Low turnout is the DUP's best hope of clinging on to power in Stormont
Cross-community parties are on the rise and the DUP’s grip on power appears to be loosening. But many voters seem disillusioned with politics
Before you arrive in Belfast by sea, your ship slips into a fjord. On each side, low hills roll into the water and at the nape, the silhouettes of the city jut through the haze. In the foreground, there are the mighty shipbuilding gantry cranes Samson and Goliath, Northern Ireland’s Eiffel Tower. To the north is Cavehill, which Jonathan Swift saw as a sleeping giant guarding the city.
On the streets around Cavehill, where suburban rows zip up the lower slopes, almost everyone I met complained about the “same-old, same old”. Ghostly rain clouds clung to the hilltop, and middle-income voters tried to forget about the past.
But this election time, it’s one party in particular that voters are accusing of being obsessed with yesteryear. “Every time I turn on my telly, the DUP are banging on about history,” says one woman. A neighbour, who explains in a Welsh accent that he married into the area, makes a similar observation. That people marry into rather than out of North Belfast is a change in itself.
These neat brick houses behind tight hedges were built between the wars for an emerging Protestant administrative class, the teachers and doctors and civil servants of a then-new state.
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In 1973 this area elected seven councillors through Northern Ireland’s proportional system. Five of them came from the Ulster Unionist Party, with one each for the cross-community Alliance, and the moderate nationalist SDLP.
Now, there are just two unionists, both DUP; two nationalists, Sinn Fein and the SDLP; and two unaligned councillors, one Alliance, one Green Party.
It was the latter, Mal O’Hara, who was letting me eavesdrop on his canvassing as he hoped to take a seat in Northern Ireland’s Assembly next week. O’Hara, deputy leader of his party, claims to have run the biggest ground campaign of any candidate in this election, saying he’s had 80 people out canvassing for him.
By all accounts, the DUP can’t say the same. One woman tells me she spotted the party’s candidate knocking on doors, accompanied only by Lord Nigel Dodds, the former MP for the area. Various others in the area have said they’ve not heard from the DUP either.
Down the hill, I took my wife and toddler daughter on a short walking tour of working-class West Belfast – up the republican Falls Road, across the interface (the gate was open) and down the loyalist Shankill. They saw the vast fence dividing the two and the famous murals on the gable ends of terrace rows.
By the Shankill road, there was a fenced-off block of houses in the midst of being knocked down. When our baby waved to a child in the front yard of a loyalist house, she was told “this is private property, don’t look, I’ll call security!”. This is a sad and shrinking community: those who can, escape to the suburbs.
Despite the famous Protestant enclave, West Belfast is a nationalist stronghold, with four Sinn Fein MLAs and one from the cross-community socialist party People Before Profit. It’s not likely to change colour any time soon – which is more than can be said for its unionist neighbours.
East Belfast, once the West’s Loyalist mirror, is now hotly contested between the DUP and the cross-community Alliance. South Belfast, home of Queen’s University, used to split down the two sides, but is increasingly dominated by cross-community parties. It could become the first constituency in the Assembly’s history where most MLAs are officially neither nationalist nor unionist, if Alliance’s Kate Nichol, 34 years old and current Lord Mayor of the city, takes a second seat for her party this week. Belfast East could do the same if Green Brian Smyth makes it alongside two returning Alliance members.
A new electoral map
In the city centre, a man called Saab runs a Lebanese cafe, which serves the best baba ganoush I’ve had outside the Middle East. A socialist, he moved here from Gaza City in the 1990s and has settled with an Irish wife. The 2021 census results have been delayed until after the election, but he’s sure there are more Muslims than ever here.
Most of them, he says, don’t care about the old constitutional question. “They vote for politicians who stand with them against racism and Islamophobia, and politicians who support Palestine – these are the three major issues.”
A generation ago, unionism dominated. In the February 1974 UK general election, unionists won every seat in Northern Ireland except West Belfast. In 1992, they won 13 of 17 seats.
By 2001, a new electoral map was emerging. Sinn Féin took Fermanagh and most of Tyrone in the rural West from the Ulster Unionist Party and has dominated ever since. South Down, the seat to which Enoch Powell fled when he became an Ulster Unionist after ejection from the Tories, had already turned to the nationalist SDLP.
Today, the commuterland that surrounds Belfast provides an orange life-belt for unionism. But unionist politicians are struggling to hang onto it.
A young-ish couple from Lisburn, part of this unionist heartland, tell me no one has knocked on their door. “I used to see their ads on TV,” says one of the pair, Marcus, “but no one watches telly anymore.”
Distrust of politicians seems even deeper here now
Their constituency should be highly contentious. Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP’s leader and one of Northern Ireland’s longest-serving Westminster MPs, is standing for one of the five Assembly seats.
The couple from Lisburn used to vote, but they probably won’t this time around. “I don’t see what difference it will make,” Marcus says, summing up the most common attitude I’ve found this week. I’m used to anger at the political system, but years of DUP corruption scandals and decades of what non-voter after non-voter has described to me as the ‘nonsense’ of people backing ‘their team’ rather than voting for the best policies means distrust seems even deeper here now.
Turnout fell in every Assembly election from the Good Friday Agreement until 2017, when it surged by 10% as thousands showed up to either get rid of the DUP or stop Sinn Féin.
This time, there’s none of that enthusiasm or excitement. “It’s the case of the best of a bad bunch,” says a pharmacist in Newcastle, South Down. A DUP leaflet shoved through the door of our AirBnB could be mistaken for a Scottish Labour or Tory pamphlet at home, warning meekly of the threats of breaking up the union, while those very risks - such as health service cuts - are the reality of life now. This is accountancy, not Ian Paisley’s passion.
Two sides to the story
I’ve been to Northern Ireland many times before. In 2004, at 18, I worked here as a charity mugger, standing on the street and asking people to join Amnesty; since then I’ve returned as a journalist. But this is the first time I’ve combined my work with being on holiday. It’s a fascinating experience.
On the one hand, it’s a wonderful place to visit. I’ve eaten better than I did on my last trip to France (Holohan’s on University Road deserves a particular shout out). On the other, evidence of the pain of the conflict is everywhere. Park benches and street corners host prayer circles and bible study groups led by Gen-Xers whose Troubles trauma led them to God.
But that’s not the whole story. I’m writing this on my phone with my toddler on my lap, sat outside an ice cream joint on the promenade in Newcastle, South Down. Along the road, posters display pictures of candidates from each party and, to our left, those ghostly clouds roll down the Mourne mountains and into the sea.
It’s election time, but we’re also in those weeks between lambing season and sheep-shearing day when everything is a little fluffier and a little cheerier.
The playground here is the best I’ve ever seen, with brilliant slides, a wheelchair swing, an accessible roundabout and boards teaching the sign language alphabet. As our children squeed around it, I asked another dad what he thought of the election. He wasn’t sure how he’d cast his ballot. But he was certain of one thing: “we can’t vote with our silly allegiances any more, we have to vote for who has the best policies”.
In my last piece on Northern Ireland, I was pretty sure that polls pointing to a Sinn Féin victory would be correct. That still seems likely. But after witnessing a hundred frustrated shrugs, it now feels just about possible that a low turnout will help the DUP cling to their life belt. If Sinn Féin does win, it will be less through surfing a wave and more because of the DUP slipping under.
Whatever happens though, the tide is coming in, and I’m going for a swim.
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