Counting has concluded in Northern Ireland’s council elections, with Sinn Fein becoming the largest party in local government for the first time.
After a two-day count, they emerged with 144 seats, an increase of 39 on the last vote in 2019.
Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill described the results as “momentous”, adding: “The onus is now on the British and Irish governments to get together and focus their efforts on the immediate restoration of the executive and assembly.
“We expect to see an early meeting of the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference. The boycott of the assembly cannot go on, and an executive must be formed.”
The DUP was the largest unionist party with 122 seats – the same number as four years ago – while the Alliance Party increased its representation by 14 seats to 67.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said: “I think […] there are lessons to be learned for unionism in its broadest sense. The DUP has had a good election but unionism needs to do better, we need to be winning more seats.
“I’m happy to sit down with my fellow unionists and examine these issues and how greater co-operation can lead to a pathway towards more success for unionism in general.”
Significant losses for other parties
The Ulster Unionists and the SDLP both suffered significant losses, however, with the UUP winning 54 seats and the SDLP 39.
UUP leader Doug Beattie said he was disappointed but had no plans to resign, adding: “I made it quite clear that the party elected me, and I am the party leader, and I am going absolutely nowhere. It’ll be the party that decides my fate one way or the other.
“So those people who are a little bit shaky because we’ve had a bad election, they can stay shaky because I’m on absolutely rock solid foundations, and I’m going nowhere.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said Sinn Fein had “cannibalised” the nationalist vote.
“It has been very clear when we have been speaking to people that people are really annoyed at the DUP, that they want the executive back up and running, and they wanted to send a message,” he said.
“Sinn Fein asked them to send that message, and they sent it.”
Sinn Fein wins but the DUP hasn’t lost its mandate for Stormont boycott
The name Sinn Fein means “ourselves alone” – reflecting their aspiration for the entire island of Ireland to be independent – but the party has no shortage of company at the polls.
One year after it became the largest party in the Stormont Assembly, Sinn Fein has become the largest party in local government too – a seismic shift in Northern Irish politics.
Nationalists turned out in force, endorsing Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O’Neill’s claim on the office of first minister, from which she’s been blocked by the DUP’s boycott of power-sharing.
The turnout in Unionist constituencies was lower, as usual, despite DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson urging voters to strengthen his hand in demands for change to post-Brexit trading arrangements.
The DUP says the Windsor Framework – Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s new trade deal with the EU – does not safeguard Northern Ireland’s place in the UK enough for them to restore devolved government.
Losing its lead over Sinn Fein for the second time in 13 months is a blow to the DUP, but there’s no guarantee this result will change its stance on power-sharing.
It’s more a case of Sinn Fein gaining than the DUP losing – the Unionist party held on in most places, despite many predicting a meltdown for them in these council elections.
The ideological wing of the party will regard that as a mandate for their hard-line position on the Brexit border in the Irish Sea and want to maintain the boycott.
But the pragmatists can point to evidence of an electorate disillusioned by binary politics – the fact the non-aligned Alliance Party is growing as a third force in politics here.
With fewer voters now designated as Unionists or Nationalists, it’s difficult for the two largest parties to fight every election on the constitutional question of United Kingdom or united Ireland.
Smaller parties and independents took the remaining 36 seats.
There are 11 councils in Northern Ireland – Sinn Fein will be the largest party in six local government areas, including Belfast, while the DUP will have the largest representation in five councils.
Sinn Fein secured 30.9% of first preference votes, ahead of the DUP on 23.3%, 13.3% for Alliance, 10.9% for the Ulster Unionists and 8.7% for the SDLP.
The turnout was 54%.