Category: Archive

Jewel in the Unionist crown is up for grabs

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

The drama of the electoral battle for Westminster’s 18 seats has tended to obscure the political struggle going at local level, where elections for the North’s 26 councils are being held on the same day, June 7. At least in Belfast, they could produce a result as dramatic as any that might emerge from the wider contests. There, Sinn Fein, already the majority nationalist party in the city, is fighting to become the largest party of all, with the expectation that within weeks of the elections Belfast will have a Sinn Fein lord mayor.

Sinn Fein goes into the election holding 13 of the 51 Belfast city council seats, on a par with the Ulster Unionist Party, and far ahead of its rival in the nationalist community, the Social Democratic and Labor Party, which has only 7 seats.

Should Sinn Fein achieve its goal, it will mark a stunning transformation of the city that was once known as the "capital" of Unionism and the "jewel" in the Unionist crown.

Sinn Fein is hoping to take two or three additional seats, at least one of which may be at the expense of the Alliance Party, which is said by observers to be in "disarray" in the city. Republicans are targeting Pottinger Ward in East Belfast, Balmoral, just south of the middle-class Malone Road area, and the Oldpark Ward, where it hopes to win another seat.

The electoral transformation of the North’s capital is a direct reflection of a profound demographic change that began in the late 1960s, with a growing population of Catholics expanding into districts which were traditionally Protestant.

Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo

Subscribe to one of our great value packages.

Sinn Fein won its first seat on the city council in 1982, during a by-election, and its candidate, Alex Maskey, was effectively ostracized by the then Unionist-controlled body.

Three years later, the party fought its first province-wide local election campaign, winning 59 seats overall and seven on the Belfast city council. Already, on its first attempt it had overtaken the SDLP, which won only six seats in Belfast.

Four years later, the party increased its number of seats to eight, as did the SDLP. The slow and steady rise continued. In the 1993 elections, Sinn Fein won 10 seats in Belfast, one more than its nationalist rivals. West Belfast had become its bastion. It solidified its position there and in the north of the city in 1997, winning 13 seats on the council. In Castle Ward in North Belfast, the party’s vote increased by 200 percent. In the Lower Falls in West Belfast, Sinn Fein took 76 percent of the vote.

Maskey had expected to take the post of lord mayor for Sinn Fein last year, but lost it by one vote thanks to the defection of an Alliance Party councilor to the UUP. Instead, the DUP’s Sammy Wilson was elected mayor. But the overall Unionist majority is a fragile one, and a handful of nationalist gains could easily wipe it out, all but ensuring that this time round Maskey would be the one wearing the mayoral chain.

According to Irish government estimates, Sinn Fein now has about 25 percent of the popular vote in Belfast. These estimates also suggest that the decline in Unionist strength there is permanent, with a continued fall in the Protestant population as it shifts to North Down and East Antrim. In fact, statistically, the Protestant population is currently over-represented on the council.

For an hundred years and more, Belfast gave the Unionist Party a powerful base in the Protestant working class, which was essential to the party’s strategy. Without that base, secured by the loyalty of Protestant workers, the history of Unionism, and indeed of Northern Ireland, would have been very different. The results of the upcoming local election may well mark the end of that epoch and the transformation of the "jewel" of the Unionist crown into a very different kind of city indeed — more like an emerald, perhaps.

Other Articles You Might Like

Sign up to our Daily Newsletter

Click to access the login or register cheese