Sinn Fein for the second time topped the poll in the European elections matching their success in the local elections; if you’re a nationalist you have probably popped the champagne corks and begun a rousing chorus of ‘happy days are here again.’ However, if you are of this view I sadly have to tell you to put that champagne back on ice and turn down the music.
Nationalism as whole had a very poor election this time around as it saw its share of the vote drop from 42.2% in 2009 to 38.5% at this election. Just to put this result in context, it was the worst combined performance of the Nationalist parties since the 1989 European elections (total Nat vote then was 34.6%) and it was a good distance away from its peak vote in 1999 of 45.4%.
The fact that for the first time in 20 years parties who have a declared position in favour of the constitutional position polled below 40% of the vote should be a bit worrying for those of us who aspire to Irish unity. I know there were some factors around Anna Lo’s candidacy this time which might have skewed the numbers, but it was generally regarded as one of the few elections where Unionism and not Nationalism got its vote out.
When I look back at 1999, it is not hard to see why the Nationalist vote surged to above 40% of the vote for the first time ever; you had the SDLP at the peak of its popularity after the Good Friday Agreement and Sinn Fein beginning their rise as a major force within Nationalism. These two strong parties gave Nationalists confidence to go to the polls and cast a ballot. Yet, when I think back to over the weekend and hearing Gerry Adams argue that the SDLP were not worth a transfer and basically calling them irrelevant, I was genuinely sad that Nationalism was so divided against itself that two parties who agree on many issues couldn’t work together at election time.
These results really deliver a clear message for Nationalist parties to up their game in terms of the policies they promote and how they engage with the electorate. Gains will quickly be for nothing and more and more seats will become vulnerable if something is not done to inspire more confidence amongst the electorate to head out to the polls.
I genuinely believe in politics that competition creates votes and engagement. If you have parties fighting it out for every last vote, it gives the average voter a sense that their vote counts. If you look at how Unionism has performed since Jim Allister entered the European elections there has been a consistent increase in Unionism’s share of the vote going from 48.6% of the vote in 2004 to 50.9% at this election. Far from shredding the vote, more choices for Unionism, has created more interest from the electorate.
In Nationalism at the moment we have none of this as Sinn Fein is so dominant that it doesn’t really need to be worried in many areas about its main opposition, SDLP. I have always believed that Nationalism does best when it is the ideology of ideas and debate, where challenging consensus and breaking out with new thinking is rewarded. For an ideology trying to form a winnable majority within the population; we cannot afford to indulge in sectional politics or minimalist arguments. I cannot see how any of this happens unless we get a shot in the arm with more competition amongst parties and a real sense of a contest.
All Nationalists should have a strong home to go to at election time. Having more choice and competition will help challenge ourselves to be better and bolder as we move forward. Let’s hope this election can serve as timely reminder to start this process of re-engagement.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs