Sinn Fein-rumours of the party’s rise greatly exaggerated?

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.



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  • megatron

    I think there is a general flaw in the political parties should be obsessed with growth and growth equals success.

    A political party should be a group of like minded people trying to get their point of view across and their policies implemented. Growth is helpful in this regard and should be an effect of our strategy but the problem starts when you change the goalposts to growth being the objective.

    Then you turn into FF.

    That said, I don’t think SF have been as successful as they should have been and if i was in charge i would have down some things differently in PR terms at least.

  • megatron

    Apologies for Ipad English

  • toaster

    Sinn Fein has risen because they make a united ireland their top prority. They also have the best quality public representatives, which in contrast the the lazy, bone idle SDLP, means that they win the day with the nationalist electorate.

  • aquifer

    So the garden centres are a model of good community relations, with garden centre prods and catholics together excusing themselves from impolite sectarian argie-bargie?

    Or do the SDLP need to remind the young of the lost years?

  • boondock

    When the overall voter turmout is plummeting I dont think it makes much sense to look at actual numbers of votes surely it is better to look at vote share. Im pretty sure SF are losing just as many votes to apathy than any other party as the Stormont farce continues

  • Charles_Gould

    The leader is the wrong side of 65 and dogged by scandals of campaigning with his brother after he know about his child rape, as well as issues pertaining to his role in various murders such as that of Jean McConville and other disappeared. He denies having been in the IRA despite having been widely regarded as part of his leadership. All of this suggests a problem of moral integrity. Compare and contrast Conal McDevitt. Suspect party will seek leadership change, which could transform the party’s image. Very likely to be Mary Lou McDonald.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Ooo, Charles. You’ve got a nasty streak. I like it.

  • Mick Fealty

    Has Mary Lou got you on her books Charles? As far as I know she’s yet to tip her hat. 😉

    It’s a bit previous to speculate on how the scandal works out, but my own feeling is that they should have done what the DUP has tried to do and press into the middle class vote.

    Their loss of momentum (and disengagement from practical politics) in Northern Ireland may in part be because the leadership is engaged in a repeat strategy of building a base amongst the alienated and marginalised in the Republic, as a means of getting a foot in the door of government.

    However, if I were them I’d be worried about their failure to carry majorities in the Seanad referendum in disaffected counties like Donegal NE and SW where the Yes side have four out of six seats, with one independent.

    In short they have wasted far too much time signalling ‘anger’ rather than ‘change’.

    Micheal Martin did not miss the door and hit the wall when he remarked to his party on Saturday night, “in the Dáil they are following the Gilmore strategy of pretending to be angry about everything and offering solutions to nothing.”

    Those who think Adams will be the next Tanaiste ought to remember those Gilmore for Taoiseach mugs that disappeared so quickly. The southern electorate is as volatile, as the northern one is docile.

    SF must hope that the Adams scandal does not rouse those nationalist voters from their long slumber, or they could be in serious trouble on both sides of the border.

  • “A similar pattern exists in our second city of Derry.”

    As someone else has said, percentages are more informative. In the past three assembly elections the SDLP obtained 36.1%, 37.0% and 35.3% whereas SF got 32.4%, 30.8% and 34.0%. The next Assembly election could see the parties level. What are the chances of Martin McGuinness throwing his hat into the Foyle ring as he squares up to Peter Robinson for the First Minister baubles?

  • megatron

    Despite Martin’s (good) soundbyte SFs biggest strength is still the total unacceptability of FF/FG/Lab and SDLP to a large number of potential SFs voters.

    In the long term this is a weakness as it it stifling the party (if the economic crash had not happened would Gerry still be leader?)

    Final point – by number of voters, SF is almost certainly the biggest party on the island. Not a bad result for a bunch of (insert your preferred description here).

  • Brian Walker

    David, The “total number of votes “ has to be related to turnout. There are swings to Sinn Fein and slightly rising shares. This is a consistently improving performance by Sinn Fein relative to other parties and not a decline. Much of the talk of a decline is wishful thinking. What is also interesting to me are:

    1. Falling turnout. In the 2005 general election turnout was 62.9%, the highest of any UK region, but it fell to 57.6% in 2010 and 54.7% in 2011.

    2. Communal rivals the SDLP haven’t collapsed – although we wait to see how all will cope in the forthcoming very expensive series of elections. It’ll be interesting to see the impact of further UUP fragmentation on unionism and the Alliance party.

    3.Apart from feeding off their rivals, have the main parties peaked? Even so, this strengthens them, as their shares have remained stable or rising..

  • David McCann


    Yes but it’s a bigger share of a substanially smaller pie. It can hardly be a sign of electoral strength that the bulk of your gains are coming from people not bothering to vote rather than winning over support from your competition.

    This notion that that picking up just 500 votes in fertile territory while your competition is in freefall is a mark of success is just nonsense.

    In rural areas where the party are making real inroads into the SDLP vote that is what is delievering the party sustained and real electoral success.

  • Gingray

    My god, this must be the worst analysis I have witnessed on Slugger, as have failed to recognise the changing mood of voters across Northern Ireland which has seen increased apathy with all the political parties. Just to put all the numbers into context. In 1998 823,565 people voted out of 1,178,556, a turnout rate of 69.9%. In 2011 this was 661,736 from 1,210,009, resulting in a rate of 55.6%. That means 161,829 people stopped voting between those dates, even though 31,453 new voters joined the register.

    So for Sinn Féin to increase their voting numbers from 142,858 to 178,224 (an increase of 19.8%) WHILE the number of people voting dropped from 823,565 to 651,736 (a decrease of 20.8%) is actually a good thing for the party, and something they should be very happy.

    Sinn Féin have lots of work to do, don’t get me wrong. But you have yet again missed the point. The vast majority of non voters from a nationalist/republican side are not as you put it Castle Catholics. There are far more disinterested republicans (look at the drop off rates in West Belfast) and people who genuinely don’t give a hoot about NI politics (over 30% did not vote in 1998, rising to 45% now).

    Perhaps instead of leading/collaborating in dysfunctional politics up at Stormont, if Sinn Féin had a positive and progressive approach, or a more open party they could attract more voters, but these are issues all the major parties face, and its a point your analysis completely ignores.

  • Gingray

    In regards the Seanad referendum results, are you sure you are not reading too much into the outcome? Looking at the turnout – 40% across the country, 30% in Donegal, with it being close to 50-50 in most areas, is that not a sign that a majority of voters just dont care, rather than SF failing to catch the mood of the people?

    Regardless, I expect SF to get around 15% of the vote in the next election, but there to be no clear coalition options other than FF/FG. Very volatile indeed

  • mjh


    Your analysis raises interesting questions for SF. Yes, they have had terrific growth, but this slowed greatly at the last election.

    So is there a ceiling for SF? If so, what is it? And have they reached it?

    If not, can they get there with the same strategy and tactics, or do they need to make changes? And if so, what?

    Your highlighting of FST and SDown as two constituencies where SF continue to show strong growth points the way towards some of the answers. In order to advance they will have to so with on targeted constituency by constituency basis. And the SDLP heartlands will be their prime objective.

    No doubt they will target SDown, as you identified. In Foyle your concentration on comparing the numbers of votes now with those in 1998 somewhat obscures the fact that they are now breathing down the SDLP’s necks, coming within 500 votes of overtaking them. If they break the SDLP lead in either constituency they will be in a better position to challange the sitting MP’s.

    They appear to be grooming Martin O’Muilleoir to spearhead the challange to the SDLP in SBelfast. If the SDLP drop a seat to Alliance in 2016 the way would be open for SF to challange McDonnell for Westminster in 2020, if he ran again. Not that they would be likely to win, but they could cause the SDLP to lose.

    With the SDLP out of the way as a serious competitor they would hope to pick up more of that party’s marginal support.

    Achieving this would be assisted if they were able to tackle the problem of transfer aversion. A change of leadership is more of an opportunity for SF than for most of the other parties. Any other steps they took to achieve this could only help them in the South.

    I think you are wrong to hold SF responsible for the general decline in voting. You appear to be making the assumption that the missing voters are disproportionately SDLP, and that SF’s achievement can be minimised accordingly. But we do not know how the non-voters would have voted had they turned out. I know of no evidence to suggest that the non-voters are substantially more “moderate” than the voters. I’d be very interested if you know of any.

    Finally SF have a number of things going for them:

    1) Momentum
    2) A strong sense of what they exist to achieve
    3) A successful communication to their voters of how they intend to achieve it
    4) A disproportionately large support amongst young people, as shown in the last Life and Time Survey. (Although this age group is less inclined to vote, their main competitors have a disproportionately old age support.)

  • Gopher

    The problem with the figures is interest is somewhat geographically skewed. Whilst one admires certain constituencies enthusiasm for elections 70% turnout does not overturn 2.3 quotas, it might look good, it might even fool experts but it don’t fool North Down.

  • cynic2

    “Sinn Fein has risen because they make a united ireland their top prority.”

    Are you on Ecstasy?

  • Morpheus

    mjh: “A successful communication to their voters of how they intend to achieve it”

    Could not disagree more and I think it is this lack of successful communication which has seen so many switch off since the GFA was signed. All I have seen is a mock border poll in a highly partisan area which received the derision from the media that it deserved – what else has there been?

  • mjh

    Hi Morpheus

    Sorry only just seen your comment since I’ve been travelling.

    Can’t see how you make out that so many have swiitched off SF since the GFA. Just after the GFA, SF took 17.6% of the vote and 18 seats. Today they are the leading nationalist party with 26.9% and 29 seats.

    Unless you are making massive assumptions about the political views of those people who no longer vote in Assembly Elections (for whatever party). In which case what is the evidence to show why they are not voting?

    I don’t disagree with your dismissal of the mock-border poll, as a PR damp squib. However that is a detail. In the broader picture SF transmit two key core messages to their voters (although they would not always word them in this way):
    1) We are the most effective at protecting the CNR community and it’s interests
    2) We don’t just pay lip service to wanting a United Ireland – we really mean it – and what’s more we are working North and South to achieve it.

    Winning seats and influence North and potentially South; running a northern politician as their Southern presidential candidate send strong, clear signals to their supporters that there is a route that can lead to their objective.

    Whether this route will be successful in achieving a united Ireland is a different question. Personally I do not think so – although it has the benefit of being an approach that has the potential to create future options.

    But as a communication to those who aspire to a united Ireland it is concrete and unmissable. The message transmitted by actually having TD’s in the Dail is far, far more concrete than any words printed in a leaflet or a press release.

  • Coll Ciotach

    Reach out to castle catholics – I stopped voting for SF for that reason – they are not green enough

  • Coll Ciotach

    oops – should have said for that reason amongst others

  • Reader

    Coll Ciotach: Reach out to castle catholics – I stopped voting for SF for that reason – they are not green enough
    That decision would only make sense if it helped a greener option to get a seat. Or if you have abandoned electoral politics altogether.

  • Morpheus


    Thanks for the reply.

    In the 1998 elections the pro-UI parties got 320,821 votes. Zoom forward to 2010 and that total was 272,510. That’s 48k fewer votes for pro-UI parties and it is my contention that they switched off because the 2 parties who have a UI very high on their list of priorities have done next to bugger all about it.

    I agree that SF are making progress on both sides of the border and are in with a good shout of being the biggest party in NI – bringing with it the First Minister position – and have the potential to be part of a coalition government south of the border but I don’t see how that will benefit Mr and Mrs Joe Public who want a UI without an effective strategy – something which I think they are sadly lacking.

    I think SF 3.0, lead by the likes of McDonald and Doherty, will bring a new dynamic to the whole debate – young, talented politicians without the baggage which holds back many of SF 2.0.

    The potential is there. Even in this economic climate and without political nationalism lifting a finger to convince anyone of anything 26% said they were for unification within a generation with a further 30% undecided and open to persuasion. I think we should inform the electorate about the pros and cons of a UI and then let an informed electorate decide if they fall into the ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ camp. We need to know about the economics of it all, what the education system will be like, what the health system would be like, political representation, judiciary, policing – we need to know these things so we can all make an informed decision. There is too much myth, mystery and misinformation on the whole topic

  • Morpheus

    Apologies, MJH, typo.

  • Charles_Gould

    “We need to know about the economics of it all, what the education system will be like, what the health system would be like, political representation, judiciary, policing – we need to know these things so we can all make an informed decision. ”

    Who is going to decide that? Surely that is to be determined by whatever government is in power? It can’t be decided in advance.

  • Morpheus

    Not the economic policy – the actually economics of whether a UI is even possible. No one knows if it is even feasible at the minute.

  • Neil

    PWC would be capable I suspect.

  • Lionel Hutz

    “I think SF 3.0, lead by the likes of McDonald and Doherty, will bring a new dynamic to the whole debate – young, talented politicians without the baggage which holds back many of SF 2.0.”

    There is a problem with this argument. There is no “likes of”. There are just those two with maybe John o’dowd. Sinn Fein have not protected the next generation enough and that’s before the inevitable blood letting when the founder generation retire.