Below is Fahas take on these ground breaking election results:
Now that the 2017 election is over it is time for an analysis of the results. Below are the actual results:
The total nationalist vote was up by 63,694 to its highest level in any election. The increase was mainly due to increased support for SF. The SF increase had 2 sources. These were previous SF voters who had not voted in recent elections and new voters who voted SF as a protest against Arlene Foster and the DUP. The SDLP vote was up but these were primarily SDLP voters who had not voted in recent elections rather than the protest vote. The Alliance vote was up dramatically and the transfer pattern indicates that the majority came from the Catholic community. The DUP vote was up 22,846. However, this is somewhat misleading since UKIP only competed in 1 constituency and there were fewer PUP, TUV and independent unionists candidates. The total for the minor unionist parties was down over 15,000 and it is likely that 12,000 or more of these voted DUP instead. Nevertheless, the DUP did manage to bring an additional 10,000 new voters. The UUP also had a nice vote increase though it did not result in any additional seats. The Green vote and PBP vote was unchanged despite a 109,000 increase in overall turnout.
As far as turnout is concerned the nationalist voter deficit no longer exists. These are the turnout figures by constituency and are based on the voting age population:
There are 3 constituencies: Foyle, West Belfast and South Belfast, where the nationalist turnout is much higher than unionist turnout. The lower nationalist turnout in South Down, Newry and Armagh, Mid Ulster and West Tyrone disappeared with nationalist turnout equal to unionist. This was directly responsible for the loss of 4 unionist seats in those constituencies. The nationalist turnout in East Antrim, Strangford, Lagan Valley, and East Belfast is still significantly below unionist turnout and resulted in the failure of SF in East Antrim and the SDLP in Strangford to win seats. Fermanagh South Tyrone had a 9% increase in nationalist turnout. It is lower than unionist turnout for 2 reasons. This constituency has the highest unionist turnout of all constituencies and there are also large numbers of EU nationals who vote at a lower rate. The latter also partly explains the lower nationalist turnout in Upper Bann. Overall, nationalist and unionist turnout is equal. It is possible that the nationalist turnout was 54% and the unionist turnout 57%. That is because the School Census indicates an undercount of the Catholic population by 1% which changes the turnout percentages. Native voter turnout is equal among nationalist and unionist voters and the lower nationalist turnout is due to lower turnout among foreign nationals.
These are the winners and loser in the election.
SF is obviously the #1 winner. Not only did their vote increase by 56,600 to a record level but they almost equalled the DUP total. Their net loss was only 1 seat despite a smaller Assembly with 18 fewer members. Particularly impressive was winning 3 seats in Newry and Armagh, Mid Ulster, West Tyrone and Fermanagh-South Tyrone. They also pulled ahead of the SDLP in Foyle and South Down.
Alliance is the #2 winner. They added 50% to their 2016 total and kept 8 seats despite an Assembly with 18 fewer members. Their totals increased throughout the west and they almost won a seat in South Down. Their only limitation is that they do not appear to have any potential for increased seats other than South Down.
The SDLP is the #3 winner. Their vote increase did keep pace with the overall increase in turnout. They won back a seat from SF in Upper Bann and unexpectedly won in Lagan Valley. They could have won 15 seats. They were within 67 votes of winning a seat in Fermanagh South Tyrone and 225 votes short in Strangford. They did not attract the anti DUP protest vote and their entire vote increase was due to previous stay at home SDLP voters.
The TUV, UKIP, PUP, Conservatives are the #1 losers. UKIP essentially decided not to compete and the overall vote for minor unionist parties and candidates decreased 15,000 with most of that vote going to the DUP. The anti SF unionist vote is increasingly going to the DUP. These parties would be better off merging with the DUP or disbanding.
The DUP is the #2 loser. It is true that they increased their vote by over 22,000 but the majority of that increase was due to lack of competition from the smaller unionist parties. However they lost 10 seats and only have 1 more seat than SF. They came very close to losing additional seats in Strangford and Foyle and only won those seats because to the failure of SF and Alliance and Green voters to transfer to the SDLP and PBP.
THE UUP is the #3 loser. Despite increasing their overall vote they lost 6 seats and the party leader resigned. They are in danger of having fewer seats than Alliance in future elections and only won Fermanagh South Tyrone due to SDLP transfers.
The Greens and PBP are the #4 losers. Despite a much higher turnout these parties were unable to increase their vote. There appears to be a ceiling to the Green vote though they did keep their 2 MLA’s. The PBP vote collapsed in West Belfast and their pro Brexit stance cost them votes. They also failed to compete in most constituencies.
Now I will look at each constituency in detail.
Both the SF and SDLP vote was up but twice as much for SF. PBP finished 660 votes behind the DUP for the final seat. However, there was an undistributed SDLP surplus of 158 votes would have narrowed that to only 500+. There were also 330 SF votes and over 500 Alliance votes that did not transfer to anyone so if these had voted tactically defeat the DUP they would have succeeded. Net loss 1 PBP.
I will now look at the 3 constituencies of West Tyrone, Mid Ulster and Newry-Armagh due to similar demographic and results.
SF won 3 here and it was not even close as they were ahead of the UUP by 760 votes in the final count. There was also an undistributed SDLP surplus of 300 so the margin would have been higher. Net loss 1 UUP.
SF had over 3 quotas here. The SDLP finished 1,200 votes ahead of the UUP and there was an undistributed SF surplus of 270 which would have increased the margin further. Net loss 1 UUP.
Newry and Armagh
SF elected 3 here and their 3rd candidate (Murphy) was 1080 votes ahead of the UUP. There were 64 undistributed SF votes and 606 undistributed DUP votes but this would not have changed the outcome as Murphy still would have won by at least 540 votes. Net loss 1 UUP.
Fermanagh South Tyrone
SF won 3 here but it was very close. At stage 2 Sean Lynch of SF was 62 votes ahead of the SDLP and the SDLP was eliminated with the SDLP transfers electing all 3 SF as well the UUP. There were over 400 Alliance, Green and Labour votes that did not transfer to anyone and these lack of transfers to the SDLP cost them the seat. The one consolation is that some SDLP transfers elected the UUP and resulted in the defeat of Morrow of the DUP. Net loss 1 DUP and 1 SDLP. SF gain.
Nationalist turnout was up very significantly from 34% to 50%. This resulted in an additional 3,300 votes for SF, 1,300 for SDLP candidates and another 800 for PBP and Alliance. The media claimed this was a close election with 2 nationalist seats in doubt. However, with a total nationalist electorate of 40% this was never in doubt. There was also the narrative that it was UUP transfers that saved the SDLP. However, in any election there are always UUP transfers to the SDLP. The UUP transfers to the SDLP were up only 338 from 2016 and 100 of these were probably Alliance votes that transferred through the UUP. There were 382 transfers to the SDLP from Claire Sugden and 565 from the DUP. In the end the SDLP defeated the one of the SF candidates by 853 votes but even without the DUP transfers (some of which were tactical) the SDLP would have won. Net loss 1 DUP.
The nationalist vote was up 10% here with an additional 3,000 for SF, 800 for the SDLP and another 800+ voting Alliance. Again, the media portrayed the win for the SDLP as due to UUP transfers. However, at stage 4, before any UUP transfers came into play, the SDLP were already ahead of Toman of SF by 217 votes. When Dobson of the UUP was eliminated most of her votes went to the UUP but 678 went to the SDLP and 55 to SF. The fact that so many went to SF and the SDLP rather than the UUP indicates that many of the 600+ Alliance-Green that went to Dobson actually subsequently transferred to the SDLP and SF. At that point the SDLP was 873 votes ahead of SF and the transfers of the UUP surplus (Beattie) added another 1864 to that margin. Net loss 1 UUP and 1 SF. SDLP gain.
The main story here was the massive increase in the SF vote by 6,300 which was totally unexpected. The Alliance Party also doubled their vote from2,200 to 4,500. There was never any possibility of a UUP seat. This was another example where it was thought that a large number of UUP votes would transfer to the SDLP. When the UUP was eliminated 2/3 of their transfers went to the DUP and of the other 1/3 more transferred to Alliance than the SDLP. The SDLP only received 13% of UUP transfers. In the end SF transfers saved the SDLP and they won over Alliance by 738 votes. Net loss 1 UUP.
There was a large increase in the nationalist turnout from 36% to 50% but the unionist turnout was also up. There was never a chance for a SDLP seat here with only 5 seats as the demographics do not exist for 2 nationalist seats. Net loss 1 DUP.
Nationalist turnout was up from 37% to 53% with SF adding 2,300 and the SDLP 650. There was also an Alliance increase of over 2,100. Since the Alliance increase far exceeded the SDLP increase Alliance won easily. Net loss 1 UUP.
The nationalist turnout increased from 35% to 46% but the unionist turnout was also up 5%. SF lost their seat here due to the higher quota with only 5 seats. Some have claimed that with better transfers from the SDLP they would have won. It is true that only 1/3 of SDLP transfers initially went to SF. Subsequent Alliance transfers that originated from the SDLP increased that to ½. Even if another 500 transfers went to SF from the SDLP, SF would have still been 1,000 votes behind the UUP. The only way that SF could have won would be with a nationalist turnout equal to unionist turnout. The UUP picked up a seat due to an additional 2,000 1st preferences. Net loss 1 SF and 1 DUP. UUP gain.
The big story here was the SDLP win and nationalist turnout was up from 33% to 44%. Supposedly the SDLP won because of UUP transfers. Apparently Jenny Palmer has been subject to abuse (online and otherwise) because of her alleged role in the defeat of the DUP and election of the SDLP. However, there is no electoral evidence that she helped the SDLP in a greatly significant way compared to historical transfer patterns. When she was eliminated only 309 of her 5095 votes went to the SDLP (6%) and at least 50 of those originated from the Greens and independents. Over 70% of her transfers went to the UUP and 12% to the DUP so her votes stayed in the unionist community. Butler of the UUP then had a surplus of 3,525 of which 41% transferred to the DUP and 31% to the SDLP. The SDLP transfers are up from historical patterns. Usually when a UUP candidate is eliminated from a Belfast area constituency the DUP receive 55% to 60% and the SDLP 20% to 25% of transfers with 20% not transferring to either. The SDLP won by 433 votes so the UUP transfers at the higher rate to the SDLP did make a difference but it was the reluctance of UUP voters to give the DUP any preference that mattered more. Net loss 2 DUP. SDLP gain.
Low nationalist turnout cost the SDLP a seat here. Nationalist turnout did increase from 35% to 44% but unionist turnout increased from 48% to 56%. At the final count the SDLP lost to the DUP by 225 votes. The UUP transfers went equally to the SDLP and DUP but 60% of UUP vote did not transfer. There were not enough additional SF and Green non transfers (only 140) to potentially close the gap. Low nationalist turnout cost the SDLP a seat and even a 1% increase in turnout would have made the difference. Net loss 1 UUP
The main surprise here was the large increase in the nationalist turnout though most of those additional voters voted Green or Alliance. When the Alliance surplus was distributed 55% went to the Greens but the other split 60% unionist and 40% nationalist. I estimated low that 30% of the Alliance vote originated from the Catholic community (historically it is 20%)) but it could have been 40%. Net loss 1 DUP.
No surprises with Alliance winning 2. Net loss 1 DUP.
Total turnout was up 5,000 but it was 3,800 nationalist and 1,000 Alliance. The DUP had a major embarrassment since Nelson McCausland of the DUP was behind Alliance at stage 5 and was eliminated. SF finished 556 ahead of Alliance to secure their 2nd seat. Net loss 1 DUP.
SF won 4 with near perfect balancing. The PBP vote was down significantly but Carroll was still near a quota when the SDLP was eliminated. The SDLP was eliminated because they were 353 votes behind the DUP after stage 2. The total unionist vote was up 130 and the lack of transfers from the UUP and Alliance meant that the SDLP was behind the DUP. In order to win they needed to be ahead of the DUP and then receive 20% of unionist transfers to be ahead of the 4th SF. Net loss 1 SDLP.
SF topped the poll and total turnout was up 6,300. 4,000 of those were nationalist voters with most of the remainder additional Alliance and Green voters. The DUP had no chance of winning 2 here and indeed both their candidates were behind the UUP on the 2nd to last count. The Greens were 1,542 votes ahead of the UUP in the final count but there were 1,490 undistributed DUP surplus so the final result would have been much closer. Net loss 1 DUP.
The nationalist voter apathy that has existed for at least 10 years no longer exists. At this point it is not certain that there will be a new government formed between SF and the DUP at Stormont. The DUP can concede few concessions to SF. If it does otherwise it would be an admission of defeat and would outrage their voter base. The alternative for the DUP is direct rule from London. This would be more than acceptable for the DUP since direct rule is Conservative Party rule with Theresa May instead of Margaret Thatcher. There would be no nationalist input into the governing of Northern Ireland which if fine from the DUP perspective. SF cannot go into government without major concessions from the DUP. To do so otherwise would alienate those additional 56,000 voters who voted SF mainly as a protest against the arrogance of the DUP. At any other time in history SF would object to direct rule. This time may be different. It is in Sinn Fein’s interest to have direct rule by the Conservative Party. The Conservatives will implement Brexit and possible harsh budget cuts for Northern Ireland. In 2 years this would only increase the likelihood of favourable Border Poll result. What would be the results of a Border Poll? It is somewhat speculative at this time but there are some clues from the recent Lucid Talk poll and the actual election results. The Lucid Talk poll has been very accurate for 3 consecutive elections. They obtain their results from a panel that fits the demographics of Northern Ireland. The same voters who were polled on Assembly voting intentions were also polled on preferences for a United Ireland in December 2016. In that poll 95% of nationalist voters are in favour of a United Ireland if Brexit occurs. Only 9% of unionist voters were in favour of a United Ireland if Brexit occurs. The results for Alliance-Green voters were not released. So of the 42.1% of voters who voted for nationalist candidates 40% of that total are in favour of a United Ireland if Brexit occurs. Of the 45.7% of voters who voted for unionist candidates 4% are in favour of a United Ireland if Brexit occurs. The total vote is 44% in favour of a United Ireland and 44% against a United Ireland if Brexit occurs. How the Alliance and Green voters would vote is unknown but it is known from Lucid Talk that 85% of Alliance and Green voters are opposed to Brexit. These voters were 12% of the electorate in the recent election.
The nationalist parties need to begin the negotiation process with EU officials and the Irish government on how to integrate Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland. From the EU perspective they will be supportive as they have no incentive to give concessions to the UK in the pending Brexit negotiations. The EU was very supportive when East Germany merged with West Germany. Northern Ireland has only 10% of the population of East Germany. Overall, Ireland is less than 2% of the population of the EU and the EU should be able to help with the financial and trade adjustments that would occur with a United Ireland. From the nationalist perspective it is important to persuade as many Alliance, Green and unionist voters of the benefits of a United Ireland. I recall one Northern Ireland opinion poll on a United Ireland from 15 years ago. The question of a United Ireland was broken down by religious preference. For Catholics, 15% to 20% preferred to remain in the UK. For Protestants 97% preferred to remain in the UK. This poll did ask a unique question for the Protestant voters (not asked of Catholics though). They were asked if a United Ireland was preferred, “acceptable”, “tolerable”, or “unacceptable”. Not surprisingly 60% answered “unacceptable” and 25% “tolerable”. However, 12% answered “acceptable”. It appears that 12% are now in favour of a United Ireland because of Brexit. Including the 3% that were in favour of a United Ireland, 15% of Protestants were in favour or thought it was “acceptable”. That would be 8% of the 53% of voters from the Protestant community who voted in this Assembly election. 4% of those were voters for unionist candidates and 4% voted Alliance or Green. Those are the voters from the Protestant community that the nationalist voters should be targeting in a United Ireland referendum. There is no point in targeting the 60% who consider a United Ireland “unacceptable” though it would be worth persuading those 25% who consider a United Ireland “tolerable”.
A border poll will bring out many more voters than the Assembly election. It will probably be 80% of the voting age population if it was held in 2020. That would be 1,200,000 voters or 400,000 more than the Assembly. These are mainly voters that have limited interest in politics. The turnout will not be greater than 80%. The GFA referendum had an 80% turnout of the voting age population. Even though the GFA meant the end of 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland 20% of the voting age population could not be motivated to vote. The Scottish referendum on independence also had an 80% turnout of the voting age population. Even though this was a vote on independence 20% of the population could not be motivated vote.
One alternative that has not been mentioned if there is no agreement to create a new government at Stormont would be to change the GFA so a government could be formed. This would involve abolishing community designations, abolishing mandatory power sharing, no weighted majorities and no petition of concern and only a First Minster and no Deputy First Minister. The resulting government would be a loose voluntary coalition. Instead of Arlene Foster as a First Minister, SF and the SDLP could nominate Naomi Long or Stephen Agnew as First Minister. The vote would be 50 to 40 and Arlene Foster would lose. If there was a vote on an Irish Language Act or same sex marriage the vote would be 50 to 40 and the measures would pass.
Something to think about as an alternative to the current unstable setup.