I think Mark, in common with others, has underrated the Sinn Fein performance in the North. Brian lamented parties playing up the significance of topping the pole, but seemed miss that whatever Chris or commentators here might have posted, the SF leadership assuredly did not do it. They also largely resisted the temptation to cause difficulties for their coalition partners or expend large amount of resources in pushing their vote as high as possible in a vanity project. It was notable that there was no SF presence at our polling station as there has been at every other election we have been to. Furthermore, they continued to play down the significance once the election results were in. It was a mature and businesslike performance by a party assured of their position. Talk of stagnant votes is utterly misleading; like the best football teams, it is clear there was another gear if needed. The SDLP weren’t even relevant.With the split in the Unionist vote, there was a definite chance of the SDLP picking up a second Nationalist seat. The SDLP ran a decent candidate and a competent but unspectacular campaign and still could not manage more than complete stasis. This is troubling for a number of reasons.
Fortunes can and do change and even seemingly invincible parties can lose status pretty quickly; the DUP are a telling case in point but Labour were also flippantly talking about further decades in power after the last election. But SF have received some fairly hefty hits from the DUP in this Assembly and at least one really bad minister and have just kept on going. It is really looking like SF might fill the role that FF have traditionally done in the South. That gives them almost total leadership of Northern nationalism / republicanism and in a real sense the SF vision of a United Ireland will be the one imprinted on Northern nationalism, sold to unionists and shown to the outside world. I am sympathetic to many of SF aims but differ in many places and despite being listed as a “politico” on this site I have no connection to anyone. And that role is too important for any one party. A diverse state needs a diverse civic nationalism and a diverse range of views. Single party dominance leads to stagnation and suffocates ideas; no single party has the energy or vision to sustain the growth needed indefinitely. The Unionist attraction to the Single Voice has always baffled me. Mick sees danger in the current Unionist jostling, but that dynamism will drive debate that may not help the individual parties, but will certainly help Unionism.
It will also help drive Unionist votes. It already has to an extent; the Unionist drop in turnout was slightly noticeably less than the nationalist one. The SDLP have held on, but there is the frightening prospect of a collapse in their vote. Take the results of the Fermanagh Council By Election last year.
Foster, Arlene (DUP) 1,925 votes (30,5%)
Coyle, Debbie (SF) 1,815 votes (28,8%)
Johnston, Basil (UUP) 1,436 votes (22,8%)
Flanagan, Rosemary (SDLP) 739 votes (11,7%)
Kamble, Kumar (APNI) 231 votes (3,7%)
McHugh, Karen (Ind Rep) 158 votes (2,5%)
It seemed to me overlooked at the time that Sinn Fein got their vote out. But the SDLP’s didn’t turn up. They had little hope of winning, so didn’t bother. And without their support Nationalism had absolutely no hope of winning the seat. If this is a vision of the future, even a partial one, big big problems lie further down the road. If those results are repeated on any scale, there will be a full blown electoral crisis in Nationalism to match the crisis in ideas such a situation would bring.
I know in posting this that I will get a chorus of people lining up to back the SDLP: it happened the last time I posted on them. They manage to hold their vote and stave off further decline; the chances of getting a seat where remote; they have lots of good ideas; X will do will in this constituency; SF have stagnated, will run into difficulties and the scales will fall from the electorates eyes. I am sorry but this is simply superficial congeniality. And it is long past time to start facing reality.
The first thing is to accept that continuing on the same path will not lead to a changed result. People in the party have got to start saying it out loud and flagging a desire to change. To at least start a debate. They then need to work out who they are, and what they are for, and what electorate they are going for. Are they serious about post nationalism? Those pull in differing directions. Can they do the vision thing? Come up with new policies? These are fundamental questions but the SDLP seemingly have no answer to many of them and that is not a luxury that can afforded in a downward spiral. To make any gains forward within nationalism, they don’t just have to match SF, they have to significantly better them to make traction.
These are big questions and it falls to the leader to set the tone and direction of the party. Durkan has been a long time in the job now. If he cares about his party, his politics and his country, it’s time for him to step up or step aside.