Thoughts on The Shades of Green Contest 2011

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  • lamhdearg

    sf loss, splp gain, lower falls, due to irsp?.

  • Big Boss


    Im interested in your local election analysis!,

    especially around the Mid-Ulster/South Tyrone area,

    Take Dungannon Council…. I dont see where the gain is going to come for SF in Clogher Valley, especially with the SDLP topping the poll there in 2005… Ill give you Blackwater, though it will come as a surprise.

    The gain in Dungannon wouldn’t be a gain as much as a re-gain from the independent that left them in 07…… Unless again you saying it will be a gain from the SDLP, But with so many candidates running from different parties i expect either Quinn (more likely Currie given his name) to take that seat.

    Cookstown – They had the votes there in 2005, but the SDLP still managed to take 2 seats, and area that i know Patsy McGlone had worked very hard on and id be surprises if it wasn’t the same result.

    I think Mid-Ulster could see more gains by the SDLP than SF

  • The Word


    At this moment in time any strategy that centres on the battle for the flag or nation misses the point.

    It’s kind of you to admit that you’re going easy on the SDLP but that may have two explanations, one that is less than flattering of Sinn Fein and its own beliefs about itself and the other, rather like the Church’s fortunes, centres on an inspired weakening of the SDLP in order for her enemies to assert themselves and make the moment of reckoning all the more decisive and impressive.

    Which do you think it is?

    I never get into such detail in strategising. The important thing for us is that the principle, the value, the moral, the ethic is highlighted in order for us to give any worth to our journey to a new Ireland.

  • Assembly level.
    I just cant see Sinn Féin making any gains.
    They will regain McHughs seat but lose Butlers. So thats 27…
    SDLP. I can see gains. North Antrim likely to be lost. South Antrim certainly marginal.
    But their targets in West Tyrone, Stangford and East Antrim seem more pssible than SF targets.

    Council Level.
    I am only starting to put together runners and riders but a couple of points.
    Chris Donnelly points out that SFs 2005 performance was in the wake of the Robert McCartney killing. Certainly they lost ground in Pottinger but did they lose ground or were halted in Belfast? I doubt it.
    Nine seats out of ten in the west of the City. The room for actually advancing in West Belfast is extremely limited.
    Is ten out of ten more or less likely than eight out of ten?
    I must emphasise this does not amount to analysis but there are places in the 26 councils were SDLP could still lose percentage points and not lose their single seat in a DEA. Likewise there are places werea marginal increase could gain a seat.

    The real fact is that the two republican parties hold 44 seats.
    The range is 43-47. Thats were they will come in again with a few swings and roundabouts situations.
    But SF does have a problem. They cant look in two directions at the same time. Selecting another “friend of Bobby” to appease the boys in the Felons Club does not mean any form of outreach. Bobby Sands had few friends in Strangford and East Antrim.
    With the possible exception of Caitriona Ruane, there is no SF personality without a traditional SF background. And ultimately thats the thing that will limit SFs growth. The Party provides hurdles to discourage “members” and encourage “activists”.
    The years 2005-07 were good for SF but they have just about reached a levelling off point.

  • The Word

    “Bobby Sands had few friends in Strangford and East Antrim.”

    Violence, and war, has always sought to use the weaknesses and unhappiness of the poor about their own personal circumstances, quite apart from any notional national interest they feel they may want to serve, to further the ends of those in a position to manipulate.

    No-one doubts the enormous sacrifices that republicans made with their lives and health in their search for justice but, quite apart from the endless suffering of their victims, the thrust of their efforts can’t be justified without justifying the other protagonists too. Why can’t we redirect blame from those who carried out the violence? That’s because we’re saying that the Unionists were used too and that is where unity will be built.

  • Chris, have you factored in the performance of the SF ministers v the SDLP one? McGuinness and Kelly have not had departments to make a mess of whereas Ruane, Murphy and to a lesser extent Gildernew have really struggled. Ritchie and Attwood have had departmental problems at DSD but these have largely escaped MSM attention in recent times.

  • The analysis is great. Pity about the title. There is only one Green Party here. The nationalist parties just compete to turn this green and pleasant island into a copy of Mordor (as do the unionist ones).

  • I remember when there was a Green Party in the Republic. Seems like years ago already.

  • J Kelly

    if sinn fein make the gains at council in derry as suggested they have to be in a prime position to take a third assembly seat. i would say keep a wee eye on foyle. the chattering classes are not to amused by the inexperience of the wee boys on the sdlp slate.

  • Chris Donnelly

    Sinn Fein lost many potential gains in 2005 in areas apart from Pottinger- not least Balmoral in Belfast.

    There mightn’t be room for further growth in west Belfast but, as I point out in the council target seat list above, there are four other seats to be realistically targeted by the party in Belfast alone.

    Regarding your final point, I think you’ll find the thrust of my arguments in this thread and other linked threads suggests we are close to one mind on that one.

    The Irp vote is negligible and will not have any impact on the lower Falls election. No change likely there.

    Recent opinion pieces in the local press have highlighted once again how assessing ministerial performance is a bit of an ‘eye of the beholder’ exercise.

    Patrick Murphy is no friend of Sinn Fein, but in his Irish News column he recently highlighted Gildernew as the most outstanding ministerial performer, whereas Ruane has even been credited by Brian Feeney with at least challenging the status quo on an issue (selection) which had plagued educational governance for decades.

    You also underestimate the importance of McGuinness, whose central role in the Executive narrative over the past four years has been pivotal to both Sinn Fein and the stability of the adminstration as a whole, something not lost on the electorate, nationalist and otherwise.

    Big Boss
    I just can’t see the SDLP eating into Sinn Fein in Mid-Ulster. Both Clogher Valley and Dungannon Town may be difficult targets for extra SF seats, but they came pretty close in 2005, and nothing in the interim would lead me to believe the SDLP have further shored up support in what has become the heartland county for republicanism.

  • Chris Donnelly

    J Kelly
    A 3rd seat in Foyle, like the Westminister seat in Foyle and South Down, will only be within Sinn Fein’s grasp when the party learns the decisive lesson that it needs to present a candidate slate capable of appealing to nationalists beyond the core republican base.

    A similar problem can be found in north Belfast, where the party is trying to win three seats without any candidates capable of attracting that extra bit of support needed north of the Limestone Road/ Antrim Rd junction to make the breakthrough.

    It’s a problem rooted in northern republicans’ distrust of outsiders not steeped in the tradition, and one which will continue to frustrate the political and electoral ambitions of republicans until decisively addressed by a leadership actually interested in so doing.

  • J Kelly

    Chris i take your point but if you have a look at the sdlp slate it is very very weak in terms of experience and ability. The introduction of Paul Mc Fadden former BBC journalist with support from some noteable high profile nationalists Garvan ODoherty, Denis Bradley and Eamon Deane would tell me that they are not impresed by the SDLP slate. Alongside this sinn fein have the only woman in the field and the only East bank candidate. All this leaves the sixt seat a battle between two sdlp, mc cann and the third sinn fein candidate.

  • Chris Donnelly

    J Kelly
    There is a history of similar Independents being talked up because of vocal support from regional-level ‘worthies’. It’ll not matter- nationalists do not take to independents unless in exceptional circumstances – see Deeney in W Tyrone and the history of Moyle electoral politics.

    McFadden’s candidacy confirms that a certain demographic has lost its faith in the SDLP, but the fact that Sinn Fein has decisively failed to penetrate that same demographic is the reason there will be no change in Foyle.

  • J Kelly

    mc fadden has no chance and will be lucky to get 1000 votes and i understand your point but lets just agree to keep a wee eye on derry on the 6th of may.

  • Chris Donnelly

    Agreed j and though not convinced I hope you’re right

  • ItwasSammyMcNally


    If SF are to win 4 seats in Belfast – how many will be at the expense of the SDLP.

  • Scáth Shéamais

    Judging from Adams’ result last year, even with the boundary changes I think SF could lose an MLA in West Belfast, probably to the DUP. I reckon the main factor here will be the extent of unionist apathy in the constituency.

  • Chris Donnelly

    Balmoral could be at expense of Alliance or one of the Unionists, though I believe the SDLP are safe with their two seats here.

    I would have thought Pottinger would come at Alliance’s expense until ‘that’ Westminster result last year; now I’d say it’s 50:50 between the Alliance candidate and one of the unionists.

    Oldpark is a real outside chance, though again demographic changes in this constituency could deliver a 4th republican at unionism’s expense.

    Castle would come straight from the SDLP, though the Sinn Fein shortcomings with regard to finding and selecting quality local candidates is evident here and will likely ensure the SDLP retain their 2:1 advantage in this DEA.

    Scath Sheamais
    You’re right that the Sinn Fein 5th seat is vulnerable to a high unionist turnout in West Belfast.

    Again, republicans have out themselves under pressure by not selecting a stronger candidate slate capable of reinvigorating what is a tired local party in that part of the city, and that could backfire this time around, not least because the evidence of a strengthening sense of political apathy was borne out in the fact that West Belfast had the lowest turnout of all 18 constituencies in 2010.

    Having said that, I don’t really think the Dodds factor used so successfully to galvanise a Shankill turnout in 2003 is present for unionist at this time, and therefore my money would still be on a return of the status quo.

  • “The [SDLP] still remain the largest nationalist party on Down and Derry councils”

    It seems to me such a shame that the Nationalist minded electorate is prepared to endorse SF with its organised crime links when there’s a decent party like the SDLP to support. Interesting that you should mention Down and Derry. These seem to be districts where some Unionists vote tactically for the SDLP.

    I’ve noted your comments further up, Chris. You’ve done a fine job of transforming a sow’s ear into a silk purse :L You were very wise not to mention Conor Murphy :L Any news of barn-storming Máirtín Ó Muilleoir? He seems to have gone very quiet after his SF-linked exploits appeared on the threads of Slugger O’Toole.

  • ItwasSammyMcNally


    “It seems to me such a shame that the Nationalist minded electorate is prepared to endorse SF with its organised crime links ”

    The Plain People of Ireland (North and South) are aware from their history that you cannot run an insurgency and stay within the law and can accept that as long as those involved have set not set out to build up their personal wealth.

    Apart from Unionists (understandably) few people believe that SF are in the trosuering business – and their insistence on sharing their political wages arguably puts them higher up the moral food chain than quite a few other Irish parties e.g. FF, DUP, FG.

  • Sammy, the sharing of political wages is small beer compared to the income from organised crime; it looks to me like tokenism. Where is all the money going in a more peaceful era? Are the Plain People (still) too scared to ask?

    Is there such a thing as a moral food chain in politics – or in bureaucracy? When I listened to reports of corruption in Ireland I presumed that something similar would be happening here. I didn’t have too far to look. I have found many reasons for not voting yet when I listen to the likes of Anne Travers on the RTE Joe Duffy show I know it’s important to keep up the struggle.

  • ulsterscotnua

    I think SDLP has to lose votes and seats, if the electorate has any knowledge of how SDLP operate.
    They have close links with white collar crime and hibernate through non election times.
    SDLP never cared about the poor deprived people of any area.

  • FuturePhysicist

    Why do the dogs in the street seem to undermine the will of the people when it comes to Foyle?

    Is it too hard for Sinn Féin to accept that not only are they’re the second largest party there, but also their vote is in decline as well.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if Sinn Féin lost seats themselves to PbP and the IRSP.

    I mean if they were serious about winning Foyle, and thought the SDLP were vulnerable they’d put McGuinness there again.

  • Kadfoomsa

    Can any SDLP person tell him in one line why I should vote for them? What the point?

  • FuturePhysicist

    I don’t see where people get this Sinn Féin 3 seats in Foyle thing, even with mismanagement of the SDLP vote Sinn Féin would need 42% of the vote, They’re on around 32%. It’s just as likely SDLP take two in Newry & Armagh.

    Even when they had the city MP in 1918 they couldn’t get 42% of the vote.

  • Drumlins Rock

    The “Green” story should be the traditional one, with one party over taking another, then hitting a plateau before the positions reversing once again, as happens in most democracies. Most of the ingredients are in place, ie. party in power taking the blame for everything, the old hardcore members have a resurgence, complacency sets in. The one vital ingredient missing is a viable alternative, the SDLP still sounds good, but it looks old, and with a reluctance to bring in the new faces this time, and also to run the second candidate, they will find it much more difficult to make the return to fortunes the next time round.

  • Drumlins Rock

    PS. SF have 2 seats in Clogher Valley DEA, and are running 2 candidates, so obviously no chance of a gain, in fact winning by around 100 votes the last time the possibility of a loss is not impossible. In Dungannon Town it would be the return of a “defectors seat” most likely, although that is probably a 50/50 chance. Blackwater is possible but highly unlikely, and Torrent with losing their 2 big hitters and an independent Republican challenger, the 4 seats cant be taken for granted either.

  • Sam Maguire


    Mid Tyrone is also a target for SF in Omagh I’d imagine – they just missed out on the 5th seat in the area by about 100 votes the last time out for control of Omagh council and I’d expect it to be a more likely gain than one in Omagh Town.

    As for WT in the assembly, the potential is still there for the SDLP to make a balls of it given that the 2 independent candidates are ex SDLP and have a transfers arrangement between them. Byrne won’t get elected on the first count and will be behind all SF candidates if their vote management strategy is correct. After that it’ll be a sweat between the SDLP and the 4th SF candidate.

  • Drumlins Rock makes a good point about the number of candidates that SF is actually fielding. The numbers suggest that in places they themselves are not going after an “extra” seat.
    The room for expansion is limited.
    By the way, surely by this stage ALL councils should have published their runners and riders.

  • Actually if the info on the Armagh District Council website is correct, Sinn Féin have already lost a seat in “The Orchard” DEA. And unionists have probably won control of Armagh Council.
    SF had a councillor in the DEA but are not actually running a candidate……if the info is correct.

  • An Phoblacht Abu

    I would say that 4th west tyrone assembly seat is looking good for the provos’, the SDLP has shot itself in the foot and the loss of Eugene McMenamin who carries a huge personal vote in the strabane area.
    The SDLP in West Tyrone has effectively split with the decision to run Byrne instead of McMenamin, they could lose a few council seats in Strabane over it as well

  • Yes……but that would be the same Eugene McMenamin who was one of three SDLP candidates in 2007 who had a quota between them and got nobody elected. (Joe Byrne wasnt one of them).
    That would be the same Eugene McMenamin who stood in the 2005 Westminster Election and got less than 4,000 votes (losing 20% of the SDLPs vote share).
    Joe Byrne reversed that in 2010, adding 5% and getting over 5,200 votes.
    And that would be the same guy who got the lions share 75% of SDLPs votes in 2005……but they actually lost a seat in his DEA and lost 600 votes.

  • Comrade Stalin

    It seems to me such a shame that the Nationalist minded electorate is prepared to endorse SF with its organised crime links

    Trust you, Nevin, to deploy the UFF argument.

  • Zig70

    Nevin, I think you asked a very good question. Why is the SDLP where it is? Why do ordinary decent people vote for a party with such a terrible past. I can only give my opinions, don’t know if they are common views.
    In the wake of the GFA the SDLP were the majority voice of nationalists. If Trimble and his lot came out with something sectarian, self-serving, the SDLP said nothing. The condemnation came from SF. If the unionists formed a pact to keep a nationalist out the SDLP would hold to principle at the loss to nationalists showing that they weren’t cute enough for politics. They didn’t have to agree, just not get a candidate in on time. So if nationalists want politicians to fight for what they hold dear then would you vote SDLP? The other factor I saw was on council level. If you want something done, you went to a SF councillor first, if you had one. Though the dogs in the street (hate that phrase) tell me this isn’t really the case anymore and the zeal has been lost a bit. I’m at a loss for who to vote for, not really an SF voter, I think I’m socialist though my wife says I’m right of Gengis. Like the SDLP it’s easy to be a socialist when you can afford to be. The SDLP are just not cute enough to be in politics. I’ve never lost my dislike of teachers and too jealous of the huge salaries Doctors get. I’d be keen to be convinced but nobody darkens my door, you’d never know who would open the door to you in my street. I’m waiting for UU (most likely to knock doors here) so I can ask them were they stand on the Irish language in schools and watch them weigh me up.