I’m guessing you all know the drill by now. Over the past few weeks I have been doing an analysis of all the political parties’ electoral performances at an assembly level since 1998. This week I am focusing on Sinn Fein.
Next month will mark the tenth anniversary of the party becoming the largest force in Nationalist politics in the assembly. So this makes now an apt time to look at where Sinn Fein are growing and where they are still failing to make an impact.
In 1998, the party won a respectable 142,838 votes, delivering 18 seats. This was a strong result for a party who just a few years ago was written off by political commentators as extremists who would never be more than just a fringe party.
Following the collapse of the Trimble/Mallon Executive and the departure of John Hume as SDLP leader in 2001, the party surged forward to overtake the SDLP in 2003 picking up 20,000 votes, winning 24 seats.
The party has since then made small increases in its vote gaining around 15,000 votes between 2003 and 2011. This makes me ask the question are Sinn Fein gaining seats because they are reaching out? Or are they just better at getting out the vote that they currently have?
Let’s dive deeper into the figures.
In Belfast, Sinn Fein has since 1998 increased their number of seats from 5 to 8 across the city. Yet their total number of votes has only increased from 36,947 in 1998 to 38,641 in 2011. That is a net increase of just 1,694 votes in 15 years. It is important to bear in mind that the SDLP has lost 12,384 votes in the city during this same period.
A similar pattern exists in our second city of Derry. In 1998, Sinn Fein won 12,696 votes in the Foyle constituency picking up two seats. Despite the departure of two SDLP leaders who are well known names in this constituency the party still has failed to make any serious increase in its overall vote. Since 1998, the party has picked up just 500 votes. Just again to put this in context, the SDLP over the same period has lost 9,643 votes in this constituency.
There are some exceptions to this slow growth and they are both in rural constituencies of South Down and Fermanagh South Tyrone where the party has made some sizeable increases in their vote. If you take Fermanagh-South Tyrone first, the party has since 1998 picked up over 5,600 votes. There is a correlation between the drop in the SDLP vote (6,400) here and the rise of the Sinn Fein vote.
In South Down, the situation is not as good as Fermanagh but much stronger than Belfast or Derry as the party has managed to increase its vote by 5,116 votes. Granted, the SDLP vote has declined by 8,330 votes since 1998, but Sinn Fein have managed to actually become competitive in this once solid SDLP constituency.
But the overall trend across the province speaks for itself. Sinn Fein has only increased their total vote by 35,372. Meanwhile, the SDLP has lost 83,677 votes since 1998. Why is Sinn Fein picking up seats? They are skilfully maximising their votes with an ever decreasing turnout. They are not actually doing very much to broaden the base of their party and attract new voters in any meaningful way.
I don’t think they are in any serious electoral danger. They are well organised and properly funded to be a viable force for the foreseeable future. But it must be disheartening to think about places like Belfast and Derry and see such lacklustre growth. Sinn Fein needs to do a better job of reaching out to ‘Castle Catholic’s’ if they want to make further gains in Belfast and Derry at the SDLP’s expense.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs