Assessing The Nationalist Battle in AE16

In the aftermath of last year’s Westminster election, I wrote this piece on Slugger, outlining the statistical basis for concluding that northern nationalism had lost its electoral momentum.

The figures did not lie: the combined nationalist share of the vote (ie SF and SDLP) fell in 16 of the 18 constituencies, repeating a pattern of declining nationalist turnout which had been noted in the European and Local government elections in 2014 and at the 2011 Assembly election.

Last year, that declining turnout proved costly, with Fermanagh South Tyrone being lost to the pan-Unionist candidate, Tom Elliott, whilst Alasdair McDonnell hung on by a narrow margin to his South Belfast seat in spite of another sluggish nationalist turnout in that key constituency.

As the table below illustrates, the 43 seats and 41.1% share of the overall vote achieved by the two nationalist parties in 2011 was a decline from the peak figures obtained in 2007, when 44 nationalists were elected with 41.4% share of the vote.

SF-SDLP Performance at Elections to the NI Assembly 1998-2011

ElectionSinn Fein SDLP Comb Nat
 Votes%Seats Votes%Seats %Seats
2011178,22426.9%29 94,28614.2%14 41.1%43
2007180,57326.2%28 105,16415.2%16 41.4%44
2003162,75823.5%24 117,54717.0%18 40.5%42
1998142,85817.6%18 177,96321.9%24 39.5%42

As things stand, it is unlikely that the 43 nationalist seats will be held next week, and it will be interesting to note if the overall nationalist turnout declines further or plateaus at around the 41% mark for the third successive Assembly election contest.

With that in mind, I will outline what I believe to be the ideal target outcomes for the combined nationalist parties and for each party respectively below.

Nationalism’s Ideal Outcomes

  • Returning with a minimum of 43 seats shared between SF and the SDLP: The combined nationalist seat tally peaked at 44 in the 2007 election, before falling back to the current total of 43 in 2011. In the first two Assembly terms, the total number of seats shared between the parties was 42.

A target of 43 seats returned would imply a nationalist gain being made to compensate for the almost certain loss of a seat in West Belfast to the People Before Profit candidate (more on Gerry Carrol’s electoral base and the intriguing prospect of a second viable all-Ireland political movement later.)

This additional gain from non-nationalism is hard to locate, unless the SDLP finally deliver on the promise of securing the seat in Strangford that has eluded them since 1998- an ongoing case of electoral underachievement which neatly tells the tale of the minor nationalist party since the Good Friday Agreement.

  • Securing a combined percentage share of the vote in excess of 41%:

The combined SF/SDLP share of the vote has reached 42% only twice at Westminster election level (42.7% in 2001 and 42.0% in 2010), whilst the highest percentage share of the vote at Assembly level was the 41.4% reached in 2007. The highest ever nationalist turnout at a statewide election was the 45.4% figure reached in 1999 at the European election. The 38.5% share of the vote at the European election in 2014 was the first time the combined nationalist share had fallen below 42% at that level since 1999, indicating that the rot had set in before the 2014 contest.

The 38% total secured in last year’s Westminster election represented a marked drop in turnout from nationalists, and it will be interesting to note if the vote share confirms a continuation in the trend of nationalists not turning out in great numbers or a reversal on previous form.

  • Nationalist Parties mounting credible campaigns in all 18 constituencies:

It sounds a ridiculous thing to say some 18 years after the Good Friday Agreement, but nevertheless it remains the case that both nationalist parties stand indicted on the charge of failing to date to organise in a credible, competent manner within and across each of the 18 constituencies. This has been a significant factor contributing to the plateauing of the nationalist vote, and has exacerbated the difficulties besetting both parties as they seek to find fertile ground to make prospective electoral gains in the time ahead.

This is nothing new.

Psephologists and students of local politics will know that, as late as 1993, Sinn Fein were only contesting elections in half of the local government DEAs across the state (52 of the 101 DEAs.) The SDLP fared marginally better, fielding candidates in 69 of the 101 DEAs in the last local government election before the ceasefires.

Fast forward 20 years, and the continuing failure of both parties to organise and put forward credible candidates across all constituencies means that, in 2016, Sinn Fein will only be mounting a serious campaign in 14 of the 18 Assembly constituencies- in North Down, Strangford, East Belfast and Lagan Valley, their candidates have zero prospect of gaining election, and the party has not put any real effort into planning to change that in the time ahead-the exception to that being in East Belfast, where the quite prolific party candidate is the former Belfast Mayor and Short Strand representative, Niall O’Donnghaile. The demographic reality of the overwhelmingly unionist constituency means that a city council seat- and place in the Seanad- are the most realistic medium term objectives. Were a candidate of similar stature, local profile, local presence and workrate to have spent years building a political and electoral base in the other three constituencies, then the party would have stood a realistic chance of competing for Assembly seats (or, at the very least, growing support for nationalism) in these areas. That neither SF nor the SDLP can claim to have done so to date further explains the growing disillusionment exacerbating the falling turnout.

 Sinn Fein’s Ideal Outcomes

  • Holding ground: A successful election would involve holding its 29 seats. This does not look the likely outcome for the simple reason that at least one SF seat looks all but lost at this point (West Belfast) while two others (Fermanagh South Tyrone and East Antrim) appear in real danger. In contrast, only in Upper Bann does the party appear buoyant about its prospects for an electoral gain. In Foyle, the McGuinness Shuffle might not lead to the third seat but it has achieved the purpose of making Eastwood fight a frenetic rearguard action, investing considerable time and effort in his own constituency and making strategic decisions like sacrificing prime time media exposure on (eg) Nolan this week to Gerard Diver in a move which spectacularly backfired. Whilst the Foyle seat could still yield a return for Sinn Fein, the only other possible outside gain is in East Derry.
  • Retaining a 26%+ share of the overall vote: Sinn Fein’s 24.5% share of the vote at last year’s Westminster election was significantly down on the 26.9% secured in the last Assembly election in 2011. It will be important for the party to lift their voter turnout above 26% to stand a chance of realizing the ambitious goal of returning with the same number of seats (29) as it entered this election with.

 

SDLP

  • Stealing a Net Gain: In order to breathe life into the fledgling tenure of Colum Eastwood, it is imperative that the SDLP return with a greater number of MLAs than they entered the election with. Holding the advantage in Foyle will be a significant victory over Sinn Fein that will give time to Eastwood, but without any gains the party will not be able to credibly sow the seeds of a revival narrative that are required to give an impetus and momentum to the party’s efforts to finally turn the corner and begin mounting a challenge for the position of lead party within nationalism.

The widely leaked internal document outlining the fears regarding further collapse highlighted a number of seats where the SDLP could lose out, so the first priority is to hold what they have- hence the media profile opportunities handed to Dolores Kelly, Nichola Mallon and Gerard Diver, all holding crucial party seats.

If a net gain is achieved, it will be because the SDLP managed to hold onto their vulnerable seats in Upper Bann, Foyle, South Belfast and West Belfast whilst also making a gain in either or both of Fermanagh South Tyrone and Strangford.

The party’s performance in The Antrims (East, North and South) will give an insight into whether or not the SDLP has begun to turn the corner. In 1998, the SDLP held a seat in each of these constituencies. Since 2011, they’ve had no representation here, illustrating the party’s broader decline across the north. Success in these constituencies should not be defined in terms of seats won; rather, improving party share of the vote across the three areas would serve as a more realistic, attainable measure at this point. In that regard, the SDLP should be targeting around 12% in both South Antrim and North Antrim, whilst aiming to close the gap on Oliver McMullan in East Antrim by improving to above 6% (a very difficult ask given that local nationalists are acutely aware that only the Sinn Fein candidate has a realistic chance of securing a nationalist seat this time around.)

  • Reversing the slide in popular vote support: The SDLP’s decline has been remarkable. The party that topped the poll in terms of popular support in the first Assembly election in 1998 was reduced last year to a meagre 13.9% of the overall vote. Ominously for the SDLP, that performance completed a hat trick of consecutive elections in which the party failed to hit even 14% of the vote (13.5% at 2014 Locals, 13% at the 2014 Europeans and 13.9% at 2015 Westminster.) Those three outings were preceded by a 14.2% vote share at the last Assembly election in 2011.

In the interim, the Eastwood leadership phase has been marked by a freshening up of candidates across the north and an attempt (albeit one not without its problems) to create distance between itself and Sinn Fein by renewing its focus on its overarching message and specific policies. The outcome of the election will allow us to pass judgment on the efficacy of this approach to date whilst also likely determining the short term strategic direction of the party as it ponders whether to snuggle up alongside the big parties inside the Executive tent or pitch one of its own in Opposition.

In any event, Eastwood needs to stem the bloodletting, and putting the turnout back on the path to 15%+ would represent a positive return.

 

New Challengers

The story of the declining nationalist turnout is one of nationalists expressing frustration with the shortcomings of their political class by staying at home in numbers not previously seen since Sinn Fein’s entry into electoral politics triggered an unprecedented appetite for the electoral process amongst northern nationalists from the early 1980s through to the turn of the century.

What is interesting in this election would appear to be how, in one constituency, a third party looks set to capitalise on that disillusionment by attracting and motivating a support base to turn out to give electoral expression to the discontentment.

People Before Profit (PBP) are a 32-county political party, and their Dail leader, Richard Boyd Barrett, is an impressive speaker, something he demonstrated during the recent Leaders’ Debates on RTE in the run up to the Dail election.

The challenge to Sinn Fein from the party is limited, though. PBP is a fringe, left wing outfit. Their three target constituencies for the party in the short to medium term will be West Belfast, Foyle and North Belfast. It is no coincidence that these also happen to be the three urban working-class republican stronghold constituencies- as well as the three constituencies permanently resident amongst the trio of most deprived constituencies in the state.

Whilst the most prominent northern figure for the party, Gerry Carroll, is not in Boyd Barrett’s league, the west Belfast candidate did win a council seat in 2014 and secured an impressive 19% in last year’s Westminster election contest in the republican heartland.

Carroll benefits from being able to attract support from three distinct constituencies: the socialist vote, the dissident republican vote and the disaffected Sinn Fein vote.

In electoral terms, the first two groupings are not sufficiently strong in numbers to secure the election of a candidate in any Assembly constituency in the present context. What is interesting is that the latter group, more substantial in number in this constituency, have shifted to Carroll as opposed to the SDLP, an indication of a continuing lack of faith in the SDLP as much as that they are looking something apart from what many perceive to be the stale political fare of the present.

How Sinn Fein react to the arrival of a challenger from the left wing flank will be one of the stories in the new Assembly term. The Derry Deal message is likely to be supplemented by a sharpened focus on an anti-poverty strategy and targeting investment on areas of greatest need, which would help the party counter the anticipated attack from a new Left threat suggesting that Sinn Fein had failed to deliver for these communities.

But the lesson from a potential breakthrough for a 32-county People Before Profit party is not one that will be lost on a much larger political and electoral force in Irish politics, Fianna Fail.

The Soldiers of Destiny have committed to contest local elections in Northern Ireland in 2019. If sufficient nationalists in the republican heartland of West Belfast are motivated to deliver an Assembly seat for the PBP, it suggests that the ground could be fertile across the state for nationalists to welcome the arrival of a more powerful player in Irish politics in the years ahead.

But that’s for the future…..

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