Belfast, arguably Sinn Féin and the SDLP not only have to contend and compete with each other, they now have defend themselves from the further left. All this, whilst still attempting to figure out the continuing decline in the Nationalist vote. Unionist parties may seemingly be unaffected by the surge; it is unlikely that a voter could swing from the DUP for example to People Before Profit – or indeed vice versa.
However, West Belfast saw what could have been the biggest opportunity for a historic DUP gain lost to the winds, as Frank McCoubrey lost to Alex Attwood of the SDLP by only 97 votes in the final stage. What may have harmed the DUP here was the complex workings of the STV method, preferences and transfer votes. Gerry Carroll polled so strongly that he had many surplus votes to disseminate. A quick glance at the stage-per-stage breakdown shows that Alex Attwood of the SDLP was one of the grateful recipients, not Frank McCoubrey. A strong Socialist showing meant McCoubrey would not stand to make gains as a DUP candidate. In addition, in such a Nationalist area, the SDLP stand to be the ‘transfer-friendly’ party, meaning the candidate, in this instance Alex Attwood, would receive more transfer votes from eliminated candidates. To put this in the most diplomatic terms, some of the electorate will opt to give the SDLP a preference vote not because they personally support the party, but because they are trying to eliminate a Sinn Féin candidate. (Welcome to the Northern Irish equivalent of tactical voting.) Moreover, whilst West Belfast is predominately a Republican stronghold, there are areas which identify as Unionist. These areas would have generally voted McCoubrey as their first preference, but there would have been some Unionist voters who gave Attwood their first or second preferences as a means of reducing the chances of Sinn Féin retaining their five seats. Some Unionist voters may have viewed McCoubrey as a long-shot in the overall context of West Belfast, and thus voted SDLP as the moderate alternative to Sinn Féin. (This is not that unusual. My granny, a Twaddell resident all of her life, used to tactically vote for the SDLP’s Gerry Fitt despite being staunchly Unionist.)
The 2016 Assembly election has concluded, but rest assured the analysing of the results will continue for many months to come.