Whilst Mick has been easing us into election mode with a nicely paced constituency profile series of threads, I thought I’d go straight into one of the main themes of this election: the intra-nationalist competition.
There is little doubt but that Sinn Fein will remain comfortably ahead of the SDLP as the largest nationalist party once the votes have been counted after May 5th, but there are still a number of interesting features to look out for.
Firstly, whilst there has been talk of Sinn Fein surpassing the DUP as the largest single party in the Assembly, there is simply no prospect of that happening. Although Sinn Fein’s share of the nationalist vote is akin to the DUP’s share of the unionist vote, in reality Sinn Fein have failed to make this advantage transfer into a similar share of seats. Examining the reasons for this gives an insight into the current difficulties and challenges facing Sinn Fein, as well as the narrow glimmers of hope still flickering for the SDLP. I have already articulated those challenges in greater detail on Slugger before, so I’ll stick to a brief summary for now:
- Sinn Fein are too focused on preserving their vote in the heartland constituencies, giving insufficient thought about expansion into the middle-class and predominantly unionist regions of the North. If anything, recent co-options and nominations have further confirmed this.
- Partly because of reason one, the party has always failed to attract credible candidates in far too many constituencies at an Assembly and local council DEA level, relying on parachuted candidates who exist only on the ballot paper or whose interest in their adopted constituency is fleeting and thereby failing to cultivate a support base in what should be prospective target seats.
For these reasons, the era of Sinn Fein’s electoral dominance within northern nationalism has been one in which the SDLP has been floored but not knocked out. The latter still remain the largest nationalist party on Down and Derry councils whilst supplying the only nationalist representatives on Castlereagh, Larne and Ards councils, as well as retaining three Westminster seats.
The Boundary Commission changes which took effect prior to the 2010 Westminster election will have the effect of further steadying the power balance between Sinn Fein and the SDLP quite simply because the creation of an additional two prospective nationalist seats in predominantly unionist constituencies sets Sinn Fein a difficult target for expansion given the shortcomings in such areas noted above.
Whilst the media has concentrated (or had been so doing prior to the killing of Ronan Kerr) on the battle for the First Ministry position, the main objective of Sinn Fein in this election has always been to secure the 30 seats required to have solitary possession of the petition of concern veto device within the Assembly.
Yet even that more modest ambition would appear to be beyond Sinn Fein at present, and this is borne out by an assessment of the prospective target seats for the party in this Assembly election.
Sinn Fein won 28 seats in 2007, and all but one of those seats (Lagan Valley) will likely be returned again for the party, though the weakened candidate slate in West Belfast may make that a tighter than anticipated contest.
This leaves the party targeting three gains to reach the magical figure of thirty seats, and those three seats would have to come from the following:
ü A 2nd seat in Upper Bann;
ü A 2nd seat in East Derry;
ü A 3rd seat in Fermanagh South Tyrone;
ü A 1st seat in East Antrim;
ü A 4th seat in West Tyrone.
None of the above target seats could at this stage be deemed likely gains for a variety of reasons.
The loss of two strategically well placed elected representatives has dented the party’s prospects in its two most probable target constituencies. Losing Banbridge-based Dessie Ward and Coleraine-based Billy Leonard not only deprived the party of two representatives who provided a breakthrough for Sinn Fein on two strongly unionist councils, but also left the party back at square one with regard to addressing the credibility deficit concerning candidates at both a local and Assembly level in two target constituencies. Whilst McGibbon is still in with an outside shot in Upper Bann, the second seat in East Derry would appear a lost hope at this stage.
The party’s credibility deficit in predominantly unionist constituencies amongst nationalists has meant that Strangford did not even make the list of target seats in spite of having sufficient nationalists amongst its electors to warrant suitability as a target. But the very fact that Sinn Fein thought it wise to shift the Ards Peninsula based Naomi Bailie onto the South Down ticket as third candidate in a constituency extremely unlikely to return three republicans provides a perfect illustration of how little thought often goes into party development by Sinn Fein.
The Fermanagh South Tyrone and West Tyrone target seats- like the 4th seat campaign in Mid Ulster- represent the blood from stone variety of target seats. Even with the depressed SDLP vote in Fermanagh South Tyrone following the McKinney debacle of 2010, the SDLP should be able to squeeze out a seat, and likewise in West Tyrone.
All of which leads to the conclusion that, perhaps incredibly, Sinn Fein could improve its share of the overall vote and share of the nationalist vote whilst still seeing its tally of seats reduced by one to 27 seats given the certainty that Lagan Valley is now without a nationalist quota following boundary changes.
For the SDLP, that’s all good news, but it doesn’t really get any better for the smaller nationalist party. For, whilst the SDLP should be able to claim a first nationalist seat in Strangford and reclaim West Tyrone, it is in real trouble to survive in South and North Antrim, whilst East Antrim will only be in the picture in the unlikely event that the party’s candidate surpasses Sinn Fein’s Oliver McMullan in first preferences- not a probable given the 2010 Westminster figures already giving McMullan the edge.
Whilst the Assembly picture is one of little movement north or south for either nationalist party, the story of the local elections is likely to be very different, with Sinn Fein well-placed to make a further score of gains on the smaller nationalist party.
Having analysed the results of the 2005 local council elections, I would suggest that Sinn Fein are poised to make between 20 and 30 council seat gains this time around, from the following list of target DEAs:
ü Antrim: Antrim Town
ü Ards: Ards Peninsula
ü Armagh: City, Crossmore, Cusher
ü Ballymena: North, South, Braid
ü Ballymoney: Town, Bann Valley
ü Banbridge: Town, Dromore
ü Belfast: Balmoral, Castle, Oldpark, Pottinger
ü Castlereagh: West, South
ü Coleraine: Central, Skerries
ü Cookstown: Central
ü Craigavon: Central, Portadown
ü Derry: Northland, Rural, Shantallow, Waterside
ü Down: Downpatrick, Newcastle, Rowallane
ü Dungannon: Blackwater, Clogher Valley, Town
ü Fermanagh: Enniskillen, Erne East
ü Larne: Coast Road, Town
ü Lisburn: Killultagh
ü Magherafelt: Town
ü Moyle: The Glens
ü Newry and Mourne: Crotlieve, Town,
ü Newtownabbey: Macedon
ü Omagh: Town
ü Strabane: Gleneely
Even a 50% return on the target seats outlined above would see Sinn Fein increase its tally by some twenty plus seats as, unlike in the Assembly and Westminster, Sinn Fein have yet to plateau at local council level due to the deflated showing by the party at the 2005 local elections, which were fought amidst the backdrop of the Northern Bank robbery and killing of Robert McCartney.
In sum then, here’s my predictions for the Shades of Green contest:
- Sinn Fein to lose one but pick up one from the list above, returning 28 seats;
- SDLP to pick up Strangford, West Tyrone and one more from a 3rd in South Down or surprise in East Antrim, but lose North Antrim to reach a figure of 18 seats.
- Sinn Fein to provide main story of council elections, increasing total tally of seats by 20+ with most of the others returning little movement.
Of course, we’ll know soon enough…….
PS. I should add the caveat that I have yet to confirm that Sinn Fein will be contesting all of the prospective DEA target constituencies outlined above, though I would be greatly surprised if they were not.