Voters hungry for progressive alternatives in NI, says Alliance leader
Voters in Northern Ireland have signalled their desire for alternatives to traditional orange and green politics, the leader of the Alliance Party has said.
Naomi Long hailed what she described as the expansion of the centre ground after her party, the Greens and People Before Profit all enjoyed success at the local council elections.
The surge in support for parties not aligned as unionist or nationalist came ahead of a new talks process to restore the powersharing institutions at Stormont.
Negotiations convened by the UK and Irish Governments will resume in Belfast on Tuesday afternoon – more than two years since the executive collapsed.
Efforts to restore Stormont have been injected with fresh urgency following the dissident republican murder of journalist Lyra McKee in Londonderry last month.
Mrs Long said the election result was “hugely, hugely important” for the region’s political landscape.
“Because, after what could have been an incredibly divisive campaign, what we actually saw was people coming out and saying they want something different, they want politics that is about solving problems, they want politics that is about co-operation, and they, more than anything else, want politics that is progressive,” she told BBC Radio Ulster.
Alliance saw its number of councillors soar by 65% – from 32 to 53. However, it remains the fifth largest party in the region.
While the DUP and Sinn Fein failed to make the gains many had predicted, they remain the region’s two largest parties – underlining that the fate of the Stormont talks is still very much in their hands.
The DUP’s vote rose by 1%, though it ended up losing eight of the 130 council seats it won in 2014 poll.
Sinn Fein’s vote share fell slightly – by 0.8% – though it emerged from the election with the same number of seats – 105.
The Ulster Unionists and SDLP both suffered losses.
The UUP lost 13 seats with a 2.1% fall in its vote percentage.
The SDLP lost seven councillors, seeing its vote share drop by 1.6%.
While the election was ostensibly about who sits on local councils, it appears many voters used it to express dissatisfaction at the ongoing lack of proper representation at Stormont level.
The last DUP/Sinn Fein-led powersharing coalition at Stormont imploded amid a row about a botched renewable energy scheme.
The rift between the erstwhile partners-in-government subsequently widened to take in disputes over the Irish language, same-sex marriage and the legacy of the Troubles.
Many of the rows are linked to a controversial voting mechanism that enables blocs of unionists and nationalists to veto measures which command overall majority support in the Assembly.
Alliance is among several parties calling for changes to the contentious petition of concern, believing its reform could unlock several logjams at the heart of Stormont’s impasse.
Sinn Fein talks negotiator Conor Murphy acknowledged that the Alliance result had been a “surprise”.
“I think there is a reaction to a kind of frustration in politics that things are in turmoil, the Assembly hasn’t been functioning, the Brexit issue is not resolved, there’s a huge uncertainty in politics and I suppose the vote came out of people perhaps expressing a frustration in all of that,” he said.
At the weekend, DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said his party had had a good election.
“We are taking extra new seats in places where we haven’t done before, and I’m pleased that a lot of our sitting councillors have been returned, but we have also got some very good fresh blood coming through,” he said.
The Green Party doubled its representation and now has eight seats, while socialist party People Before Profit increased its number of seats from one to five.
The Greens’ deputy leader, Mal O’Hara, who won a seat on Belfast City Council, said: “I think there’s a hunger out there for alternative solutions outside what might be the traditional parties of unionism and nationalism.”
UUP leader Robin Swann denied the result was a disaster for the party that was once the pre-eminent voice of unionism.
“It is disappointing for us, I‘ll admit that, there’s no point trying to dress this in any other direction,” he said.
Mr Swann added: “The Ulster Unionist Party isn’t going anywhere. We still have a message to give to unionism and the wider Northern Ireland.”
SDLP Assembly member Daniel McCrossan blamed his party’s losses on former members who ran in certain areas and split the vote.
“There’s clear examples across Northern Ireland where the SDLP did very well; the areas where we fell short it was simply as a result of ex-SDLP candidates challenging sitting SDLP candidates and split the vote,” he said.
“That’s the only reason the SDLP has lost a number of seats and you’ll see from any of the evidence there that that is the reason why.”