Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
Belfast Live
Belfast Live
Brendan Hughes

Northern Ireland council election: Key battlegrounds as parties compete for votes

The Northern Ireland council election campaign is in the final stretch and parties are busy making their last pitches for votes.

All 462 seats are up for grabs across the 80 district electoral areas covering the 11 local authorities.

Some councils and districts will be more competitive than others, with small shifts in voting patterns being the difference between winning or losing seats.

Read more: NI council election 2023: Dates, candidates, where to vote and more you need to know

Opinion polls give a broad projection of how the political landscape may stand after polling day on May 18.

But local issues and personalities may also be a factor when people are casting their votes, which could throw up some surprises.

Here are some of the key battles in each council area which will help determine whether parties will be celebrating success or assessing electoral disappointment:

Antrim and Newtownabbey

Unionist parties had a bad election in 2019 with the DUP losing one seat, the UUP three and both councillors for TUV.

The DUP still remained on top with 14 councillors and the Ulster Unionists second with nine.

But Alliance's seat tally increased from four to seven. A small swing in votes could see the party overtake the UUP this time.

Alliance will be targeting places like Glengormley, where poll-topper Julian McGrath now has a running mate.

The Green Party is also making a big push in this council by standing six candidates compared to just one last time, including deputy leader Lesley Veronica in Glengormley.

TUV also may see a potential of winning back seats, as the party is running five candidates - two more than in 2019.

Sinn Féin won five seats in 2019 and is running more candidates this time, while the SDLP is seeking simply to retain its four seats by running four candidates.

Ards and North Down

Another council where Alliance will be hoping to make gains, including in Holywood and Clandeboye where the party has two councillors and is standing a third candidate.

The district electoral area will be important for the Greens as Rachel Woods seeks re-election having lost her North Down MLA seat last year to Alliance.

The DUP is making a bid for two in the DEA with Councillor Carl McLean standing for the party after quitting the Ulster Unionists.

TUV also sees opportunities for growth, standing six candidates for the council compared to just one in 2019.

But Councillor Stephen Cooper, who came close to being elected as a Strangford MLA for TUV last year, is standing as an independent after quitting the party following a complaint against him.

The council has only one nationalist councillor, the SDLP's Joe Boyle, who is seeking re-election for the Ards Peninsula.

Sinn Féin is standing Ulster championship-winning hurler Noel Sands in the area as the party attempts to secure a seat in the only local authority where it has no representatives.

Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon

The DUP became the largest party last time with 11 seats but was just one ahead of both the UUP and Sinn Fein, making for a closely fought contest.

The SDLP was fourth in 2019 as the party held their six council seats, while Alliance gained a foothold for the first time with three elected.

Naomi Long's party will be aiming to gain further ground after Stormont election success in Upper Bann last year, when former councillor Eoin Tennyson was elected at the expense of the SDLP.

The sole independent on the council, Paul Berry, will be seeking re-election in Cusher, and TUV will be hoping Keith Radcliffe's respectable vote in the Assembly election can translate into council seats.

It is also worth watching what happens with Jackie Coade, a prominent Alliance activist who quit the party and is now running for the SDLP in Craigavon in place of their councillor Thomas Larkham, who is stepping down.


As the largest local authority with 60 seats and covering Northern Ireland's main city, Belfast City Council will be a key target for all parties.

The chamber at city hall has mirrored Stormont in recent years, with Sinn Féin holding the most seats, followed by the DUP in second place and Alliance third.

Naomi Long's party is running three more candidates than during the last council election in 2019, including an ambitious bid to pick up a fourth Alliance seat in the Ormiston area of East Belfast.

Sinn Féin's pursuit of a second seat in the Castle area to the north of the city could put the SDLP's Carl Whyte or Green Party leader Mal O'Hara under pressure.

In Oldpark, many will be watching the performance of Paul McCusker, who topped the poll last time for the SDLP but is now running as an independent.

People Before Profit's Fiona Ferguson could face a challenge as she was the last elected in Oldpark in 2019.

PUP will be down at least one councillor compared to last time, as party leader Billy Hutchinson is their only candidate after John Kyle joined the UUP.

Causeway Coast and Glens

Similar to the neighbouring Mid and East Antrim council, Causeway Coast and Glens has also attracted controversy over governance issues.

Unlike other councils in 2019 there was a swing towards the DUP and Sinn Féin, with the parties securing 14 and nine seats respectively.

The UUP dropped from 10 seats to seven while TUV lost all three of the councillors it had in 2014. Both are running fewer candidates this time.

The SDLP retained its six councillors, but a reduced vote share leaves some seats vulnerable in areas such as Causeway.

It has also withdrawn support pending an "internal investigation" for Ryan Barkley, who is standing in Bann where the party hoped to retain their seat.

Alliance secured two seats in 2019 and will be targeting gains in areas including Ballymoney, where the party is standing an alpaca farmer.

Derry and Strabane

The SDLP and Sinn Féin were tied with the most seats in 2019 after a swing away from Sinn Féin saw the party lose its position as the sole largest on the council.

Since then, Sinn Féin has had an internal shake-up in the area which included replacing its two Foyle MLAs.

The party will be hoping these efforts, coupled with running fewer candidates this time, will help improve their electoral fortunes.

Aontú will be aiming to hold onto the only council seat it won in 2019 with Emmet Doyle, who was co-opted during the last mandate after Anne McCloskey resigned.

The performance of People Before Profit will be closely watched, as the party secured two council seats last time but no longer has high-profile activist Eamonn McCann on the ballot paper.

Alliance will aim to solidify its gains last time with two councillors elected, while independents will be seeking to maintain their strong 2019 result of four seats.

Fermanagh and Omagh

Sinn Féin lost two council seats in 2019 but was still the largest party by some margin with 15 seats.

The UUP came second with nine but its vote share was less than a percentage point above the DUP, which secured five seats.

A drop from eight to five seats for the SDLP last time included losing two in Omagh after both councillors quit the party and one, Josephine Deehan, was returned as an independent.

The split helped Stephen Donnelly secure Alliance's first seat on the council, and the party will be aiming to strengthen their foothold in the area.

The SDLP also lost a seat to an independent in Mid Tyrone, while Sinn Féin lost one in Erne East to an independent and one in Enniskillen to Cross-Community Labour Alternative.

Both nationalist parties will likely be targeting these district electoral areas in a bid to reverse their fortunes.

Lisburn and Castlereagh

The DUP remained the largest party in 2019 but lost five seats, falling to 15 councillors.

Alliance was second in vote share which almost doubled, but placed third in terms of seats as it ran too few candidates to capitalise on the surge in support.

Not wanting to make the same mistake again, the party is fielding five additional candidates in the hope of boosting its seat tally above the nine secured last time.

Alliance's ambitions could put pressure on the Ulster Unionists, who had a lower vote share last time but two more seats than their rivals.

Watch out for what happens in Castlereagh South, where Alliance is running a third candidate in a bid to pick up an extra seat.

It will be a stretch for the SDLP to win two with incumbent John Gallen standing alongside Simon Lee, who secured a seat in 2019 as a Green candidate before jumping ship last year.

Mid and East Antrim

The unionist-dominated council has traditionally been a stronghold for the DUP, with the party holding the most seats.

The Ulster Unionists were second-largest in vote share in 2019 but a surge in support for Alliance meant the party matched them on seat numbers.

With two additional candidates in the mix, Alliance will be aiming to overtake the UUP this time.

The council is also a strong area for TUV. Jim Allister's party will be hoping unionist anger over the Northern Ireland Protocol and concerns surrounding council governance after a raft of controversies will help the party gain ground.

Within nationalism, Sinn Féin unsuccessfully sought to challenge the SDLP for a seat in Ballymena in 2019 by moving former councillor Patrice Hardy from Bannside.

The Ballymena district electoral area will be closely watched to see if SDLP councillor Eugene Reid, who succeeded Declan O'Loan, can once again win out.

Mid Ulster

The council, a stronghold for Sinn Féin which takes in vice-president Michelle O'Neill's constituency, has been fairly uneventful with few seats changing hands last time.

But all eyes will be on the result in Dungannon which could give an indication of how well some parties are performing across the board.

Denise Mullen is aiming to retain her seat as an Aontú councillor having joined the party just months after being elected under the SDLP banner.

Her former party will be vying for the seat with their candidate Karol McQuade, while Sinn Féín is aiming for a second with Deirdre Varsani who narrowly missed out last time.

Dungannon is the turf of independent republican Barry Monteith, who has a running mate as part of an ambitious "drive for five" independents across the council area.

Alliance is also aiming to secure a councillor in the only local authority where the party does not have a seat.

Newry, Mourne and Down

Sinn Féin overtook the SDLP last time to become the largest party on the mainly nationalist council.

With more candidates than in 2019, the republican party will be aiming to extend their lead in the battle within nationalism.

The SDLP is running the same number of candidates as last time, pointing to a more defensive campaign as it seeks to avoid losing support to Sinn Féin and Alliance in areas such as Downpatrick.

Cadogan Enright, a former independent who joined Alliance last summer and is seeking re-election in Downpatrick, should further boost the party's prospects.

Within unionism, the performances and a number of councillors who have switched allegiances will be interesting.

The UUP's Alan Lewis and independent Henry Reilly joined the DUP last year, while former Ulster Unionist MLA Harold McKee is standing for TUV.

After the DUP's leadership turmoil prompted two councillors in the area to briefly quit the party, the election will test whether their internal struggles have been set aside.


For all the latest news, visit the Belfast Live homepage here and sign up to our daily newsletter here.

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.