The row over Mary McArdle shows no sign of abating yet and the one over Sean McGlinchey the new mayor of Limavady seems to be gearing up. There are of course a variety of other Sinn Fein members with significant terrorist pasts: the News Letter produced a list of these individuals last week. Various explanations have been proffered: rewards for “old soldiers” and reassuring the hard line republican base seem to be amongst the most convincing; winding up unionists is unlikely to be the main aim but is maybe a pleasing side effect.
There is significant anecdotal evidence about a fall in turn out in hard line republican areas of Fermanagh and Lee has suggested over on Ultonia that in North Belfast there was an increase in the spoilt vote total: his suggestion being that that was a predominantly republican phenomenon. These suggestions even if entirely accurate and replicated throughout Northern Ireland do not amount to a high level of defections from Sinn Fein to its “left.” Furthermore unlike the DUP, Sinn Fein have not faced any properly organised challenge from harder line members of its community the way the DUP have from the TUV.
Sinn Fein has massively expanded its vote over the last fifteen to twenty years. In this it has been helped by some nationalists voting for them to try to ensure the republican movement’s continued involvement in politics as opposed going back to large scale violence. They have been helped by the serial incompetence of the SDLP failing to present a coherent challenge as the best representatives for nationalists.
Sinn Fein’s ambition for further growth seems, however, to have become much more stunted over the last few years. Although the appointment of McArdle will do little harm amongst the hard liner republican base it is most unlikely to help gain votes from the middle class Catholics of the Malone Road. Equally McGlinchey’s appointment may resonate well in parts of Dungiven but is unlikely gain middle class Catholic votes from the Triangle. Even where Sinn Fein has promoted new talent such as Niall O’Donnghaile, although it may help, it is not entirely convincing. O’Donnghaile is a young new face but has little track record and it seems more an appointment about defending their gain in East Belfast than gaining a new voting demographic (though it will hardly hurt in that endeavour).
Although Sinn Fein has undoubtedly gained a significant amount of the middle class nationalist / republican vote they seem less willing to promote middle class soft republicans as political representatives. In contrast the DUP promote appropriate candidates for appropriate seats in an extremely well organised fashion. They are happy to use hard line conservative fundamentalists where that is necessary; mainstream middle class professionals; working class orangemen; soft, almost Alliance representatives elsewhere. Indeed the DUP very frequently use different profiles of candidate in the same constituency in order to maximise the common feeling voters will have for representatives and of course hence, maximise the vote both at whichever election they are fighting but also in the future.
Sinn Fein seem to lack the willingness or ability to do this. They almost seem to lack the relentless ambition the DUP have to capture every conceivable profile of voter from their own community. In addition despite their half hearted claims to want eventually to attract traditionally unionist voters they seem much further from such a goal than the DUP are from gaining traditionally nationalist votes. This lack of ambition is hardly a disaster at the moment but is surprising, makes further gains less likely and might imply that if Sinn Fein had major problems and the SDLP could ever get their act together some of the SF vote could be highly vulnerable.