Obviously, the big story from last week’s Northern Ireland election was the dramatic drop in support for the Unionist parties which led to them losing their minority in the Assembly (and its predecessors) for the first time ever. Rather than add to the analysis of the (Nicholas Whyte in the Irish Times is a good starting point, but there’s plenty of good coverage out there), I want to look at the political centre in Northern Ireland, to follow on from my post last week.
One interesting feature was that early results (based on first preference votes) didn’t look too rosy for the centre parties, but as votes began to transfer down through the preferences, things started looking better as a trend of UUP and SDLP voters being willing to vote across the cultural cleavage became clear. Seats that had looked tough to hold earlier on in the count were being held thanks to voters. Nicholas Whyte puts it succintly:
A remarkable feature of the election is that voters themselves seem more inclined to cross the divide. The SDLP’s vote share decreased yet again, giving them their worst result in history. But they managed to come out with no net losses. In several cases, seats that had appeared beyond their grasp in the early stages of counting fell into place thanks to transfers from the UUP – not just failure to transfer within Unionism, but an active choice by a crucial minority of moderate voters to try and block the extreme parties.
To be specific: UUP transfers were crucial for the SDLP seats in Lagan Valley and East Londonderry, and the SDLP returned the favour for the UUP in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
The animated results on the Belfast Telegraph’s election site help to make this trend clearer – in seat after seat, when the final UUP or SDLP candidate is eliminated or elected, a large chunk of their vote transfers to the other party (or to the Alliance and the Greens) rather than staying within their side and transferring to the DUP or SDLP.
MLAs designated as ‘other’ (neither unionist nor nationalist) now make up a larger percentage of the Assembly than ever before, going up from 11.1% (12 out of 108) to 12.2% (11 of 90) in the new Assembly. On a wider scale, the more ‘centre’ parties and MLAs (those who can attract significant cross-community support or transfers) now total 34 out of the 90 members. While it’s not the majority of the Assembly those parties represented at the foundation of the Assembly, it’s a reminder that a swing back of support from the DUP and Sinn Fein would not have to be too huge to give the centre parties a majority in the Assembly again. The strength of transfers between them and a growing population in Northern Ireland that want to move on from the politics of the Troubles might make negotiating post-election deals an even more multi-sided game in the future.