Although as several of our readers have pointed out, if the Hearts and Minds’ poll is to be believed, the two main parties since both the DUP (33.4% to 30.6%) and Sinn Fein (24.3% to 20.1%) appear to have lost ground in public opinion. Tellingly, their main rivals have not made up any ground. It suggests that any flaking of voters will be from their fundamentalist hard core. hich leaves the two smaller parties (and former incumbents) with huge hills to climb. Undoubtedly the hill on the Unionist side is the steeper of the two:
If there is a flaking of party loyalists then it is likely to come in the heartlands. As one commentator told Slugger this morning, even if there is a sizeable cut in the vote the DUP may have a buffer of about 50,000 votes before it gets into serious losing territory. Added to that, the showing for the small parties (one of which is actually defunct) adds up to nearly 9% of the Unionist vote, but a renewed showing is not likely to break for the pro Agreement UUP.
Those (surprisingly liberal) voices within the UUP currently urging Reg Empey to cut against the St Andrews Agreement may have this prize in mind. But it is the very palpable confusion within the UUP as to what it actually stands for that may prove to its (further) downfall next March. As one Unionist wit said the other day, a boxer cannot expect to win a fight if he throws a left and a right at the same time: there is little force in either hand, and he is left painfully exposed.
On the other side of the divide, things are a little different. Sinn Fein certainly holds a decisive lead over the SDLP, but not by as much. Also, whilst David Trimble hung on until the virtual death of his parliamentary party, John Hume left the reigns of power within the party several election cycles ago. The new leadership is several tough electoral lessons into its reign, and it shows.
For instance, whilst the UUP continues to haemorrhage money, the SDLP has begun to raise a decent campaign fund and hold on to it. Last year’s widely predicted disaster did not materialise, indeed it even clipped a few senior SF wings in the process. It has learned to concentrate resources where they are needed, and to fight on a fewer number of issues that give them advantage over their only serious opponents, Sinn Fein.
But it too faces an acute identity problem. Sinn Fein’s aloofness from any form of structured policing in Northern Ireland has provided the SDLP with an electoral milch cow in the middle class Catholic areas of Belfast and Derry. But that battlefront will have largely folded by any March election (don’t hold your breathe btw). And they will be fighting a Sinn Fein party largely (back) on track to becoming precisely the kind of Social Democrat party as that favoured by the Durkan leadership. In such toe-to-toe contests in the past, Sinn Fein has run out easy winners.
It will need to tighten its thinking between now and then. It sits on a low, if comparatively secure, base. We might expect a few highly localised offensive campaigns, and some (perhaps desperately) defensive ones. But, between now and then, it will need to develop a clear and consistent message to motivate that same middle class tranche of voters who rescued Durkan in a time of crisis, and who provided the party with the most improbable gain of last year’s election in South Belfast, if it is buy itself a credible passport into the future of Northern Irish politics.