Local elections - Voters seek out new political territory

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A strong performance by the Alliance Party and the Greens is one of the major trends of the local elections in the Six Counties, according to first results this Friday. The overall unionist vote is down, thanks to a poor performance by fringe unionist groups, while on the nationalist side, independent republicans and newcomers Aontú have made a significant breakthrough.

While all of the nationalist parties have expressed satisfaction with the result, perhaps the biggest story of the election so far is the success of three independent republicans in their first outing. Dan Kerr was elected on the first count in Torrent in Mid-Ulster, while Gavin Malone has reportedly topped the poll in Newry, taking the seat vacated by the resignation of veteran republican Davy Hyland. Mark Gibbons is also likely to take a surprise seat in nearby Crotlieve.

Both Sinn Féin and the SDLP have expressed satisfaction at avoiding what could have been an even stronger protest vote against the political mainstream. A respectable first outing by Aontú and a strong performance by independent nationalists has ensured that the overall nationalist vote is holding up and may see a slight increase.

Sinn Féin made a breakthrough by winning a seat on unionist-dominated Lisburn and Castlereagh Council, marking its electoral return to the area since Paul Butler first won a seat for the party in Lisburn Council in the late 1990s. Teenager Taylor McGrann was also elected as the first Sinn Féin councillor in the Macedon DEA to Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council.

However, the party lost a seat in the Collin area of Belfast to the auspiciously-named young candidate, Micheal Collins of left-wing People Before Profit, and in the Derg DEA of Derry.

There were also major concerns for Sinn Féin in Derry city, where Dr Anne McCloskey is likely to take a shock first seat for Aontú, while the SDLP are polling unusually strongly in republican areas.

Elsewhere, the SDLP are seeing mixed results across the Six Counties, but have polled well enough in north Armagh to take a seat from the DUP in Craigavon.

The DUP’s first openly gay candidate, Alison Bennington who is running in Newtownabbey Borough Council, has been elected in a development which may come as a shock to her own party, which remains opposed to marriage equality.

First time Green candidate Aine Groogan’s poll-topping performance in Botanic in South Belfast was one of the headlines from the first day of counting. However, there were asterisks and health warnings: the hardline anti-Brexit DUP also made progress in the same area, with the party’s local MP Emma Little-Pengelly boasting that it had secured the highest vote there for the first time.

Overall, the jump in first preference of Alliance and the Greens has been hailed by commentators as an indication of a long-sought shift away from the nationalist-unionist divide. Their successes, mainly at the expense of unionists and particularly in urban areas, have chimed with election results today in England as an anti-Brexit vote.

Despite losing votes to Alliance, the DUP were not the victims of the count, soaking up votes and seats from a further decline by the Ulster Unionist Party and the decimation or absence of unionist groups such as the UK Independence Party, the Progressive Unionist Party and the Traditional Unionist Voice. Nevertheless, the overall transition from unionism to a ‘cross-community’ vote confirms that the days of a built-in unionist majority in the Six Counties are reaching an end.

Counting continues tomorrow and we will publish completed results over the weekend.

MAY TO CARRY ON DESPITE HISTORIC LOSS

In England, where local elections are also taking place, the Liberal Democrats party are the big winners, with the party doubling its presence on local councils at the expense of the Tories, who have lost some 1,200 seats, its worst local election result in 25 years.

As Tory losses rose above 1,000, Theresa May said she had been expecting a “difficult election” and admitted Brexit was “an added dimension” to that result. She said: “I think there has been a very clear message from people to both main parties that they want us to get on and deliver Brexit, so I welcome comments from [Labor leader] Jeremy Corbyn that he thinks we should be working to ensure we can deliver a deal.”

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