Sunday 22 September 2019

Major gains for Alliance in North as DUP and SF vote freezes

Celebrations: The Alliance Party’s Nuala McAllister celebrates as she is elected for the Castle area at Belfast City Hall count centre. Photo: Mark Marlow/PA
Celebrations: The Alliance Party’s Nuala McAllister celebrates as she is elected for the Castle area at Belfast City Hall count centre. Photo: Mark Marlow/PA

Cate McCurry

The leader of the Alliance Party in the North has hailed her party's unexpected success at the council elections ballot box as "tremendous".

After two years at the helm, Naomi Long has increased the party's representation across Northern Ireland by 65pc, bringing the total number of Alliance councillors to 53.

The centrist party won seats in 10 out of Northern Ireland's 11 councils, and picked up seats in Omagh and Derry.

Ms Long admitted she did not expect the remarkable breakthrough in the local government ballot, adding it has "transformed" the party.

"We have been fighting for the last two years as we know local government is the base on which we can build for the future in the (Northern Ireland) Assembly.

"I have done a lot of development work since I took over as party leader, particularly in the west, but we couldn't have predicted that so many of the targets that we set would be realised.

"We got seats in places that our target was to get a candidate who would run there.

"We were not expecting the surge that we got and it has been tremendous," she said, adding: "I am excited about where the party can go from here."

However, despite the Alliance Party's success, the political landscape in the North remains largely unchanged.

The DUP remains the largest party, gaining 24.1pc of first preference votes (up 1pc) - and ended the election with 122 seats, a loss of eight when compared to the 2014 council elections.

Sinn Féin suffered a slight dent to its support base with 23.2pc first preference votes (down 0.8pc). The party walked away with 105 council seats, the same number they won in 2014.

The Ulster Unionist Party lost 13 seats and now has 75 while the Traditional Unionist Voice lost more than half its seats, ending up with six.

The SDLP lost seven councillors and now has 59.

Independents made significant gains, taking 23 seats, while the Green party doubled its tally to eight. People Before Profit (PBP) added a councillor to its representation, taking home five seats.

Responding to the outcome, Ms Long said the gains for the Greens and PBP sends a message that unionism and nationalism is not people's priority.

"Nor is this politics of fear of 'vote for us or you'll get them'. That has broken," she added.

"It is saying that there is a progressive movement in Northern Ireland.

"The two main parties would be very foolish to ignore that message going into the talks," she warned.

After Sinn Féin emerged with the same number of council seats, the party's John O'Dowd admitted a number of areas need to be considered after they lost numbers in Derry and Omagh.

Speaking to the BBC's 'Sunday Politics', he said: "In all it was a solid performance.

"There are areas that we clearly need to look at. Derry has taken blows before and we have learned from them and came back, no doubt that will happen again.

"I welcome that there is a broadening of the agenda that is in politics."

He added that the parties celebrating election victories were around "equality and rights".

Among those elected for Sinn Féin was the party's former MP Barry McElduff. He was forced to resign his Westminster seat amid an outcry after he posted a video of himself on Twitter balancing a loaf of Kingsmill bread on his head on the anniversary of the Kingsmill massacre in which 10 Protestant workmen were shot dead by republicans in 1976.

He was elected as a councillor to the Fermanagh and Omagh District Council.

DUP MLA Christopher Stalford said his party had a "solid" set of election results despite the loss of eight councillors.

"In a local election people feel freer to go elsewhere and express preferences than they do sometimes in the Westminster election," he added.

The SDLP's Carl Whyte said it was battling former party members who have turned independent.

"People were predicting our decline and then when the ballots are counted, our vote comes out and our voters are there and they are supporting us," he said.

Irish Independent

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