Northern Nationalism’s East-West Divide

Gareth Gordon (over at the BBC) has produced a report looking into the nationalist battle ahead of election day on May 5th. Whilst his focus is primarily on the Assembly battle for seats and votes, it is at local council and DEA level that nationalist voting patterns can be most clearly discerned.

Sinn Fein’s dominance within nationalism at Assembly and Westminster level for the past decade has masked the party’s failure to effectively penetrate two critical demographic groups which has stalled the development of the party both electorally and politically: middle-class nationalists and nationalists residing in majority unionist areas. This has meant that, in spite of its electoral dominance within nationalism almost matching that of the DUP’s within unionism, Sinn Fein holds a pretty narrow lead over the SDLP at Westminster level (5-3) as compared to the DUP’s complete dominance over the Ulster Unionists in this regard.

But the problem is more evident at a local government level.

Whilst Sinn Fein has more councillors than the smaller nationalist party, it is in fact the SDLP that has elected representatives on the greater number of both councils and District Electoral Areas. In the last local government election in 2005, Sinn Fein’s 126 councillors were elected from just 60 of the 101 DEAs on 20 of the 26 councils, whilst the SDLP’s 101 councillors were elected from 75 DEAs across 24 councils.  

The divide is most striking when analysed in an east/ west context.

The twelve council areas that stretch northwards from Down and Banbridge to Ballymena elected 36 SDLP councillors to 27 DEAs in 2005; Sinn Fein returned just 29 councillors from 14 DEAs. Crucially, more than half of that Sinn Fein tally (16) was elected to the four urban constituencies in north and west Belfast.

Why is this important?

Well, it tells a story about the continuing problems being experienced by Sinn Fein as it seeks to effect organisational changes capable of widening the appeal of the party to these target groups.

Of course, the election will provide an opportunity to assess how successful Sinn Fein has been in the interim period to address these problems- and I’ve already posted a thread highlighting the DEAs worth watching in that regard, but the party’s candidate slate across many of what should have been target DEAs is weak, providing further evidence of an inability to make that critical breakthrough.

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