Nationalist Turnout: What it means for SF & the SDLP

Another election has taken place and the pattern of declining nationalist turnout has been further underscored. The combined Sinn Fein-SDLP share of the overall vote in last week’s election was a paltry 36%, the lowest combined share of the vote for the parties at Assembly, Westminster or European level since the 1992 Westminster election saw the SDLP take 23.5% and Sinn Fein 10% of the overall vote.

That particular contest was noteworthy as it marked the low point for Sinn Fein and high water mark for the SDLP as the latter triumphed in West Belfast when Dr Joe Hendron delivered the shock result to seize the seat from Gerry Adams.

The 1992 result injected renewed momentum into Sinn Fein’s peace strategy, a historic shift that would ultimately see the party regain the seat and emerge as the leading party and voice of northern nationalism within just nine years of the crushing seat loss to Hendron.

Sinn Fein were quick to learn the harsh lessons being delivered by the nationalist electorate 24 years ago, and they haven’t had reason to look back since.

Until now.

The dip in nationalist turnout has become a pattern that can no longer be ignored by either party. From comments made by elected representatives from both in the election’s aftermath, I think it’s safe to conclude that neither appears to be confident that they know the precise reasons explaining the low turnout.

Poor voter turnout is often attributed to a sense of alienation, discontentment with the status quo and/ or direction in which society is travelling. Contrastingly, it has also been argued that apathy can derive from a sense of comfort, a feeling that declining to participate in the electoral process can be a choice made by the secure middle-classes as much as disengaged working classes.

One thing is certain.

Nationalists have never been as assertive and self-confident within northern Irish society as they are today, so this is not a crisis of identity, aspiration nor conviction.

There are other factors at play, and they relate to the performance (or, to be more accurate, underperformance) of the main nationalist parties in the post-peace process era.

At this point, it is important to counter some of the more dubious interpretations being floated by some to explain the turnout issue. There is no sense that nationalists are turning away from their core beliefs, and attempts to interpret a rise in non-voting nationalists in such a manner ignores the fact that unionism has faced similar issues relating to poor voter turnout in the past.

In 1999, the SDLP’s John Hume and Sinn Fein’s Mitchel McLaughlin secured some 45% of the vote in the European election contest, a feat only possible due to unionist voters staying at home. Even today, the overwhelmingly unionist constituencies of North Down and Strangford regularly top the table for lowest percentage voter turnout. Interpreting that as meaning a diminution in support for the Union in those respective constituencies would be as spurious as suggesting poor nationalist turnout means nationalists are turning against Irish unity.

Special mention should go to those suggesting that Catholics may be turning to the DUP on account of the latter’s position on certain moral issues. I would contend that anyone making that case has no business in serious political commentary, ignoring as it does the DUP’s deeply antagonistic relationship with the Catholic Church, its schools and the culturally Irish outlook of its flock. It is akin to arguing that working class Protestants are voting for Sinn Fein on account of sympathy with Sinn Fein’s views on academic selection and other left-leaning positions. There is no credible evidence to suggest either vote pattern emerging and nor will there be (beyond the level of the famous count tally anecdotes and rarest of exceptions to prove the rule) unless and until the respective parties fundamentally alter their visions, policies and practices in ways not even as yet conceived of by our parties.

In reality, the reasons are much simpler.

Nationalists want more for their votes, and are demanding better from their politicians.

That’s an inherently good thing, and is entirely in character with a community bristling with self-confidence in an age where society in the north of Ireland is more equal than at any time in the history of the state.

Sinn Fein may be an all-Ireland party, but an inspection of its northern and southern wings would lead to two very separate conclusions.

Northern Sinn Fein appears tired and jaded, short on ideas and with a track record in the Executive era that has been short on delivery. To date, this has been overshadowed and, to some extent, compensated for by the patriarchal role fulfilled by Martin McGuinness that has seen him emerge as the great stabilizing influence of the devolution era.

But the passage of time since the peace process has brought with it a greater level of expectation within northern nationalism regarding the performance of their political class which has simply not been satisfied, and the dwindling appeal of voting for reasons attributed to fear or hostility to the other has meant many nationalists are either choosing to opt out or register their discontent by voting for alternatives- and, in 2016, that took the form of the urban fringe left party, People Before Profit.

Put bluntly, nationalists look at their two parties and have concluded that they do not represent nationalism putting its best foot forward. The sense that the DUP have the upper hand at Stormont, the lingering cynicism as a result of the local expenses stories, Sinn Fein’s confused handling of the welfare reform issue are but a few reasons encouraging the view that nationalism needs to sharpen its game.

Sinn Fein have failed to complete the transition process from a party born in conflict to one fit for purpose to govern which will bring the renewal and reinvigoration required to sharpen performance and enhance capacity to deliver through the Executive and elsewhere. Ironically, progress on this process of transition should now be hastened by the impact of the presence of a threat in the heartland constituencies of West Belfast and Foyle.

This will not be an easy process for Sinn Fein. It will need to be instigated by the leadership and will ultimately have as its aim creating the conditions in which those leaders can finally depart the stage. The healthy state of southern Sinn Fein will have the impact of fuelling desire for the necessary change internally, and this can already be seen in the welcome moves to remove the laudable yet damaging salary policy which continues to restrict the party’s ability to attract and retain individuals with much needed skills and experience across the breadth of policy areas.

In order to advance an ambitious and comprehensive all-Ireland agenda, as well as succeed in sharpening up the party’s policy platform and devise strategies to ensure delivery on key policy objectives within the existing structures in both jurisdictions, the party needs to begin attracting the best and brightest minds from within the community. Serious questions are now being asked as to whether or not that is possible if such people are to be paid the £22,750 per annum on offer from the party.

The SDLP, on the other hand, are facing a deeper crisis. The SDLP’s problem is not related to transition, but more fundamentally to their very identity and their increasing irrelevance in Irish politics.

The trajectory has been consistently downward for the party since the turn of the century, and shuffling the deck to produce new leaders has made not the slightest impact on their capacity to improve their credibility with the electorate.

The SDLP need to decisively address fundamentals. They need an all-Ireland presence and they need a space and place on the ideological spectrum distinct from Sinn Fein where they can tap into discord with the lack of delivery at Stormont. If they fail, the party is now at such a low ebb electorally and politically that the arrival of a new party- most likely in the shape of Fianna Fail- can not be ruled out, a development that could transform nationalist politics across the island in the era to come.

Learning lessons

Success in politics, as in life, requires learning from one’s mistakes and also from the successes and failings of others.

Peter Robinson and Pope John XXIII make a very strange pairing (if not exactly bedfellows), yet the experiences of both the former leader of the stoutly protestant political party and the great reforming pope of the 20th century provide vital lessons for the republican leadership at this juncture in history.

The Executive has been operational since 2007 with the DUP and Sinn Fein at the helm. Since then, it has become increasingly apparent that the DUP are considerably better equipped and positioned to formulate and shape the direction of the Executive across many policy areas. The recent debacle over welfare reform further underlined the sense that Sinn Fein continue to be a bit at sea when it comes to important matters at the heart of government.

I have written about this on Slugger before, where I highlighted the particular role played by Peter Robinson in molding the post-Good Friday Agreement DUP into a party best positioned for the era of devolved governance.

Robinson successfully courted the Baby Barrister generation of young Ulster Unionists who provided the aspiring class of political leaders within the DUP and whose defection en masse to the party in the post-Good Friday Agreement phase brought to the party a changed face more representative of the breadth of the Protestant/ Unionist community, a vital factor in helping former Ulster Unionist voters make the decisive electoral leap to the DUP.

In this, he succeeded where the northern republican leadership failed due to a multitude of reasons which has meant that Sinn Fein continues to be distinctly unrepresentative of the breadth of the northern nationalist electorate and not as effective in their various roles at Stormont.

Robinson’s eye for detail always contrasted favourably with the approach of the republican leadership under Adams and McGuinness, who have always excelled at- and been more comfortable with- big picture politics.

In their favour, the republican leadership’s approach has been more effective in transforming the republican narrative over the course of the past 20 years.

Where Sinn Fein’s leadership excelled at preparing the base and broader nationalist/republican community for the changes required to make and work peace, Robinson excelled at transforming his party to achieve the twin objectives of positioning the DUP as the undisputed voice of unionism and at subsequently preparing the party for government.

Robinson had his share of problems and shortcomings. Whilst he succeeded in transforming the DUP into a vehicle capable of capitalizing on unionist discontent with the Good Friday Agreement, he singularly failed to change the unionist narrative, leaving unionism metaphorically and physically still camped at Twaddell by the time he departed the stage, and there is little sign in the words and actions of his successor that political unionism has embraced the full reality of what the shared society of today and tomorrow will and must look like.

And yet his very departure once again illustrated his talent: the DUP left behind by Robinson was one he had shaped at every level. Even the choreography delivering Arlene’s coronation demonstrated Robinson’s flair.

Robinson’s legacy includes having successfully managed two leadership transitions (his own dethroning of Ian Paisley and his passing of the baton to Arlene Foster) that left the DUP stronger than they were before, a considerable achievement.

Sinn Fein

For Sinn Fein, the failure to expedite the process of transitioning northern Sinn Fein into a party best equipped for the era of governance has played a significant role in explaining the leveling and now falling back in electoral support.

Now, before going any further, it is important to note the stunning successes experienced by the Adams-McGuinness led Sinn Fein since 1992, when Adams was ousted as West Belfast MP, leaving the party without Westminster representation nor even a hope of a solitary Dail seat.

Today, Sinn Fein has arrived as a central player in southern Irish politics, with 23 TDs, and is firmly established as the primary voice of the Irish Left. The southern wing of the party is a different creature altogether from their northern sibling. In the South, the party has a clear, credible and consistent ideological outlook which is openly articulated by the breadth of representatives. The party abounds with fresh faces at the highest level of representative in constituencies across the state who clearly have flocked to Sinn Fein due to a mix of affinities with the republican objectives and left wing sentiment.

In the north, the shadow and legacy of the past continues to affect all aspects of our society, in ways that have not previously been examined in detail.

Sinn Fein remain distinctly unrepresentative of the northern nationalist community, over-reliant on representatives from a core republican activist base that has remained loyal to the party for several decades. Crucially, this situation pertains not just at representative level but also in the background within the party.

At leadership level, Sinn Fein appears almost afraid to let go of the reins. At a representative level, it has proven very difficult for new voices to emerge beyond the lowest rung of the ladder, and where the real power resides remains the domain of those who’s expertise lay in navigating a political movement through the choppy waters of a peace and political process, not in the intricacies of governance nor in policy formulation, articulation and implementation.

There are many and varied reasons for this, including the reality that Sinn Fein continues to act as a bulwark against dissident republicans, and that requires a visible and tangible connection with the past era in order to prevent dissident groupings seeking to gain traction within nationalist communities across the north. Many informed voices from across society- and governments- are quick to point to the necessity of Sinn Fein fulfilling this role, including in the aftermath of the killing of Kevin McGuigan and those of more recent days and weeks.

The impressive feat accomplished by the Adams-McGuinness leadership in carrying militant republicanism from war to peace is widely recognized beyond these shores, and history will only further confirm the scale of that achievement. Today, there is no political leader on this island with anything remotely approaching the gravitas of Gerry Adams, something that continues to instill fear in the political and media mainstream in Dublin.

But part of managing that process involved crafting an internal political culture which emphasized and rewarded attributes like discipline, deference and loyalty. These characteristics can prove invaluable when a protracted process of compromise and concession has been required, and beneficial when helping to portray the party as speaking in unison, a powerful contrast to other political parties often plagued by internal divisions.

Yet the same attributes can and have acted as a significant block on what should have been a natural process of political evolution.

The spirit of aspiration and innovation, often prevalent within political parties and acting as a vehicle driving internal change at a personnel and policy level, is absent. For Sinn Fein, this has meant that the party of the aspiring, assertive and self-confident northern nationalist community for the past generation has singularly failed to attract a membership reflective of the breadth of that same community.

The internal culture, including the well meaning but deeply flawed salary policy, has acted as a disincentive to a party desperately in need of an influx of a membership with the skills and experiences required to optimize the returns from the devolved era.

The consequences of this are clear. The momentum for change in northern Sinn Fein will not come from below: the legacy of the successful transformation of the Republican Movement into the exclusively political Sinn Fein of today includes that the transition must be triggered by Adams and McGuinness alone.

Their final challenge as Republican leaders will be to prepare and implement a plan that has as its ultimate objective their departure from the stage and legacy of a healthy, vibrant political party capable of advancing the republican argument across the country. They need to place their trust and faith in the enduring appeal of the ideal, and not in personnel trusted due to past services rendered.

Sinn Fein’s relationship with the Catholic Church has famously been a tense and fractious one, but the words of Pope John XXIII with regard to Vatican II and its significance are particularly relevant and instructive at this time:

“Throw open the windows…..and let the fresh air of the spirit blow through.”


The SDLP’s difficulties are much more problematic than that of Sinn Fein-who, it must be remembered, have just come through two elections across the country where their collective electoral and political profile is greater than at any time since partition. If Sinn Fein’s failure is relative, there is no such caveat to be attached to the sorry demise of the once dominant party of Hume and Mallon.

Casting minds back to the 1990s, the SDLP made a fatal error in the early days of the SDLP-SF battle for domination when they conceived of the ridiculous notion that SDLP voters were ‘lending their votes’ to Sinn Fein to help the peace process. In hindsight, it should have been easy for anyone to see how preposterous the claim was, but the fact the party clearly believed it betrayed an arrogance and extent of denial that prevented the party from taking the decisive steps required to stave off Sinn Fein’s advance.

20 years on and the SDLP appear still incapable of taking the bold, decisive step of addressing the need to challenge Sinn Fein on the all-Ireland front. The party responsible for post-nationalism now speaks of progressive nationalism, but the truth is that the partitionist nature of the exclusively northern organization has made it all but impossible for the SDLP to challenge Sinn Fein on the nationalist front without emerging a distant second in that contest. The SDLP should long ago have forged a credible alliance with one of the main southern parties, and in the time to come the option of going cap in hand to Micheal Martin, in the event of Fianna Fail living up to his pledge to contest northern elections from 2019, should increasingly be viewed as a credible and attractive option for a party now struggling to merely keep its head above the water.

Compounding their difficulties has been the fact that no leader has decisively sought to position the party ideologically in a space where the SDLP could exclusively connect with a section of the electorate distinct from Sinn Fein.

The SDLP remains a coalition of disparate voices once removed from ageing fiefdoms, at one time united under the clear, bold and attractive banner of being the nationalists not associated with the IRA. That carried the SDLP for decades through the conflict and into the immediate years of the peace process, masking the real contradictions in terms of policy positions that divided many of the party’s leading lights.

What is not often enough remembered is that Sinn Fein surpassed the SDLP when Mallon and Hume remained in charge. The rot set in on the watch of the revered heavyweights. The sorry tenures of Durkan, Ritchie, McDonnell and, now, Eastwood have been consistent only in marking the further decline of the party.

There is a space for another nationalist party in the north of Ireland. What is becoming increasingly clear is that northern nationalists are less and less convinced that that party is the SDLP.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    “There is a space for another nationalist party in the north of Ireland.”

    Jarl Ulfreksfjordr on another thread came out with the point regarding an SNP type party for re-unificationists (personally I think the word ‘nationalist’ has run its course):

    “The SNP provides a template of what could be achieved. The SNP was once a party of a particular Scottish demographic, yet it has been able to grow and enthuse a wide body of opinion.

    During the ‘Independence’ referendum it emphasised ‘independence’ rather than ‘nationalism’. That distinction would be much more important in Ireland where even today too many Irish nationalists still insist on an exclusive definition of what bring Irish is: Gaelic, Catholic and narrowly nationalist in a very limiting way (not to mention the many deaths that that kind of nationalism has inflicted on the island).”

    A party about the business of re-unification: no eye-poking, no memorials for volunteers, no anti-Britishness, no pro-segregation.

    SF are seemingly one of unionism’s best weapons for whipping the unionist voting public into line, if one is set on re-unification then one should ask just how capable are SF and the SDLP of bringing about a united Ireland.

    And IF a latter day, modern version of the united Irishmen came about (one staffed at first by Protestants?) then how would a nationalist actually feel about them? Really?

    It’s no skin off my nose as a pragmatic re-unification party would potentially be a big problem for unionism, as it is we can kick that can down the road for a while longer, it seems like NI will see its centenary after all.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Sounds like a Rangers V Celtic Football Game and the Gers have just rammed one into the back of the Celtic Nets. The Celts Manager has went into panic mode “Quick get the Subs on the pitich” Young Destiny’s Child and Gael are stripped off and ready to go, while old Bill Struth the Rangers Manager sits in his dugout with a warily smile on his face as we are into the 85th minute of the football match !

  • Gopher

    The SDLP designating “Nationalist” twenty years after the GFA can only be considered a symptom of certifiable lunacy.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    The way it is going it will see 2 centenaries ! Bring on more RED ARMY !

  • Gaz

    Looks like “nationalists” are feeling content with the status quo-Its hard to feel downtrodden if you are a Solicitor/Doctor/Teacher living up the Malone Road.I thought McGuinness looked tired in the recent campaign.Hope he gives Eamonn McCann a lift up to Stormont everyday in his ministerial car.

  • Ryan A

    I’ve often wondered what would happen if Fine Gael organised here. We don’t need a nationalist party recruiting on religion, I honestly think one based on the economic centre/right would do to help shake the can a bit. It’s not like a lot of the middle class seats in the East wouldn’t be natural home for it; ie South Belfast, Lagan Valley, Strangford etc. Right now if your anyone working in the private sector, on over 25k and nationalist your probably counting your lucky stars there is no real economic/tax varying power at Stormont, and even more thankful the current nationalist parties wouldn’t be in a state to start interfering with it.

  • Paddy Reilly

    The combined Sinn Fein-SDLP share of the overall vote in last week’s election was a paltry 36%

    As always, there is a failure to understand the mechanics of transferable voting. By vote, you mean first preference. The effective vote is much higher. If I give my 1st pref to the Raving Loony Party, 2nd to Rainbow George and 3rd to Sinn Féin, I am effectively voting for Sinn Féin.

    None of us want to see one party rule: if the SNP managed to take every constituency in Scotland and gain independence from the English, the first necessity for a working democracy would be a split, so that ordinary party politics could continue.

    In Ireland, a lot of people who are constrained to vote SF or SDLP now may want to develop a different kind of political movement altogether after reunification. So the expansion of non SF/SDLP 1st pref voting is a kind of premature movement into the post unification world.

  • Paddy Reilly

    It is generally agreed that the Northern equivalent of Fine Gael is the Alliance Party.

  • Msiegnaro

    If you’re going down that route on the transfers I could give my first preference to SF in EB, 2nd to SDLP and 3rd to the DUP – here I am effectively voting for the DUP but of course my preferred choice is SF – Chris’ analysis is correct.

  • Ryan A

    Thing is if your nationalist explicitly but like money your not exactly going to go out of your way to vote Alliance. You have often commented on Lagan Valley being one massive outlier where Nationalists could easily have a seat. The SDLP got closer this time but are still miles off where they should actually be, and it’s clear Alliance didn’t capitalise on it this time – they dropped significantly.

  • Neil

    More like baseball, you don’t know when the game will end, it could last two hours or it could go for days.

  • Msiegnaro

    As a Unionist I cannot understand this panic within Nationalism. With a pretty feeble campaign and an old and tired leader SF narrowly lost one seat. The DUP had a re-branding process and still only managed to return the same number of seats (although this was a good achievement), I’m tempted to say stand back there is nothing to see here.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Would still go for the Fianna Fail and Fianna Gael Subs ! Unionism George Graham Tactics has worn SF/SDLP Out. 1 – Nil to the Unionists is what they keep singing !

  • Neil

    The game ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings old boy. 😉

  • Reader

    Chris Donnelly: I would contend that anyone making that case has no business in serious political commentary, ignoring as it does the DUP’s deeply antagonistic
    relationship with the Catholic Church, its schools and the culturally Irish outlook of its flock.

    So? The DUP are toothless when it comes to bigotry, but all-powerful when it comes to conservatism. That’s the nature of the deal we have here.

  • Andrew Gallagher

    Have I just not had enough coffee yet today, or did you really just use “Gerry Adams” and “gravitas” in the same sentence?

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Could be a very very long time before we ever get a glimpse of the Fat Lady’s Appearance on the Stage if the RED ARMY continue to sweep all before them in those urban working class districts !

  • Andrew Gallagher

    Sinn Fein remain distinctly unrepresentative of the northern nationalist community

    True, but their real problem is that they remain distinctly unrepresentative of the northern unionist community. If they truly believed their own mission statement this would be the thing keeping them up at night, not losing seats to the PBP.

  • Andrew Gallagher

    I put this very point to Patsy McGlone at a conference once. He avoided the question.

  • Paddy Reilly

    If you vote in this ridiculous fashion then you are voting for the DUP, no-one else. You might as well put Gerry Adams down as a write in candidate for an American Presidential Election, it will have no effect whatsoever. Most people who vote for SDLP or SF in East Belfast then proceed to favour Alliance or Greens.

  • chrisjones2

    We are now in a new political landscape.

    I find myself in agreement with Chris Donnelly

  • Msiegnaro

    To keep them-uns out?

  • Paddy Reilly

    You can only vote for what is on offer. You can’t vote for Sinn Féin in Munich, Paris or Kensington. You can’t seriously vote for them in East Belfast either, but you can register your existence and then proceed to vote for the remaining candidate you hate the least.

  • Paddy Reilly

    Not Nationalists, only the SDLP. They are still 1,500 votes short. The Catholic vote in Lagan Valley seems to be going to Alliance, as it does in Strangford. It must be that very few Protestants are voting for the Alliance candidate.

    I don’t see what this has to do with Fine Gael.

  • ” I would contend that anyone making that case has no business in serious political commentary, ignoring as it does the DUP’s deeply antagonistic relationship with the Catholic Church, its schools and the culturally Irish outlook of its flock.”

    Really? The DUP had positive talks with the Bishops in recent years, and supporting Grammars as it does the DUP more in tune with parents than Church or the nationalist parties. And other than Irish language which is indifference to the politicisation by SF et al rather than base cultural, the DUP is a known Unionist party, so it is what it is. Doesn’t mean traditional Catholic morality does not trump cultural Catholic when the Catholic Bishops make public statements supporting the former over the latter. For many Catholics, perhaps to the shock of SF/SDLP religion and faith still matters greatly.

    It is no use projecting personal distain and rubishing other commentators to justify a point that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Its unlikely that social conservatism played a big factor in republican/nationalist decline, but at small percentage margins it is entirely reasonable to suggest it is one factor of many.

  • Msiegnaro

    At least that is an honest assessment and I thank you for it.

  • Nevin

    “the urban fringe left party, People Before Profit”

    Isn’t PBP just a rebranded People’s Democracy, the devotees of James Connolly who sought to sweep away the ‘conservative’ administrations in Belfast and Dublin under the smokescreen of a civil rights campaign? In that sense PBP is also an Irish nationalist party yet other nationalists seem reluctant to acknowledge this. From a PBP perspective, the SDLP and SF are all Tories now.

  • Ryan A

    There isn’t a way of telling who is voting Alliance so stop presuming it’s Catholics. The point is anyone Nationalist and not left doesn’t have a party they are likely going to be motivated to vote for. It’s compromise on Policy and lurch to SDLP/SF or compromise on constitution and opt for Alliance, or finally abstain which seems to be what is happening. Someone else centre right Nationalist can fill that space and potentially reverse the decline in the nationalist vote.

    Note from Bangordubs blog:

    In the 2014 and 2015 elections Lagan Valley had the 2nd lowest turnout from the Catholic community (only North Down is lower). It was approximately 25% whereas turnout from the Protestant electorate is near 50%. This is at a level that is seen only with an organized election boycott but no one has been able to discover what group is behind the boycott. Lagan Valley also had the 2nd largest increase in the Catholic population between 2001 and 2011 which was 4%. Since many of these people are moving in from West Belfast where nationalist voter turnout is high it is puzzling why the turnout is so low. In view of the in migration I estimate the Catholic electorate is 17,000 and with potential votes from the Other and None communities the potential electorate is 18,000. If even 40% voted there would be a nationalist quota even allowing for more than 1,500 voting Alliance. Based on the 2014 and 2015 elections there will be 3 DUP, 1 UUP and 1 Alliance. The last seat will be down to the last count between the SDLP and either the TUV or UKIP. There are also 1,500 EU nationals on the electoral register and this may be a constituency where EU voters vote at a higher rate than native nationalist voters. The SDLP do seem to be making a serious effort in this election so it could be close for the final seat.

  • Neil

    They’ve stated they are not a Nationalist party Nevin. Not Unionist does not mean Nationalist, it just means not Unionist.

  • Nevin

    They have designated ‘Other’, Neil, but they’re a red as distinct from a green nationalist party. Here’s a quote from Eamonn McCann in New Left Review in 1969 which most likely reflects his current stance:

    It’s Republicanism, and the idea of the revolution is implanted in the minds of the Irish people surrounded by the glory of 1916 and its revolutionary martyrs. The idea of revolution is not at all alien to the Irish working class, as it is to the English, and when one calls for revolution, no matter what one actually demands there is always a link to Connolly and to 1916 and the armed uprising. What we have to do is to complete the national revolution by making the theoretical and practical link between what we are doing now, and what was fought for in 1916.

  • Neil

    In the words of Muhammad Ali, “A man who views the world the same at 50 as he did when he was 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” ’69 is a long time ago, and socialism is an internationalist ideology these days.

    If they (Eamonn/Gerry C) ever come out in opposition to unification they will certainly lose votes, due to the candidates, but give it time. A Protestant unionist PBP candidate in West Belfast could land that second seat I reckon.

  • Declan Doyle

    The opposite, SDLP designating as other will hand another slice of their vote to SF and finish them off for good.

  • Declan Doyle

    Actually, this nonsense about keeping them uns out is totally over egged and needs to be seen in the reality of politics rather than the inherited sense of sectarian entitlement we have in the North. There is nothing unusual about tactical voting to keep your least favoured party or candidate out of the equation. The constitutional issue just adds a naughty flavour to the practice. Left wingers will vote SF, PBP,GREENS, SDLP. Right Wingers will vote DUP, UUP, TUV or whatever you’re having urself UV. Both sides of the divide will transfer down the list to the opposite side to keep someone out and not necessarily one of them uns.

  • Chingford Man

    A friend of mine who lives in Lagan Valley was struck by the SDLP’s election literature. It didn’t mention a united Ireland or any constitutional issue at all. Nothing in the leaflet dnoted the SDLP as a nationalist party.

  • Nevin

    1969 is quite a long time ago but here’s Gerry Carroll in 2014:

    In Northern Ireland sectarianism is at the heart of the state. I don’t accept that, but then again I don’t accept the conservative right-wing state in the south. I’d prefer to talk about the road less travelled, a socialist Ireland for everyone, Catholic, Protestant, migrant and other.

    I don’t hear anyone else saying that, and that’s why our brand of politics is a breath of fresh air.

    It’s less militant than the earlier red nationalism but it’s still red nationalism; not so much fresh air as recycled stale air.

  • Paddy Reilly

    Isn’t there a contradiction between “There isn’t a way of telling who is voting Alliance so stop presuming it’s Catholics” and “In the 2014 and 2015 elections Lagan Valley had the 2nd lowest turnout from the Catholic community”?

    I do not know why no Nationalist was elected in Lagan Valley. I only know that the equation Census Catholic = Nationalist Voter does not seem to operate when the number of the former is less than 20% of the respective constituency’s population. (in East Antrim there are 20.6% Catholics and Oliver MacMullan (SF) just managed to hold his seat.)

    It could be that people just haven’t caught up with the potential of PR and don’t see it as worth while voting.

    It could be that Catholics in Lagan Valley would find it socially awkward to be seen approaching the polling stations.

    It could be that many Catholics who live in Strangford and Lagan Valley just aren’t Nationalists. Maybe they are not Irish, maybe they chose to live in these areas because they were different, maybe they are married to Protestants and have abandoned Catholicism.

    But on the other hand, the Protestants of West Belfast can’t seem to get it together to get a Unionist elected either.

  • mickfealty

    I think your assessment of SF is and always been outstanding. But whilst it is useful to combine the two figures, the solution to each party’s difficulties are separate matters not least since they come from such different traditions.

    Two traditions feed off irreducibly separate qualities within NI nationalism: present from the get go. There was never, as within unionism, one large all encompassing ‘Big House’ party, although SF was long submerged in ‘the struggle’.

    Paisley and Robinson’s big achievement was to provide a recognisable home for the small number of ‘independent unionists’ and then to scale over a forty year period to being on the verge of being a big house all of its own.

    The SDLP are at or close to the nadir of a long steady and shrink cycle. It’s demise (as was the much heralded Unionist split) has been greatly exaggerated over most of the last twenty years. Accordingly I’m not so certain it is even nearly over.

    The problems they face are different from Sinn Fein and in fact they may now have shrugged off one of them quite neatly in this election. As it stands 8/12 their MLAs are new. And their leader is less than half the age of Adams and/or McGuinness.

    So the tough job of succession is nearly complete.

    The other thing I disagree on is the need for them to have an all island presence. This would be a huge operation which SF (with its far superior funding) so far has only had partial success with.

    Yes, the Greens and PBP have achieved it, but neither have set themselves an ambition to become a broad political party of the middle capable of scaling on both sides of the border.

    For my money you have to look at why the DUP is evolving into a better operation than SF. in NI. It’s hard to look past the consolidation they’ve focused on within Northern Ireland and at Westminster and Brussels.

    If the SDLP try to emulate SF and organise in the south: 1, they will always be followers, never leaders; and 2, they’ll replicate the same weaknesses as SF are displaying from having to spread scarce resources across the border.

    It’s too early to suggest that SF have just had their Borodino victory in the south, but being the lead party of the left does not exactly leave them posed for power, and their absent mindedness in NI means they got played by the DUP over Welfare.

    IMHO Eastwood’s focus on NI is right for the SDLP, not least because ideologically SF never will. That’s an open goal. As for FF, I’ll believe it when I see it. Consociation is a death trap and they know it.

    I’m confident FF will contest EP and Local elections in 2019, but also that will just comprise an initial testing of the waters. They are pragmatists, so they will use that (and the state of play in the SF/SDLP battle) to figure where next.

    They too will be wary of SF’s downside experiences of trying to run a two jurisdiction party and will/should only move incrementally. If you are waiting on FF to save the show for northern Nationalism we may be waiting a long time.

    I also think you are wrong to suggest that those who voted for GC and EMcC are really nationalists. That comes under what you term the SDLP’s folly of borrowed votes. They aren’t borrowed, they are gone. And many are never coming back.

  • mickfealty

    And Alliance, Declan. I’d argue consociationalism is the problem. Any rising tide for the SDLP should carry a hefty political reform element to it.

  • mickfealty

    They won’t, because they won’t have to.

  • Gopher

    . I would rather look to the example the SNP provided by declaring that a vote for them would not trigger a referendum. The SDLP needs to create a dynamic from somewhere and sitting in the nationalist trenches is not going to provide it.

  • Nevin

    Neil, here’s a clarification from Gerry on Facebook this afternoon:

    When asked to designate as Unionist, Nationalist or Other up at Stormont today, myself and Eamonn wrote ‘Socialist’ instead. We will be put in the ‘other’ camp, but we are clear where we stand. This isn’t the Alliance Party. This is the new socialist alternative.

  • Liam

    When only 54% of the electorate turns out and less than 1/3rd of those who did go on to vote for the two main parties – how can anyone claim a political victory without noticing the elephant in the room? 75% (approx) of the electorate did NOT vote for the two largest parties. Champagne popping just seems an empty gesture compared to the reality of mass disengagement.

  • kensei

    The SDLP cannot organise cross border from scratch. That is insanity. They have to merge with an existing party. Labour offers the most interesting strategic possibilities given the international elements, and the FF route is now surely closed off.

    Partitioned Nationalist politics is dead. If they try to go up against SF and FF as Nationalists, they are toast. They don’t have to be Nationalist. they can choose to become a green Alliance, align to being a Catholic Community with NI Party, or a centre-left Labour party. But they can’t credibly offer better Nationalist representation than either SF or FF who are all island entities. This is a positive development, because if Nationalism is really one body of people, it won’t be united by partitioned movements. There are challenges balancing two jurisdictions, but you overegg them; there are challenges balancing local and national parties, and national and european parties. Good parties cope. if SDLP want to remain a Nationalist party, this is the only game in town.

    As for candidates, it’s worth bearing in mind SF could push through a dozen new, younger candidates at basically any point they chose too. They have a much broader base now. They could also move talent up from the South to NI, if they wanted too. Good candidates help, but unless they are superstars they won’t cover from lack of focus and strategic direction. And it is not like any of the SDLP’s have really done as yet.

    DUP performance: also overegged. No one should come out of the last Assembly with any credit whatsoever. The DUP’s policy is more aligned to what the Assembly can deliver. Or not deliver. SF were far more interested in the Republic. This is explains about 95% of it.

  • Declan Doyle

    Not necessarily true either. Some have criticised the SDLP for not being more determined on the national question. The SNP have risen in a completely different social and political atmosphere, not at all analogous.

  • Declan Doyle

    Consociationalism is killing the Assembly. Time to untie the apron strings and let them at it.

  • Croiteir

    I live in East Antrim and can maybe shed a bit if light
    Attitudes amongst nationalists vary. Some wont vote as they see no point as they believe that unionists will win. Some vote Alliance as they believe that is stopping the extremes of unionism getting in. This is quite a large group. Some will vote nationalist.

    The alliance vote is the most damaging as it has solidified as a paradigm. Only when the percentages get to a certain level does this reason for voting Alliance start to evaporate.

  • erasmus

    I am reminded of the famous joke with the punchline:
    ‘Are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?’
    In NI you are either a green socialist or an orange socialist.

  • To he best of my knowledge, McCann’s stance on republican armed struggle has evolved quite considerably over the years. In ‘War and an Irish Town’ (as late as the 1980 edition), he was pledging, along with much of the left, “unconditional but critical support” for armed struggle and stated that all socialists and anti-imperialists should, by definition, do the same. See:

    His position now is very critical. See:

    He has latterly viewed the Provisional movement as being imbued with a reactionary “hibernianism”. See:

    On PBP’s Connollyite roots and the present designation of “Other”, I’ve written a bit more here that might interest:

    They are an explicitly anti-partition party, but as I’ve alluded to above, seek to keep culture or identity separate from their materialist/internationalist politics.

  • mickfealty

    In theory, that’s fine. But what evidence is there that SF’s growth in the Republic has positively affected their northern vote?

  • kensei

    You are asking for causation when all we have correlation. SF have heavily pushed the line, North and South, for the entire period of their growth.

    It may be a large bit of Nationalism has decided it doesn’t need it’s parties to be Nationalist. Or even not Nationalist anymore. So.I’m not saying it’s impossible for the SDLP to carve a role. But if they want Nationalist votes, tell me how being a 6 only party is a positive differentiator.

    And more pertinently, if they are a Nationalist party, tell me how being a 6 only party is more effective in bringing about a UI.

  • Ryan A

    I thought the polling eve leaflet drop regarding ‘Not another DUP backbencher’ to be quite effective.

  • Ryan A

    True to an extent but little evidence of it happening. I think the drop in East Antrim is actually off the back of the flag protests – They lost council seats in Ballyclare and Carrickfergus in 2014 most likely off this. It recovered a bit in 2015 but I think dropped slightly again due to the Greens camping on their lawn.

  • mickfealty

    I’m just saying that people say it as though it were a causitive factor. In fact running two parties under one brand is a heavy burden politically and financially.?

    Advantages are: it’s what you are, so sell yourself through your strength: we’re ‘here’ to make ‘here’ work, not ‘there’ to screw ‘here’ over behind your back?

  • kensei

    I think the appeal certainly played in SFs rise. No more than ancedote. It’s the lack of tangible benefits or joined up policy that’s retarded it.

    Your argument is a Unionist argument. The SDLP would get tore a new one by SF and FF if they tried it. Its forcing them into catholic community space rather than Nationalist. Which is OK, but see original point.

  • kensei

    To be clear here, if the SDLP tried that argument they would cease to get any votes or transfers from me for a very long time.

  • Peter Lombard

    “Special mention should go to those suggesting that Catholics may be turning to the DUP on account of the latter’s position on certain moral issues. I would contend that anyone making that case has no business in serious political commentary, ignoring as it does the DUP’s deeply antagonistic relationship with the Catholic Church, its schools and the culturally Irish outlook of its flock.”

    Chris Donnelly seriouslys and naively underestimates the strength of feeling many Nationalist voters have when it comes to social issues. Having canvassed in the recent election I can say without fear of any contradiction that the single largest social issue mentioned on the doorstep was that of abortion. It was raised, not by those in favour of a further liberalising of the law, but by those who wanted to defend the law as it stands in the belief that protections already in place for the health of the mother are sufficient. They strongly opposed those who think it justified to expedite the demise of a child not expected to live long after birth. Some were willing to bite the DUP bullet, others were resolved to having no vote.

  • kensei

    What has Cliftonville FC got to do with it?

  • T.E.Lawrence

    They have appointed Gerry Carroll as their new manager !

  • Nevin

    Thanks, Daniel. As the political tussle is effectively a tug-of-war, PBF in an NI-context is green – with a red hue. ‘Neither green, nor orange, but up for the fight’ might fool the gullible and the disgruntled but I don’t foresee much cross-community support. Only a small fraction of Fiona Ferguson’s transfers went to Unionist candidates.

  • mickfealty

    1st para, third sentence. That’s *the* problem. SF are showboating on the 32 thing (and good luck to them) and the SDLP have been doing little other holding their coats for twenty years.

    Where you organise is utterly irrelevant to the reasons both have failed to make the project real to their base.

  • kensei

    With respect Mick, I think that’s nonsense. The cross border organisation is a very instant piece of branding, and it also defines the strategic space you operate in. I think it would be a mistake to think Northern Nationalism takes no notenif SFs progress or otherwise in the Republic.

    There is nothing inherently wrong with the plan in government North and South. That offers the real possibility for some joined up thinking. Much easier to harmonise tax or health or look at transport links. But SF haven’t really been able to execute on it – partly because they haven’t made government on both sides, partly due to a lack of ideas. But that doesn’t descredit the idea. SF may learn, or FF may execute better.

    So far the only line you are proposing for the SDLP is to attack 32 county parties for being more focused or something worse on the other jurisdiction. If that line was successful it is utterly corrosive to Nationalist politics. Surely you.must see that?

  • Brendan Heading

    I’m not sure why this has been selected as a featured comment. It is clearly completely wrong.

    It doesn’t matter that you canvassed people who told you that they were concerned about these social issues. There is no evidence that a single declared Catholic practitioner actually voted this way. In fact the opposite; all three nationalist seats were lost to parties with an unambiguously left wing, pro 1967 abortion position. There is no evidence in any of the figures at all that Catholic traditionalists switched to the DUP.

    In addition, the SDLP took a very firm pro-life point of view. They repeatedly asserted their position as being pro-life during the election. In the Assembly, a couple of months ago, they vigorously resisted even a modest relaxation of the abortion law here. Yet this party lost three seats. One of those seats was lost to Sinn Féin which has a more liberal policy.

    If the election results show anything, they show that nationalists are vulnerable on the progressive left.

  • Brendan Heading


    I’ve seen SF supporters arguing that because Carroll designated as Other it means he is a soft unionist. It’s funny how people can look at the same facts and draw completely different conclusions from them.

  • Nevin

    How quaint, Brendan! Perhaps they thought PBP Alliance was the red wing of APNI, a party which contains some soft unionists.

  • mickfealty

    I’m not critical of SF’s project, so much as the daft idea it’s a qualifying model for everyone else.

  • kensei

    Good job I never said that then. I listed a number of other models they could follow.

    But Nationalist parties always needed an All Ireland dimension and the lack of skin in the game for Southern parties has always been a failing. One people, not two. I expect FFs spin, should then move up to be different from SFs.

  • Peter Lombard

    “It doesn’t matter that you canvassed people who told you that they were concerned about these social issues. There is no evidence that a single declared Catholic practitioner actually voted this way.”

    There can be no evidence in a secret ballot. Admittedly it is anecdotal, yet it remains the case that only those who strongly opposed any further liberalisation of the law raised the issue of abortion on the doorstep.

    Chris Donnelly is simply wrong on this point.