Northern Ireland 2023 local elections – Part 2: info pack

Congratulations on voting – what next? 

The toplines

  • 462 Councillors from the 807 candidates.
  • Sinn Fein is fielding the most candidates (221), followed by the DUP (152), Alliance (110), UUP (101) and SDLP (86), TUV (46), Green Party (37), Aontú (19) and People Before Profit (16).

Election day is here for local government in Northern Ireland – but what next? This article highlights the ones to watch and offers analysis and insights into the wider implications of these elections for Northern Ireland’s local government sector.

Don’t expect the BBC’s push notifications to come in soon. In fact, the count normally commences on the morning after polling day and can take 1-2 days due to the complexity of the Single Transferable Vote counting process (EONI).

So, while NI’s 11 Council Chief Executives dust off their electoral hats and find themselves in the count centre calculating the quotas for NI’s Single Transferable Vote wards (Find out more about what STV is here), you can check out these key resources for understanding the NI constituencies and the seats up for grabs.

Missed Part 1? Click here to check out the basics of what Councils in NI and some background for the 2023 local election.

Northern Ireland 2023 local elections – Part 1: the basics

Top five areas to watch

1. Belfast City Council

As the only Council where Unionism and Nationalism have no majority, and for a Council whose political history has shaped the Island of Ireland, DEA’s like Lisnasharragh, Titanic and Oldpark offer real insights into how well the various party’s campaigns are shaping out in these ultra-competitive seats.

Oldpark: Will DUP secure a second seat?

Lisnasharragh: The SDLP seat here was last to be declared in 2019. How will the SDLP vs SF electoral campaign run?

Titanic: A new seat for SF?

Castle: How will Mal O’Hara’s ambitious ideas for the role of local government play with voters?

But remember, election day is important, but more so is what comes next. For instance, the Monday 5th June 6pm Annual meeting in Belfast City Council will offer key insights into the Strategic Policy and Resources Committee.

For more, check out this BBC analysis of political leadership at Belfast City Council here.

2. Derry and Strabane Council

Like Belfast City Council, the politics of Derry and Strabane Council impacts far and wide.

But at a local level, a key factor for party campaigns will be messaging over the cost of living crisis. Particularly as Brown O’Connor revealed how 20 of the 100 most deprived SOAs in Northern Ireland fall within Derry and Strabane, covering 25% of the council’s population.

More widely, Derry and Strabane are worth watching to see how the SF vs SDLP battle plays out. This is particularly worth watching, considering SF is fielding five less candidates than in 2019, reflecting a careful approach following a 6% swing away from the party in the 2019 local elections.

Reflecting both the strength of independent candidates and perhaps a resurgent SDLP, Derry and Strabane promises a competitive race worth watching on Friday and Saturday.

3. Demographics

The historical dominance of ethnopolitics in NI determines that a primary lens for viewing local election results will be a “Green vs Orange”, or perhaps a “Rise of the inbetween” commentary.

But what is often missing is a look behind the parties at who exactly is elected. So, this May’s local election offers an important snapshot into the makeup of who represents the people. As NILGA Chief Executive Alison Allen puts it, the 2021 census results “show that Northern Ireland is more diverse than ever” and those from an ethnic minority background have doubled since the previous census in 2011 (Irish News).

Also, these elections are important in terms of women’s representation in local government, which has posed a long-standing issue for NI. For example, the National Womens Council has already highlighted that only 32% of candidates are women.

And according to 50:50 Northern Ireland,

“At the local level, a mere 26% of Local Councillors and 18% of Mayors or Council chairs are women.”

Similarly important is the proportion of first-time elected representatives. Fresh faces and new ideas also bring with them a long adjustment period in terms of getting to grips with planning processes, budgets and new relationships to form with Councillors and Officers.

Resources for new councillors

4. Fermanagh and Omagh District Council

Reported as the Council with the highest turnout in 2019 (Brown O’Connor), Fermanagh and Omagh District Council is certainly worth watching to see whether the Alliance “Surge” transfers West of the Bann.

As well as being a “home to household names within unionism” (Brown O’Connor), Alliance’s electoral advances have made headlines in recent NI elections. More than doubling their number of MLA’s in the 2022 Assembly election, the Alliance Party appears keen to capitalise on its recent electoral surge by fielding 110 candidates across all 11 Councils, 26 more candidates than the 2019 local election and more than double their current number of Councillors.

Nonetheless, a hallmark of the modern Alliance Party is its regional concentration in both urban centres and urban centres East of the Bann.

While a majority of the DEA’s where Alliance has fielded more than 1 candidate lie East of the Bann, in 2023 Alliance has fielded candidates across Fermanagh and Omagh District Council’s DEA’s, meaning an eye to first preference votes and transfers here offer an insight into the party’s reception West of the Bann.

5. The broader picture – Is NI moving to a three-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. To map out recent changes in political support for NI’s parties, Table 1 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

At one level, 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.

But 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.

Extrapolating general views from local elections is hugely problematic. But so, too is ignoring the picture on the ground, especially when that picture jars with the post-conflict institutional set-up of Northern Ireland.

In other words, when it comes to the power-sharing model of democracy in Stormont, what would the rise in power for Alliance alongside Sinn Fein and DUP dominance mean for the wider picture in Northern Ireland?

To surmise, local elections are undoubtedly motivated by local issues, independent candidates and local campaigns. But in a time of political deadlock in Stormont, signals from this local election on the reception of parties offer crucial insights into the political moves behind the scenes as pressure grows for Stormont to return following a particularly dire budget for NI’s departments.

Electoral analysis pack 

Typically, local election predictions in Northern Ireland are fraught for a number of reasons – namely, the lack of local election polling data, the varying extent of support for local independents, and the complexities of calculating quotas and vote transfer due to the STV system.

But since there can only be 462 Councillors from the 807 candidates, here are the top resources and Twitter accounts to check on Thursday and on Friday onwards as results come in.

Professor Jon Tonge’s vote prediction

Professor David McCann

A lecturer at Ulster University and deputy editor of Slugger O’Toole, David McCanns pre-election analysis for the Irish News can be found here.

A Geographical Breakdown by Jack Armstrong

Source @JackArmstrong
Source @JackArmstrong.

A PhD student researching STV electoral systems, Jack’s blog post containing a candidate breakdown in brightly coloured maps is the go-to when dreary eyes on Friday morning attempt to understand ward breakdowns. Read the full breakdown here.

Brown O’Connors 11 Council profiles

Substantiated with demographic information, comparisons with the 2019 local election and commentary of DEA’s and intra-party races, you can find the 11 Council profiles here!

Party manifestos

Fancy a look at what each party promises to deliver in these local elections? Look no further, as below are PDF-linked manifestos!

Fun fact – Correct digital formatting by all parties means all party manifestos can be digitally coded. Happy content analysis!

A final thought – Sitting down at the table

After weeks of promises and campaign rhetoric, the difficult task begins with forming committees and getting down to the task of governing.

And first off the bat will be the issue of local government finances. While local government in Northern Ireland is largely based on rates and, therefore, somewhat more independent from central government funding than elsewhere in the UK, the state of public finances in NI undeniably causes a huge strain on Councils – especially after the recent “Punishment budget” for Stormont saw meagre below-inflation rises for the Department of Communities and Infrastructure.

However, as no political control (NOC) is a hallmark of NI’s 11 Councils, 462 Councillors will now have to sit down around the table and figure out ways to deliver for the communities that they represent.

Table 2 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 region’s 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

So as political deadlock delivers accumulating pressures on Council finances as well as the issue of a democratic deficit and public service deterioration, sitting down at the table and getting on with the task of governance represents the big challenge post-election.