#LE19: Bins and burials or Brexit and the border?

01 May 2019 - by Anna Mercer

For the first time since 1997, Northern Ireland will go to the poll rather than the polls, with only one election due to take place on 2 May.

Traditionally aligning with the EU elections, our late entry into the euros this year meant that plans were already in place to elect 462 councillors to the 11 chambers across the region. As a consequence of the extension granted to the UK to agree on the Withdrawal Agreement, voters will be asked to cast a vote on 23 May to elect three MEPs who will lead the farewells to the European Parliament pending the UK exit from the EU.

So what are the factors affecting this election?


With only one election taking place, and with a perception that local government doesn’t deal with high politics, turnout could be impacted by these factors, and certainly with relatively high turnout both in the most recent Assembly and Westminster elections at 64.78% and 65.60% respectively, it seems unlikely that this upward trajectory will continue. 

There is also a bit of rain in the forecast for Thursday, so candidates will be hoping this doesn’t put off their would-be voters!

Apathy or Anger?

The prevailing mood amongst the public for some time now has been one of apathy, with the absence of an Assembly looming large across society. Whilst there has been much energy invested by businesses, the voluntary sector and others, including the We Deserve Better campaign, in calling for the restoration of the institutions, the vast majority of ordinary people have stopped short of taking to the streets to protest.

However, there was a perceptible change in mood in recent weeks with the murder of Lyra McKee in Derry which appears to have catalysed the UK and Irish Government’s into being seen to take some steps to address the political void.   If the palpable condemnation across society converts apathy to anger to action, voters may use the election as an opportunity to send a message.

The Talks

The new process has been announced by the two governments, and with the two and a half year hiatus from the Assembly, coupled with recent events, not to mention Brexit, parties will see the election as a means to gauge the public mood and thus their approach to talks. So a reduced majority for either of the two big parties could force some reflection on their strategy, but on the other hand, a strong showing will be seen as an endorsement of their positions and potentially make negotiations more difficult.

Indeed, with another election just weeks away, and with the usual rough and tumble that comes with elections showing no sign of abating, the space for a meaningful talks process is small.   If the process is to do more than give cover to the UK and Irish governments after they were left exposed by Fr Martin Magill’s speech at Lyra McKee’s funeral, the local parties will require significant support to enable them create the right conditions for compromise.


Brexit still looms large on the horizon, along with the associated numbers games at play in Westminster. This may be made even more challenging (if it is even possible!) by a strong showing at the EU elections by strong Brexiteer candidates and parties gaining more support across the water.

Easter recess and a cooling on the reliance on the DUP by Theresa May’s government as she continues to talk to the Labour Party may make the issue slightly less toxic here; nonetheless, the outstanding issue of the border remains.  

Funnily enough, not a matter that falls under the remit of any of the 11 councils that we are set to return 462 councillors to by the start of next week. The saying goes that all politics is local, however don’t expect this election to be confined to the remit of the relatively modest suite of powers that local councils have – less bins and burials, more Brexit and the border!