Northern Ireland Democracy, devolution and governance

Northern Ireland 2023 local elections – Part 1: the basics


Photo by Arnaud Jaegers on Unsplash

Local election time beckons in Northern Ireland (NI) again. While this election time brings the usual existential messaging from local parties, woeful analysis from those in North London, and speculations of what each election means for the long-standing divisions, this article outlines the key outlook for the upcoming elections on May 18th and what changes we might see across NI’s local government scene.

The basics

The importance of voting till you boke

  • On May 18th, voters will take to the polling stations to elect 462 councillors across 11 council areas.
  • While voter ID is (quite literally) all the rage in England, the requirement for Electoral ID when voting has been in place for local elections since 2002 in Northern Ireland and was also used in the NI constituencies for the UK Parliamentary Elections since 2007 (CAIN and House of Commons).
  • Historically, voters in NI participate more in local government elections than elsewhere in the UK. For example, analysis from the London School of Economics shows that in 2014, while voter levels fell back to just over 51% of registered voters, a historic low for councils in the province, this was still far more than in England with a 36% turn out on the same day (Pow 2014:LSE).
  • In NI, Councillors are elected for a four-year term of office under the single transferable vote (STV) system meaning constituencies are multi-member and voters rank candidates in numerical preference as is the case in Ireland.
  • Each candidate then needs a minimum number of votes to be elected, and this number is determined by a quota of the number of seats and votes cast. Once a candidate meets this quota, votes that would have gone to the winner instead go to the second preference listed on those ballot papers (see the Electoral Reform Society for a comparative look at proportional electoral systems).

The role of councils in NI

A circle of constricted local government finances and powers plagues NI’s local governments. NI’s 11 councils all suffer from a cyclical crisis of underfunding and a lack of statutory powers. This is despite the 2015 re-organisation of local government in NI, and despite NI receiving 21% more funding per head than the UK average (Hansard 2023).

Table 1 below illustrates the extent of local government underfunding in NI, wherein local government expenditure as a percentage of UK regions public expenditure on services in 2021 stands at a minuscule 3%, compared to 21% in Wales, 19% in Scotland and 18% in England.

Northern Ireland Local Government Finance (2021)
Local government expenditure on services by country 2021 (£ millions) Total identifiable expenditure on services 2021 (£ million) Local government expenditure as a percentage of UK regions public expenditure on services 2021. 
England 137754 744545 18.5%
Scotland 15583 81124 19.2%
Wales 9646 45078 21.4%
Northern Ireland 874 29109 3.0%
UK 196939 899857 21.9%
Source: HM Treasury 2022

Reflecting this is Table 2’s list of council responsibilities in NI. Unlike the rest of the UK, NI councils lack responsibilities for housing, roads, transport and libraries.

Role of NI Councils
Responsible Not responsible
Local planning Education
Waste collection and disposal Public housing
Street cleaning Policing
Parks and leisure Fire service
Cemeteries Roads
Economic development Transport
Off-street parking Libraries
Arts, heritage and cultural facilities
Registration of births, deaths and marriages
Source: BBC 

A look at key issues for May’s local elections

Casting the mind back to 2019, NI was a very different political landscape. Pre-pandemic, the 2019 local elections were largely subsumed under the uncertainty of Brexit, fears of a hardened UK EU border and an increased dissident republican threat.

Fast forward to today, the Stormont Assembly again sits empty and political deadlock over Brexit still dominates the agenda. But that does not mean the 2023 local elections are set to rehash old arguments and the analysis below indicates some of the issues that will determine this May’s elections.

The changing face of local government in NI

Across these islands, people are taking a deeper look at who represents us. As NILGA Chief Executive Alison Allen puts it, the 2021 census results “show that Northern Ireland is more diverse than ever” and those from a minority background have doubled since the previous census in 2011 (Irish News).

Aiding the translation of those demographic changes into the makeup of our Councils, NILGA’s new ‘Be A Councillor, Make A Difference’ aims to encourage a more diverse cohort of individuals to step forward and represent our communities.

Writing to each of the political parties to consider the demography of candidates, this May local election offers an important snapshot of who exactly represents our changing society.

Shifting political landscapes – from the “big 5” to a 3 party state?

One of the outstanding contributions local government in NI has delivered historically and continues to contribute under current conditions of a non-performing Stormont is that it is a real manifestation of local democracy. Indeed for much of the period of the ‘’Troubles’’, it was the only democratic platform within NI.

And as we move to commemorate 25 years of the Good Friday Agreement this April, not many in 1998 could have anticipated the modal shifts in NI’s political landscape, whether it be the top-level change from the SDLP and UUP to SF and the DUP, or the bottom upsurge in those who vote neither Nationalist or Unionist.

To map out recent changes in political support for NI’s parties, Table 3 looks at first preference votes in the last 2 local elections, as well as two recent polls. In summary, the “big 5 parties” which made up the benches of a power-sharing government in Stormont are now giving way to a three-party consolidation with support growing for SF, the DUP and Alliance.

First preference votes in Northern Ireland 2019-2023
2014 Local election first preference votes 2019 Local election first preference votes 2022 Assembly election first preference votes Lucid Talk Polling first preference votes January 2023 Irish News Polling first preference votes March 2023 
DUP (23.1%) DUP (24.1%) SF (29%) SF (31%) SF (30.6%)
SF (24.1%) SF (23.2%) DUP (21.3%) DUP (25%) DUP (23.9%)
UUP (16.2%) UUP (14.1%) Alliance Party (13.5%) Alliance (15%) Alliance (15.4%)
SDLP (13.6%) SDLP (12%) UUP (11.2%) UUP (10%) UUP (11.3%)
Alliance (6.7%) Alliance (11.5) SDLP (9.1%) SDLP (7%) SDLP (6.7%)
TUV (4.5%) (Others 15.1%) TUV (7.6%) TUV (7%) Other (12.1%)
Source: CAIN Source: BBC NI 2019. Source: BBC NI 2022. Source: LucidTalk 2023. Source: Irish News-University of Liverpool

While looking at first preference votes cannot reflect the complexities of STV vote transfers, or variables such as the status of local independents and the number of candidates fielded in districts, it can depict the wider trends in party support.

And translating these wider trends to this May, SF could be set to be the largest local government party in NI, with DUP second and Alliance third – a radical re-ordering of the local government structure in NI.

Perma-crisis facing local government

Local government is used to delivering in times of crisis and the Cost of Living was no different. However, from Brexit, to the pandemic, and now a Cost of Living Crisis, SOLACE Chair NI Roger Wilson aptly describes our Councils as “battle weary”.

Looking specifically at the Cost of Living Crisis, the onus lay firmly on local government. While the UK Government’s Energy Bill Support Scheme was greatly delayed by the lack of a sitting Executive, Councils in NI took the initiative and established fuel poverty funds to alleviate the immediate needs of those hit the hardest.

And despite the long-standing constrictions over local government finance, Council’s carried forward with Warm Spaces campaigns and other practical, frontline initiatives to deliver for our communities.

However, for voters going forward, Kelly Beaver from IPSOS (Find more at the NILGA 2023 conference summary here) showed how inflation and the cost of living have sharply hardened attitudes to public spending and lowered perceptions of state capacity. Therefore, for voters this May the fiscal sustainability of the public purse is likely to influence voting patterns.

Final thoughts

While the constant flux of local government in NI could all but nullify this article by the time it is published, one thing will be clear in May 2023, and that is local government in NI will continue to evolve step by step.

Next up in the electoral timetable is Publication of Notice of Election by the Deputy Returning Officer on April 11th 2023, and importantly, the deadline for voters is April 28th and you can register here.

Want more content? LGIU members can read this international briefing on what ‘permacrisis’ means in the local government context:

What does ‘permacrisis’ mean for local government?


Is your Council a member of the LGIU? Check here by signing up to join the LGIU community and access essential local government resources.


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