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.

  • The Raven

    This is going to sound insincere, and is without academic foundation, but here goes anyway.

    Simply put, is it not just that there are significant swathes of the nationalist community for whom Sinn Fein will never, ever speak? That’s not having a knock at any party or individual or voter. It’s just “one of those things”.

    On the flip side, is it not evident, from the equally-significant number of people from the P/U/L community who do not vote any more, that the UUP is no longer a viable choice? And, similarly, that the DUP will never be able to capture their vote, simply by dint of their history, rhetoric, and the fact people here are of long memory? Some of us know that you can scratch their surface, and the tarnish comes to the top.

    As I’ve said before, I’m a fairly “green” unionist, if that makes sense. I am Protestant, and a unionist. But if we unify with the south, my life won’t end. The road signs, coinage, TV programmes might change. The economy will be a bit more shit. But life will go on.

    In that sense, I could never vote for a party from whom bile and vitriol at our R/N/C brethren dominated the political sphere for so long. I’m no saint – but I know now as I knew then the difference between political rights and wrongs. And the DUPes created so very many wrongs.

    Similarly, could it not be feasible that many on the other side of the coin could never countenance voting for a party that still counts Irish unity as its goal. Cos really, they just don’t want it, don’t care, and frankly, Gerry/Marty/others just didn’t and don’t appeal? I knew quite a few “staunch” SDLP voters in Derry who would have given the UUP a second preference before Sinn Fein. I only use that as an example.

    Just a thought – and as I said, no scientific fact behind it. Sorry for the length of post.

  • Aontachtach

    The Raven

    I totally concur. I know many Unionists who would give the SDLP their 2nd preference before the DUP. The SDLP have come a long way since Margaret Ritchie became leader. She is certainly more unionist friendly.

    Your thoughts on a UI are probably spot on. While not desiring a UI I would go as far to say that the parties and electorate in the South will bend over backwards to accomodate Unionists. This will be done over the heads of die hard republicans like SF. SF will never be able to presuade Unionists of the merits(if there are any) of a UI.

  • Tochais Síoraí

    I’d say the SF candidates are often weak in many areas east of the Bann because there mightn’t be a huge choice of prospective candiates for fear of a backlash or at least an awkwardness with many of the neighbours, work colleagues etc. Also if you’re a nationalist but prepared to live in a predominantly unionist area you might be less inclined towards SF anyway.

    Hi Raven, good post, but in all seriousness why would TV programmes change in a UI? Although come the day I’d be well up for giving the likes of that Give my head peace shower a good kick in the arse out the door.

  • Charminator

    Excellent thread which identifies the nub of SF’s problem going forward. I’m almost persuaded by The Raven’s view that there are some Nationalists SF will never be able to persuade to vote for them, but for the fact that I think they too realise this. I actually think they’re trying to begin the process of change, not because of the east of the Bann middle class Nationalists (awful generalisation I know), but primarily because they realise to make truly significant inroads down South, they need to address their middle class repellant too. It’ll be interesting to see how this pans out, but SF have reinvented themselves so many times in the past decade, that I don’t think dropping the Marxist looney luggage and coming on mainstream is beyond them.

  • allkindsofeverything

    I signed up to Slugger fully expecting that I’d be at odds with many of the posts, but surprise, surprise here I’m more or less in agreement with much of the above. My dominant political gene is Ulster Unionist but little by little that party’s chronic performance, latent infighting and lack-luster candidates have caused a mutation. However not, as you might expect, into a Dupper – far too many skeletons in that cupboard. Or into a nationalist per se – though I do have both British and Irish passports (on the pragmatic grounds that holders of the latter get a much better reception in most parts of the world, and the DFA beats the FCO hands down in the handling of distressed citizens abroad). Like a lot of my well set-up Prod friends I can’t see myself voting for Unity in any referendum (or for the SDLP or, especially, SF for that matter in any election) – but that doesn’t mean we have a visceral objection to a democratic end of Partition. Just let’s see how things develop. In the immediate future Alliance looks like my vote’s default destination, albeit with a tinge of regret that I’ve reached this point due to the ‘accidents’ of others rather than my own design. In the longer term, who knows?

  • Mr Crumlin

    Interesting piece.

    I can only talk personally. I should be a dyed in the wool SDLP voter. I am a church going, family man who left Belfast to raise my children. I have a well paid job, get my two weeks in the sun each year and don’t really have a problem with orange parades or the queens visit to the South. Here comes the BUT….I am under 40. I cant see a time when I would vote SDLP – they just don’t talk for me at all.

  • ayeYerMa

    The Raven, stop sugarcoating what you are trying to say.

    No reasonably-minded person should EVER EVER vote for people who were the driving force behind such a campaign of murder and destruction. Why should a party be rewarded now for supposedly being a party of “peace” for simply not carrying out actions that they should never have been carrying out in the first place?

    There is no political party that is as intentionally DIVISIVE or tribal as Sinn Fein. NO other party is as good at stirring-up as much hatred as Sinn Fein. If Nationalists seriously want their “united Ireland” then their best strategy would be to disband Sinn Fein entirely and start afresh with one that promotes peaceful integration and inclusivity from the start.

  • ayeYerMa

    … some of us are also honest enough to acknowledge that most of us are prone to a little bit of sectarian tribalism and occasionally like revelling in it. However, most of us now recognise how unhealthy that is for wider community relations and that political parties based on it are not in the future interests of anyone (I also include the likes of flag-waving Unionist parties in that statement).

    Sinn Fein’s recent success is merely due to nationalists being able to use the lame excuse that “a vote for Sinn Fein is a vote for peace” (again because they are now not doing something that they should never have been doing in the first place); hence allowing nationalists to convince themselves that they can indulge in their deepest and most dirty little forms of sectarian tribalism guilt-free.

  • ayeYerMa

    … damn Slugger, can you not include an “edit” function for posted comments!

    Above should read “However, MANY of us now recognise how unhealthy that is for wider community relations and that political parties based on it are not in the future interests of anyone”

  • The Raven

    Folks, thanks for not lambasting me for what was a very non-scientific, opinion-driven response to the original post. I think in general, responses reflect generalisations – which is not a criticism – it’s all we can really do on this piece.

    I do want to add a couple of things.

    I think that the sectarian headcount of elections here will lessen with time, and not because of population changes. I think people will eventually get fed up with the fiefdoms that parties like the DUP and Sinn Fein have become. I think we may, in an election or two, start to see the rise of the independent, and from that, a group of like-minded people who are hell-bent on a change from the tribes and the watery middle ground.

    And I think all great empires pass away. It is only a matter of time before Sinn Fein and the DUP’s imperial new clothes slip, and, frankly, people will just tire of them.

    ayeYerMa – you actually just repeated what I said if you read what I wrote again. I just wrote it more moderately, because I saw through their clothes a long time ago. But the DUPes were equally naked in the same terms.

    And leading on from that, my one point of interest in this election is this: I have a feeling that while little may change this time round, the turnout is going to be very, very low. I don’t do numbers and forecasts as with the other threads on this election – but I really get the feeling that all the parties are going to suffer this time round. And that, to me, is where the peace process has failed: it has only delivered mediocrity.

    I’m desperately off-topic now. Apologies again.

  • Sam Maguire

    I reckon that Tochais Síoraí isn’t too far away in that calibre of SF candidates coupled with the stigma of voting for SF and not wishing to antagonise your neigbours in predominantly unionist areas both still play a large part East of the Bann. For example, if SF votes were discovered in a box in Kilroot, the tongues would soon be wagging speculating who the culprits are.

    The stigma hasn’t been an issue West of the Bann post 1998 and, despite what YerMa says, the work SF reps and activists do on the ground illustrates to anyone that comes into contact with them that most shinners don’t have two heads and tend to be reasonable, and indeed affable people.

  • Zig70

    Big Ian could raise the vitriol on the other side and many Nationalists would see the old DUP as more sinister than SF because they called people to action and then hid behind the bible when blame was handed out. IMO, Nationalist vote SF, even though they are very uncomfortable with who they are, because they believe that UUP/DUP unchecked in power would ride rough shod over their culture. I’m guessing the same goes on the unionist side, each side getting out their biggest sticks. Kind of like a cold war, where the nukes get the top jobs. Also, I believe it is only going to get worse as the numbers converge. Final point, you often hear unionists talk about the south as if it is a poor place compared to the North. From what I see, the southerners have bigger salaries and pay similar outgoings. Lots of people are hurting especially in construction but that is true on both sides of the island. The economic argument is a weak one against a UI, but one that unionists seem to wear to hide their bias. Lots of people would never admit to voting SF but in Unionist areas they are more likely to vote SDLP to get a nationalist in. In East Antrim the thinking is that voting SF might keep a nationalist seat out, but secretly they would love a SF councillor/MLA in to make unionists think twice.

  • It’s true that SF has the most Belfast-centric vote of any party – in the last Council elections, almost 19% of SF’s total NI-wide vote came from the capital, with the other large parties being rather less dependent on the city – SDLP 14%, DUP 12%, UUP 11%. (Smaller parties a different story – WP 66%, Socialists 41%, Conservatives 21%, Alliance 19%, Greens 14%.)

    This has an inevitable distorting effect on SF’s votes because it takes at least twice as many votes to elect a councillor in Belfast as it does anywhere else. In addition, SF’s stronger areas have relatively high turnout, and are under-represented because of population growth since the last boundary revision, so the dice are somewhat loaded.

    But I don’t think this is a long-term weakness for SF, because they have actually improved their performance outside Belfast so much in the last ten years. In the 2001 local elections, 21% of their vote came from Belfast; in 1997 it was 27%; in 1993 it was almost 32%. In other words, while the effect identified here is real, it is a lot weaker than it was ten years ago, let alone twenty. Until I see the SDLP (or anyone else) starting to claw votes back from SF, I shall be wary of predicting that they have peaked.

  • Nordie Northsider

    I wonder if SF aren’t happy to let the SDLP be bottom-feeders in more hostile waters? It’s all about greening that map, and if there are a few pale greens in there maybe it’s something the leadership can live with.

  • Kadfoomsa

    Pretty good assesment.

    I have often heard people in mixed areas tell me that they vote SDLP to keep the neighbours happy, or at least not angry.

    One thing however that I have never understood however is the failure of Sinn Féin to tackle SDLP propaganda in the the SDLP strongholds.

    In South Down for example, what the nationalist believes about Sinn Féin for example is informed not much by reality but by 30 years of RTÉ/SDLP etc propaganda.

    Simply put, people thing the provos are behind house breaking, drug dealing, property baronism (ironic when one thinks how the SDLP is funded, Holylands, cough cough), absolutely everything under the sun.

    In addition, I was always told in school, in field and on street that Sinn Féin were anti-United Ireland, anti-Irish culture etc etc.

    That is the dominant line – without breaking through it Sinn Féin will not take South Down.

  • Sinn Fein’s failure to achieve dominance amongst middle class catholics

    You have identified a certain group of SDLP supporters from a Nationalist perspective. It is interesting that this same group of people has been much talked about by Northern Ireland Conservatives who view these people as key to unlocking the communal divide in Northern Ireland politicis.

    Raven is correct to point out that there is a group for which Sinn Fein will never speak. If Sinn Fein supporters are perplexed by this, it is probably because they have not grasped that the SDLP represent a very different strand of nationalism. It is not just political. It is cultural.

    The “hard core” of SDLP supporters are not all middle class catholics (even though there is a very considerable overlap). This group of Catholic Nationalists have no time for “hero-worshiping” of past members of the IRA. violence.

    In terms of policy, the SDLP does not represent the interests of most of their supporters who continue to favour academic selection. Fortunately, for the SDLP, no significant non-unionist party has adopted this policy.

    This group of people are mostly against unification with the Republic of Ireland. I have not seen the results of any scholarly research which gives a clear indication as to why this is the case. I can only go by my own observations. They do not identify with people from the Republic of Ireland. In fact, they look at them as more foreign than their Protestant neighbours.

    I have talked to the young (grammar school educated) friends of my own children about this subject. They see no distinction between the PIRA campaing and the current dissident one. They want nothing to do with a united Ireland. At the same time, they are are also telling me that they dont know what to call themselves (Northern Irish, Irish or what?). This is an identity crisis building here.

    In the future, I believe Unionists will take a much bigger interest in this group of people as the demographics eventually lead to a Catholic majority. If I was to put money on it, I think that in future elections, the SDLP will be losing significant numbers of their voters not Sinn Fein but to the Alliance Party.

  • Mr Crumlin

    “I think that in future elections, the SDLP will be losing significant numbers of their voters not Sinn Fein but to the Alliance Party.” post by Seymour Major


    I think you will find that unionist catholics already vote APNI – the growth for APNI will come from liberal unionism (UUP) – I suspect this be seen more in this election. The APNI is (nearly) a full fledged unionist party – the defections of flash harry etc a prime example.

    All of my nieces and nephews are either at university or have just left. All (although they dont like to think so) are from middle class backgrounds – they all vote and they all vote SF.

    I dont believe a Catholic majority will automatically mean a united Ireland – but it will be the final nail of a unionist Northern Ireland.

    I have argued that Irish unification will not be the one as envisaged by Tone, Pearse or even Sands. Irish unification is as much about ridding our island of London’s influence as it is about having the tricolour fly over the city hall. Btw – the demogaphics of Belfast will, at some point, yield another symbolic gesture of removing the union flag in the years to come – small steps, one at a time.

    I believe the next steps are tax raising powers and an all island police service (well at least an an all island branch of the police service) to tackle organised crime, dissident activity, people trafficking, drug smuggling etc.

    I would much rather have Peter Robinson making decisions about my family’s future than I would Owen Paterson.

    My view is that Republicans and Nationalists gave unionism the only thing they had to offer when they accepted the prinicple of consent. It was a large sacrifice to make but one with the long game in mind. It gave unionism the confidence, and space, to come into the room and work with republicans – the first step to breaking the link with London.