Chances grow for centre parties if SF and the DUP seriously split

Which split will grow wider – DUP-TUV or Sinn Fein- Éirígí? Are the main parties doing more than suffering from a bout of activists’ fever? Or could widening fissures really throw Northern Ireland politics into the melting pot? If the threat to Sinn Fein in the north really is substantial – and I’m not convinced – the trend presents a challenge to the centrist parties the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP they can hardly afford to ignore. With the TUV and Éirígí challenges being basically anti-Assembly, it’s a no brainer that the centrists should gather under a power sharing banner. If they push hard on the cracks, real cross- community opportunities could open up, presenting them with the chance of staging a major recovery. They should haul in Alliance, Greens and any other like minded decent democratic souls. In any case, they should use the summer to work out new ways of exploiting a phenomenon that wasn’t supposed to happen – that the parties of the extremes, the DUP and Sinn Fein can each be outflanked, even after capturing the commanding heights of the Assembly. OK, an agonising reappraisal must be threatening Sinn Fein when the outside experts come out of the woodwork. Dan Keenan of the Irish Times reports on the sayings of a body imposingly called “The truth and reconciliation commission of Britain and Ireland,” which informs us

There is a perception among nationalist supporters that Sinn Féin and its leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have become too wedded to the peace process and have become too embedded in the powersharing structures with the unionists at Stormont.

Keenan backs this up with reports of ambitious claims from Brian Leeson, Éirígí national chairman, that since the Belfast Agreement there has been “a massive realignment within Irish republicanism”.

“In real terms this means that thousands of republican activists have transferred their allegiance from Sinn Féin to other republican organisations, such as Éirígí. A proven track record of political campaigning, combined with an unambiguous socialist republican platform, has enabled Éirígí to attract large numbers of existing left-wing republicans.

Before we all jump to conclusions, we could do with a bit more evidence, some analysis and may be a poll or two from dare I suggest it, the BBC and/or the Belfast Telegraph. About the voters, remember them? Such evidence as we have from the extensive Life and Times surveys ( 2008’s is recently out) shows impressively calm and steady political attitudes.

However as everybody else is doing it I thought I’d fly my own kite. Out of the perceived turmoil inside the DUP and Sinn Fein camps, there are opportunities for the centrist parties. The Ulster Unionists could receive serious medium-term boosts if it really is true that Labour are planning to hold a referendum on the Alternative Vote system (AV) system on the same day as the general election. Under AV, the successful candidate must win 50% of the total vote. In general elections the unionist-nationalist designations don’t apply , remember. Cross community options increase where:

an MP has previously been elected on a minority vote
serious splits develop inside each sectarian camp
and/or the sectarian balance in the constituency is fairly narrow.

In these cases, the chances are that cross community transfers could seriously affect the result. Among clear targets for transfer pacts between the pro-Executive UUP and the SDLP are South Down, West Tyrone, Upper Bann and even Fermanagh South Tyrone. The DUP would again denied victory in South Belfast . In these scenarios, we have to assume Éirígí becomes a political party or at least runs a strong boycott campaign and the TUV expands. Alternatively, voters could strongly back the DUP and Sinn Fein and leave their fringe challengers in the wlderness. Both are purely reactionary reflexes and have nothing positive to offer. Either way, the Assembly system should survive the threats comfortably enough. if cool heads prevail.

  • Brian,

    I think this is a huge difference between the two. The TUV is a serious threat to the number of seats that the DUP holds, especially in the Assembly if its voters do not transfer. éirígí et al might be draining the PSF activist base, but there is no sign as yet that they are impacting on their voting base. And given that the nature of politics as practised by PSF has changed, it’s bascically water off a duck’s back. I’d also note that the letter from Rab Jackson said there were 5 members of éirígí at the Ardoyne protests. That might suggest the amount of publicity far exceeds its influence.

  • Disinterested observer

    Mmmm Brian the whole Conservative/UUP link passed you by?

  • kensei

    I am unclear as to the mechanism of large numbers of people in working class areas defecting to the extremes helps the UUP or SDLP.

    This suggests severe wishful thinking. The likely outcoem is some seriosu instability.

  • fair_deal

    The Life and Times survey never has a properly representatiuve sample for political opinion

  • Neil

    IMO the TUV can and will significantly hurt the DUP. The difference as I see it between the two situations, (pure speculation obviously), SF are losing working class voters in previously extremely strong SF areas, such as West Belfast. One of the reasons for this is the common perception that the leadership of SF have significantly improved their lot, (for the socialist party on the average wage they seem to be able to keep nice houses and cars for example), and effectively to working class people who put SF on the map there is a feeling that the wroking class has been sold out. My feeling is that this is true, however for SF the voters they lose in certain hardline areas are being replaced in other areas like North Antrim by the middle classes who previously wouldn’t have voted for SF but due to their ‘selling out’ now are prepared to do do.

    So it’s my contention that where the DUP may lose some of it’s core vote (the anti nationalist, whatever they do we do the opposite brigade), they will find it difficult to replace those voters from another party. For example whoever’s voting UU now is unlikely to change their vote having stuck with the UUs through thick and thin, there is very little to entice those core Unionists away from their party of choice. SF will have it much easier replacing the votes it loses, as there are plenty of people who could vote SF as it fits with their ideology but who up to this point haven’t done so for a variety of reasons, not least the violence.

    It’s also worth noting the fact that between Peter’s expenses, Iris’ homophobia and expenses, Ian Jr.’s homophobia and expenses, Sammy Wilson’s comedy routine involving painting Northern Ireland as a country full of gibbering idiots etc. the DUP could/will lose votes. There are an awful lot of gay people/families of gay people and working class prods who feel they’re getting stiffed by the increasingly wealthy Unionist dynasties. The only comparable idiocy I can think of coming from the Shinners would be from our Education Minister, which I can find no defence for and if NI were a normal place she’d be out on her lug at the next election no question, if they’re daft enough to keep her on that is (and they probably are).

  • Duth ealla


    Leader of small organisation says his organisation is doing very well winning over new recruits and as a result is posied to make waves.

    No other evidence adduced other than his opinion yet its good enough to run with as a story.

    Time was when a newspaper wouldn’t be so slack

  • it’s a no brainer that the centrists should gather under a power sharing banner. …They should haul in Alliance, Greens and any other like minded decent democratic souls

    But the current system isn’t democratic

  • Chris Donnelly


    Trust your instincts with regard to claims from the specific Eirigi spokesman and pinched salt.

    Firstly, if there were thousands of republican activists in all of these other republican groups, then, taken with the activists still in the mainstrean tent, Ireland would be simply awash with republican activists (which isn’t- nor has it ever been- the case.)

    Sure, there will be defections from the mainstream republican party to the fringe groups, as there has been to date.

    But the numbers are small enough, and their political and electoral appeal even less so as you move outside of the activist goldfish bowl, to conclude safely that Sinn Fein faces no real threat from that flank.

    I’d suggest that a more viable threat to the party in the medium term will be from electoral disillusionment with its performance at Stormont, particularly if (and it’s a big if) the SDLP can regain some type of standing as a credible Irish nationalist voice.

    Threats from the fringes may impact on an activist base within republicanism, but the impact of that will be considerably less than the potential impact of the TUV surge on the DUP as that party has already proven it has a substantial electoral base to swim in, as well as an activist core.

  • redbrick

    It says something about our capacity for teamwork that every position in Ireland seems to need at least two parties.

    1. anti-agreementism

    Republician Sinn Fein vs Eirigi

    2. centre-left pro-agreement nationalism

    Labour vs Sinn Fein

    3. centre-right pro-agreement nationalism

    Fianna Fail vs Fine Gael

    4. right wing unionism

    Traditional Unionists vs Democratic Unionists

    5. centre-right liberal post-unionism

    Conservatives & Unionists vs Alliance

    6. Environmentalist anti-capitalism

    Greens vs Socialist Environmentalist Alliance

    You can’t say they don’t give us a choice.

  • Mark McGregor

    I tend to agree with Gari that at present éirígí’s publicity far exceeds it’s influence, though on several occasions SF has either had to react by calling a similar demonstration to those they have held or seek to denigrate their actions including, on some SF supporters running an awful masochinistic abuse campaign about resigning Cllr Minihan on the basis of an asumption she may declare for éirígí. One informed, clearly current, member of SF creating a disgusting username ‘Hire-a-gee’ for the occassion. This is a group pulling out between 100-300 people for infrequent set piece demostrations. Even they would not claim to be a mass movement, however they do seem to be genuinely focused on making their message popular as opposed to creating a popular message and while they have also lost members along the way they do seem on an upwards – god knows where the plateau is. A slow burner they hope, time will tell.

  • John O’Connell

    I’d suggest that a more viable threat to the party in the medium term will be from electoral disillusionment with its performance at Stormont, particularly if (and it’s a big if) the SDLP can regain some type of standing as a credible Irish nationalist voice.

    Chris is right in the sense that there is no organisation comparable to the TUV in the Nationalist community, and because the SDLP has been effectively shadowing Sinn Fein policies by virtue of Sinn Fein stealing SDLP policies, there is a good chance that any votes that result from a collapse of the Sinn Fein vote will go to the SDLP.

    DUP votes that went to the TUV were more extreme votes cherishing something that had gone when the DUP collapsed as the most extreme party on the unionist side.

    Sinn Fein votes may collapse for other reasons like the destruction of Gerry Adams’ image and may result in those dissillusioned wanting to go with a party that hasn’t ever let them down. I think that the issue that fits the bill in bringing Adams down will be the hunger strike issue which hits at him and destroys any pretence at him having a good image. I think its fair to say that they’ll say bad things about him.

    Many of the former SDLP voters who left for the simple reason that Adams put our case more forcefully will fall back to the SDLP fold, but without any major changes to SDLP strategy (You have that wrong, Chris).

  • Brian Walker

    The Liam Clarke/ Ed Moloney line implies a Sinn Fein falling off rather than a straight switch to eirigi. But this analysis assumes broad continuity with the revolutionary past rather than the shock of the parliamentary new. Judging from the run of the comments, it’s hard to say how it’ll evolve, but the fairly boring status quo looks a good bet. Not good for enflamed comment though.

  • Fergananim

    Correct me if I’m wrong here …

    SF’s raison d’etre is uniting Ireland and Northern Ireland into a single state.

    This is opposed by at least 50% of people in Northern Ireland.

    It has no appeal to the vast majority of people in Ireland.

    So, what is the point of SF on an all-island basis?

    And indeed, what is the point of an all-island state?