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Local elections 2023: Preview

In May 2023, voters in Northern Ireland will return to the polls for the local elections. agendaNi outlines the 2019 election results in each council area, political developments which have taken place since then, and any potential political wildcards to look out for.

Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council

Largely encompassing the South Antrim constituency, the 2022 election saw significant growth in support for the TUV, whilst the DUP saw a decline in support. The other main parties largely maintained their previous level of support. Independent Ballyclare DEA councillor Michael Stewart, who unexpectedly gained a seat in 2019, has not confirmed if he will seek re-election.

Ards and North Down Borough Council

Encompassing the Assembly constituencies of North Down and Strangford, Ards and North Down is an overwhelmingly unionist-supporting council area. In recent Assembly elections, Alliance has gained two seats, whilst Strangford saw the TUV come closest to gaining a seat outside of North Antrim. North Down is also known for its voter volatility between elections, with Alliance gaining a Westminster seat in 2019 with a swing of over 35 per cent. The seat has also returned independent MLAs and MPs, whilst a number of councillors have switched parties through this council term.

Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council

The ABC council overlaps Upper Bann and part of Newry and Armagh. In the Assembly election in Upper Bann, Alliance gained a seat from the SDLP, whilst Sinn Féin topped the poll in the constituency. Former DUP MLA Paul Berry is the only independent member of the council. In the Assembly election in Newry and Armagh, the TUV’s Keith Ratcliffe, who will be a candidate, put up a strong, although unsuccessful, challenge to the DUP, whilst other parties’ support remained largely consistent.

Belfast City Council

The largest of Northern Ireland’s councils, south Belfast has seen the most significant political shift since the last council election, with an SDLP landslide in the Westminster election, followed by an Alliance surge in 2022, whilst the DUP and Sinn Féin have both consolidated support in Belfast. The story of the last council election was the triumph of small parties, with gains for the Green Party and People Before Profit. The UUP – once the dominant party in Belfast – won only two seats. The PUP has faced defections of John Kyle and other popular figures in the party to the UUP, with Billy Hutchinson now the PUP’s only councillor in Belfast.

Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council

In 2019, the TUV lost all its seats on this council, whilst the UUP also suffered losses. These were countered by gains for Sinn Féin and the DUP. Causeway Coast and Glens encompasses North Antrim and East Derry. Since 2019, the DUP has lost an Assembly seat to Alliance in North Antrim. Despite his party’s woes in 2019, TUV leader Jim Allister MLA retained his Assembly seat in 2022. One other variable is the votes of independent councillor in The Glens, Pádraig McShane, who was co-opted to replace Ambrose Laverty, and is currently serving a suspension from the council, and will “likely not” seek re-election.

Derry City and Strabane District Council

Derry has seen a high level of political flux since the 2019 local election, with Sinn Féin losing almost one-third of its council seats in 2019 and losing in a landslide to SDLP leader Colum Eastwood MP in the 2019 Westminster election, before resurging and topping the poll again in the 2022 Assembly election. Former DUP councillor Ryan McCready has since defected to the UUP, and unexpectedly came to within 100 votes of eclipsing the DUP to the final Assembly seat in 2022. 2019 also saw strong performances for smaller parties, with Aontú, People Before Profit, and a number of independents performing well, making Derry City and Strabane uniquely difficult to analyse ahead of May’s poll.

Fermanagh and Omagh District Council

One of two councils where the UUP is larger than the DUP, Fermanagh and Omagh encompasses Fermanagh and South Tyrone and West Tyrone. The main parties’ support has largely remained consistent since 2019, but one potential wildcard will be that of radical left councillor Dónal Ó Cofaigh, who unexpectedly gained a seat in 2019. In addition, there are three independents who gained seats from Sinn Féin in 2019 which Michelle O’Neill’s party will hope to retake.

Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council

Incorporating Lagan Valley, as well as parts of south and east Belfast, Lisburn and Castlereagh has been an area central to the ‘Alliance surge’ since 2019, with the party gaining a second MLA in 2022 in Lagan Valley. Sinn Féin achieved a breakthrough here in 2019, whilst the DUP lost one-quarter of its seats to Alliance and the UUP. The DUP has since been resilient in Westminster and Assembly elections. Having won a seat here in 2019, the Green Party faces an uphill challenge as its only councillor, Simon Lee, has since defected to the SDLP.

Mid and East Antrim Borough Council

2019 saw marginal losses for unionists to the Alliance Party, a theme which has ensued in the subsequent Westminster and Assembly elections in 2019 and 2022. The TUV performed strongly here in 2019, garnering 15.2 per cent of the vote. 2022 saw the UUP lose a seat in East Antrim, with party stalwart Roy Beggs Jr. being ousted by the Alliance Party. This borough encompasses East Antrim as well as part of North Antrim, and Alliance’s Patricia O’Lynn (who has subsequently resigned) and Danny Donnelly MLA were both elected to this council in 2019, meaning that Alliance will be running candidates who were co-opted in.

Mid Ulster District Council

There was little change here in 2019, with Sinn Féin losing a seat to independent republican Dan Kerr, and the DUP gaining a seat from the UUP. The 2022 Assembly election in Mid Ulster saw the UUP almost halve its first prefrence vote share, with the TUV outpolling it. Sinn Féin maintained its dominance of an area for which the late Martin McGuinness was once the Westminster MP. Aontú will enter this election defending a seat, with former SDLP councillor Denise Mullen having defected to the party shortly after her election. This is the only council in which Alliance has no representation.

Newry, Mourne and Down District Council

Once an SDLP stronghold, 2019 saw Sinn Féin make a major breakthrough here. The DUP has gained momentum through the defection of Henry Reilly to the party, who has now represented four different unionist parties on this council. The 2022 Assembly election saw Alliance gain an Assembly seat in South Down at the expense of the SDLP. One further unknown will be where Gavin Malone voters choose to turn to, with the independent having announced he will not run for re-election despite having more than doubled the quota in the election in 2019, coupled with a promising poll in the 2022 Assembly election in Newry and Armagh.

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