Election ’15: The Nationalist Contest in NI

With just over a week to polling day, I’ve decided to take a closer look at the contest between the two main nationalist parties in the north of Ireland, Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

Sinn Fein’s dominance over the SDLP was established in the 2001 Westminster election, when Pat Doherty and Michelle Gildernew secured two noteworthy electoral triumphs, ensuring that Sinn Fein would outpoll the SDLP for the first time ever and also leapfrog the party of Hume and Mallon in terms of the number of Westminster seats held by the respective parties.

Since then, it has been a story of Sinn Fein consolidation, whilst the SDLP have withered on the vine, struggling to maintain relevance in the broader political discussion and returning ever diminishing electoral returns at the polls- save for the outlier performance of their party leader, Alasdair McDonnell, who defied expectations and seized the South Belfast Westminster seat in 2005, holding it comfortably five years later.

I have little sense that the general story will change this month. Indeed, my prediction is that Sinn Fein will reduce the SDLP to the point of having just one ‘safe’ seat after this election. I believe Foyle will be one of the stories of the election, with the Sinn Fein candidate running Mark Durkan an uncomfortably close second to set up a decisive battle the next time out.

Similarly, I envisage Chris Hazzard making inroads into Margaret Ritchie’s lead in South Down, enough to make the seat that has been very comfortably SDLP a closer run affair in the next Westminster outing- though not as competitive as Foyle, and still safely in SDLP hands….for another while.

But I do envisage the SDLP holding its three seats this time around, with Alasdair McDonnell in particular benefitting from a sense amongst nationalists that voting in significant numbers for Mairtin O’Muilleoir will allow the DUP’s Jonathan Bell to slip between the two and take the seat for unionism.

One of the features worth watching is the overall percentage share for the combined nationalist parties.

The halcyon era of intra-nationalist competition was the period from the mid-90s through to 2007. During this period, the combined nationalist vote peaked at 42.7% in Westminster elections (2001), having first crossed the 40% threshold in the 1997 Westminster election, and that remains the highest combined tally reached by the two nationalist parties in our local electoral contests- save for the 45.4% combined SDLP-SF high figure reached in the 1999 European election, the last in which the SDLP would win out at that level.

History of SF-SDLP Performance in Westminster Elections 1992-2010

Westminster ElectionsSinn Fein (seats)SDLP    (seats)Combined Nat. % Vote
201025.5% (5)16.5% (3)42.0%
200524.3% (5)17.5% (3)41.8%
200121.7% (4)21.0% (3)42.7%
199716.1% (2)24.1% (3)40.2%
199210.0% (0)23.5% (4)33.5%
198711.4% (1)21.1% (3)32.5%
198313.4% (1)17.9% (1)31.3%

The performances of Eamon McCann (SEA) in Foyle and Kieran Deeny (Independent) in West Tyrone, claiming 1.9% of the overall vote between them, broke the trend of nationalism increasing its share of the vote at each Wesminster election in 2005, whilst the 2010 performance confirmed that support for nationalist parties was stabilizing around the 42% figure.

I have set out what I believe are the ideal outcomes for both parties respectively, and for nationalism in general from this election.

Nationalism’s Ideal Outcome

  • 8 seats remaining in the hands of Sinn Fein and the SDLP: Forget the hype. North Belfast will not be lost to Dodds this time, and Upper Bann remains too much a reach. Holding Fermanagh South Tyrone and South Belfast are the nationalist imperatives.
  • The combined nationalist percentage of the overall vote hitting or exceeding 43% for the first time ever at a Westminster election- or any statewide multi-constituency election: The trajectory of incremental gains for broader nationalism marked the first two decades of electoral competition between Sinn Fein and the SDLP, as nationalists who had never voted- and republicans who had been hostile to the ballot box route- adapted to the new path with increasing fervour. Nationalist support has levelled off in the most recent phase of contest, with Sinn Fein’s seemingly unassailable lead coupled with the SDLP’s decline being marked by lower turnouts in nationalist areas, impacting on the overall nationalist share of the vote. Making 43% would indicate that nationalism was advancing yet again.
  • The two constituencies of North Belfast and Upper Bann creeping further along the marginal status bar: This would require North Belfast to return a combined nationalist percent of the vote exceeding 47% for the first time and Upper Bann shifting closer to 40%, exceeding 38% for the first time ever. Sinn Fein will be the beneficiaries in both instances, with Gerry Kelly able to sell the next battle as the head to head which can finally be won, whilst the anticipated strong performance by Catherine Seeley is likely to position her to join John O’Dowd in the Assembly soon at the expense of Dolores Kelly.
  • Large nationalist turnouts in heartland constituencies such as Newry and Armagh, South Down and Foyle would be an indication that both nationalist parties were benefitting from more intelligent candidate selection than was evident in the past: Like all of our political parties, Sinn Fein and the SDLP remain in transition between parties with representatives cut from the peace process era cloth, as opposed to those perhaps more suited to an era where responsibility for areas of governance requires a different range of skills and experiences. There is a sense in this election that Sinn Fein have repositioned a number of their representatives to better equip the party in the longer term- hence Mairtin O’Muilleoir (South Belfast), Catherine Seeley (Upper Bann), Chris Hazzard (South Down) and Gearoid O’hEara (Foyle). The SDLP are pinning their hopes on Justin McNulty galvanizing support for the party in Newry and Armagh. Time will tell, of course, but I have a sense that all of these moves will benefit the respective parties.



Success Criteria for Sinn Fein

  • Hold all 5 Westminster seats: Translated, this time, as simply holding Fermanagh South Tyrone.
  • Secure the largest number of votes- as was the case in the 2010 Westminster election: Sinn Fein might not have the greatest number of seats for Westminster nor in the Assembly, but being able to say that the party is the most popular in the state remains a significant statement.
  • Increase the party’s % of the overall vote: See the next point.
  • Increase nationalism’s % of the overall vote: Sinn Fein are clearly seen as the driving force behind any Irish unity campaign. Therefore being seen to be leading an advancing nationalism is very important, as opposed to being the party whose electoral advance coincided with- and was even a contributing factor to- a declining overall nationalist vote in Northern Ireland.
  • Reducing the safe SDLP to the position of having no safe seats: This means running the SDLP very close in Foyle, halving the deficit in South Down and firmly establishing Mairtin O’Muilleoir as the nationalist heir apparent in South Belfast.
  • Consolidate the party’s position as the leading nationalist voice in North Belfast and Upper Bann: These two constituencies are the next two in line to ‘fall’ to nationalist parties, as I’ve outlined above.

A ‘Wildly Successful’ election for Sinn Fein would involve….

  • Capturing Foyle from the SDLP.
  • Halving the deficit in South Down to bring the party’s new hope for the constituency, Chris Hazzard, to within less than 10% of Margaret Ritchie (who held a 48%-28% advantage in 2010 over Catriona Ruane.)
  • Retaining its dominant share of the vote in Newry and Armagh in the face of a concerted effort by the SDLP to regain relevance there.



Success Criteria for the SDLP

  • Hold all 3 Westminster seats: The party is under attack in South Belfast from a pincer advance of DUP and Sinn Fein. In Foyle, the SDLP seem nervous about Durkan. Getting across the line this time with all three seats intact will be the primary objective.
  • Record a significant advance in Newry and Armagh to breathe life into the narrative of a resurgent SDLP in that constituency and beyond: The SDLP need a win. The narrative for almost two decades has been one of a party on the slide, now reduced to a threadbare core of representatives and voters. They need a win in the form of a significant electoral advance- if not actual victory- to begin breathing new life into the party.
  • Claw back some ground in the Sinn Fein heartland constituencies of West Belfast, West Tyrone, Mid Ulster and North Belfast: The Belfast seats are dominated by Sinn Fein, and to make matters worse the People Before Profit candidate has proven more capable of attracting disillusioned former Sinn Fein voters than the SDLP in West Belfast. Across these constituencies, the SDLP, more in hope than expectation, will be looking for signs of renewed life.
  • Demonstrate an ability to position the party electorally to make gains at the next Assembly elections: If the SDLP is to re-establish itself as a more influential force in local politics, then it will need to do so at Assembly level. The party will be eager to ensure that candidates in the key minority nationalist constituencies of North Antrim, South Antrim and Strangford in particular return with votes giving an indication that these target Assembly seats are in play for the SDLP.

A ‘Wildly Successful’ election for the SDLP would involve….

  • Making significant inroads into the Sinn Fein majority in Newry & Armagh to bring it to the point where tactical unionist voting could be a live and determining factor in the next Westminster election.
  • Secure 20%+ in key constituencies of West Belfast, West Tyrone and Mid-Ulster.
  • Dolores Kelly securing in excess of the 13% figure for the party she last hit in 2005, which would likely see her hold off Sinn Fein in the latter’s pursuit of her Assembly seat.
  • Gingray

    Zeno – its nice that your prediction was within 1%, but that is not relevant to the discussion. You asked us to believe your view that counting all non voters as pro union based on polling and census figures – this is ignoring your own proposal.

    I am just pointing out that in advance of any referendum in Northern Ireland being called, you cannot assume that all non voters are pro union, just like 2-3 years before a referendum in Scotland you could not assume likewise.

    You should try your hand at http://www.electiongame.co.uk/, it will give you a better feel for how democracy works

  • Gingray

    Zeno, I am sure you do, you seem like just the person Nationalists would want to get into a conversation with about identity – someone who automatically assumes all non voters are pro union.

  • Carl Mark

    Where did I say I wasn’t going to vote,and your not my doppelganger my doppelganger would have read the post he was replying to.

  • Zeno

    “You asked us to believe your view that counting all non voters as pro union based on polling and census figures – this is ignoring your own proposal.”

    No I didn’t. My figures are based on all of the available data. Elections, Polls Surveys and the Census. Any other prediction not using data is based on wishful thinking.

  • Carl Mark

    And could you point out were he was nasty (hint:having different politics from you does not count) I am beginning to think everybody else is right you make it up as you go along!

  • Carl Mark

    So giving a opinion about art is genocidely nasty, ROFLMAO ! You might want to get a dictionary and look up genocide.
    But first prize for ridiculous mopery.

  • Zeno

    “You have surmised that non voting is a sign of being pro union.”

    No I haven’t. I have no reason to do that. I have included everyone who votes nationalist, says they are nationalist in the polls and surveys, says they are Irish in the census, as potential Yes Voters in a UI referendum just to get an idea of the maximum National vote. Clearly and even you will have to agree that all of those people do not want a UI. But even taking every single one as a Yes vote only come to 25%/ 26% of the electorate.
    Anyone who is telling you a UI referendum can be won with those numbers is talking nonsense. You would need all of those to vote Yes and then around 200,000 more.

  • Stephen

    Think its about time we move away from what the IRA done 30/40 years ago. The ceasefires have been in place for 2 decades SF are a pro peace party. What will detractors do when there is a SF leadership in place with no IRA connections? Quite telling that unionists never throw Billy Hutchinson’s past in his face. Quite frankly regurgitating the past is a tired old tactic in 2015.

  • Carl Mark

    Well I’m still waiting for you examples of MO,M being nasty.you seem to confuse his politics being different to yours as being nasty.so far apart from some traditional mopery,you have made no effort to show any nastiness.

  • Zeno

    ” If at any point the nationalist parties in Northern Ireland get more votes/seats than the unionist parties then there will be a referendum, if not before.”

    The Secretary of State turned down the last call for a referendum saying the Polls and Election Results do not indicate a Yes vote could succeed. Stormont can not call a referendum. They don’t have that power.

  • Zeno

    “, I just want to help the wee kid ”

    Ah the old………… I’ll call him names trick. That just means you have nothing left to add to the debate. Join Robin, he’s afraid of me………. lol

  • Zeno

    It would be remarkably stupid to assume that. I’m not a genius, but I’m not thick either.

  • Cue Bono

    Gloating about the actions of a sectarian murder machine is pretty nasty, but I think that running the Daily Ireland (you’d forgotten that debacle hadn’t you?) may have put manners on him.

  • Cue Bono

    What is the Irish for ‘very, very clear’? Because one thing that was very, very clear about that interview was that SF are very, very clear on just about everything.

    They won’t be sending that gipe out again in a hurry.

  • Carl Mark

    Never heard about the” daily Ireland” so could not have forget about it. And please give us some examples of him being nasty. Now why can’t you do that.

  • Zeno

    The very same Chris Hazzard lampooned in the Sunday Times for his performance on Nolan last week…….
    “There were strangulated exchanges on Radio Ulster last Monday as Chris Hazard tried to explain a freshly minted manifesto pledge to devolve all UK Taxes to Northern Ireland without saying the words “UK” or “Northern Ireland”
    He did manage to get through get through SF’s fantasy manifesto which was then ripped to shreds by Newton Emerson……… Shinnernomics is hilarious.

  • Dan

    I got the impression the Sinn Fein air transport experts would compel international airlines to fly from the airports as designated by the likes of Hazzard.
    That’d work right enough

  • Cue Bono

    Hold up! The Sinners haven’t moved on from what the Provos were doing twenty years ago. They continue to celebrate it along with the goose stepping Frank Spencer types who turn up at their rallies. You don’t need to go back twenty years to find victims of Provo violence. Paul Quinn was murdered by the Provos only seven years ago.

    No unionist here is talking about voting for Billy Hutchinson.

  • Cue Bono

    You must be very young then. That woud explain why you don’t recall him in his goading days. You should google the Daily Ireland and give yourself a laugh.

  • Cue Bono

    Yet strangely not a peep about it on the news. If a unionist had humiliated himself in the way Hazard did it would have been in the headlines.

  • Arthur Renfrew

    It was a joke. Do you think any moped up unionist would have read Máirtín’s book? Apparently, a lack of humour is a prerequisite for posting here now.

  • Cue Bono

    They intend to encourage them to open these new air corridors by taxing the crap out of them. Apparently.

  • Cue Bono

    Any day now.

  • Granni Trixie

    I know some of his family a bit and they do not take the Irish form of their surname and I would say have a different take on things than him.

    Is he not a bit of a Bridget Dugdale character .- middle class stock attracted to a w.class cause?

  • Zeno

    Any time now, just you wait and see. Just you wait until all those young Catholics grow up and become good little Republicans cos ALL Catholics are Nationalist and Republicans. Well …….. according to the 1970’s Loyalist Paramilitaries and Robin.

  • Cue Bono

    Still at least when they are happy people don’t die.

  • Gingray

    Sorry Zeno if I have mistaken the way in which you post – your language and posting times indicate a student, and your obvious one track approach of repeating the same mistake ad infinitium is something many of us have done in our youth.

    I doubt anyone is afraid of you (tho its obviously something you crave), but some people have fixed uncompromising positions, which make debating the point with you a bit repetitive. Robin rightly pointed that out.

  • Gingray

    Zeno, it kinda looks like you are agreeing with me there 🙂

    As I have been saying all along it will all come down to those people who vote at an election (not as you have suggested repeatedly, non voters), and with the nationalist parties on around 41% and Unionist 49%, and with Catholics the majority at every age group from 42 and down, I fully expect that to change.

    Thats based on the trend that shows as the Catholic population in Northern Ireland increases, the vote for Nationalist parties increases (but with a lag, in part due to the age profile, with younger voters in Ireland or the UK always less likely to vote).

  • Zeno

    Afraid not. The SOS said Polls and Election Results and the GFA says she can only call a referendum if she feels the Yes Vote can win. (Why did Nationalists sign up to that deal? Did the proximity of power blind them?)

    “Thats based on the trend that shows as the Catholic population in Northern Ireland increases, the vote for Nationalist parties increases”

    That’s not actually true. The National vote dropped by almost 50,000 between 1998 and 2011 in the Assembly Elections. Obviously over the same period the Catholic population grew. Explain that.

  • Zeno

    Sounds like you are planning on running away from debate like Robin did?
    “I doubt anyone is afraid of you (tho its obviously something you crave),”

    You need to exercise some control, ad hominem attacks are not acceptable here. Name calling is a sign of weakness in your case.

    Like Robin it seems you do not like facts.

  • Gingray

    Zeno have you a link to where the British secretary of state said polls would be used?

    Regardless, as I’ve said, should nationalist parties get a majority then there will be a referendum. Very simple.

    Again, the number of non voters is immaterial – do you really not understand democracy? In 1998 nationalist parties got 38% of the vote, in 2011 it was 42%.

    Turnout was down as is the number of people supporting pro union parties.

  • Gopher

    I have an apology to make, I claimed the SF manifesto was written by a fourth former and could only be defended by a muppet. I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to Fourth Formers and Muppets, there is no way they would ever dream up or defend this nonsense.

    I think Chris Hazard has successfully questioned the ex Mayors inteligence with regards his choice of political party. Im not sure people of South Belfast on hearing that interview will not be too upset with the choice between having money or being skint. That “moral” compass most certainly has a magnetic North

  • Gingray

    Zeno it’s not exactly a debate – you have yet to grasp how a democracy works, and you make sweeping assumptions on behalf of hundreds of thousands of non voters.

    You can’t prove your point at the ballot box because there is no evidence to support your position – census figures and polls are not elections something you do not appear capable of understanding.

    At this point it’s like dealing with Jim Wells – you have a position, it’s based on belief not reality, and it doesn’t stand up when you are questioned but you will repeat it anyway.

  • Zeno

    Regardless, as I’ve said, should nationalist parties get a majority then there will be a referendum. Very simple.

    It’s not that simple. the GFA is very clear and would have to be changed to allow a referendum based solely on election results.

  • Zeno

    “Turnout was down as is the number of people supporting pro union parties.”

    People realised it was all nonsense and stopped voting. People are a lot smarter now that 30 or 40 years ago. They don’t just jump into the Unionist or Republican box as expected.

  • Zeno

    “Zeno have you a link to where the British secretary of state said polls would be used?”

    She didn’t say Polls would be used……..

    She said …………

    Theresa Villiers said: “The provisions for calling a border poll are set out in the Belfast Agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

    “Given the state of opinion in Northern Ireland, which is clearly expressed in election results and opinion polls, the Government has no present plans to call such a poll.

    Note ” election results and opinion polls,”

  • Zeno

    “you make sweeping assumptions on behalf of hundreds of thousands of non voters.”

    I’m putting forward an opinion based on evidence gleaned from, the Polls, Census,Surveys and Election results. There is no other way of doing it properly.
    You can like many others claim that when Catholics are in a majority, if that ever happens they will all vote for UI. They won’t. Half of my extended family are Catholic and I can’t think of one who wants a United Ireland. Kids who do not live in West Belfast think that all that Unionist Nationalist stuff is nonsense. They vote for the Green Party when they can be bothered.

  • Gingray

    As I’ve said before, you are claiming to speak for all non voters.

    ‘ People realised it was all nonsense and stopped voting. People are a lot smarter now that 30 or 40 years ago.’

  • Gingray

    Cheers for correcting yourself! You had said polls earlier and thought you had been mistaken.

  • Gingray

    ‘ People realised it was all nonsense and stopped voting. People are a lot smarter now that 30 or 40 years ago.’

    That’s not an opinion, that’s an assumption, and by saying ALL you imply that everyone’s reason for non voting is the same.

    I’m not disagreeing that all catholics will vote for a united Ireland, I am saying that only those who vote will have their opinions registered, and there is no uniform reason for non voting and non voters are definitively not all pro union.

    Granted with your bigoted rabble rousing statement stereotyping west Belfast I don’t expect you to accept that people can possess a diverse range of opinions.

  • Carl Mark

    I am sorry Arthur, however some of the mopery and whacko statements made by unionists/loyalists yours fitted right in.
    if it helps I did make me laugh.

  • Carl Mark

    please, please, please give me examples, you see this is how it works you make a claim I ask you to prove it you prove it.
    Not you make a claim ,I ask you to prove it and you tell me to prove it for you!
    by the way I am getting my bus pass next year so maybe my memory is not what it used to be, so be kind to a old man and prove your points!

  • submariner

    Carl considering that Cue Bono is the banned poster Covenanter who also posts under the name Blairmayne on other sites and has an almost pathological hatred of Irish Nationalists I feel you plea for examples may go unanswered

  • Carl Mark

    I fear you are right, I have tried to get some proof from him but he seems unable to understand the concept.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I’m beginning to wonder if the Greens are the only really radical party here, myself. While I respect (even like) some Alliance such as Naomi, I’m uncomfortable with the general (if rather obscured) involvement of contemporary Libdem politics with many Neo-Con themes. But I can see exactly where you are coming from, but finding, looking at the line up in my own area, that I’m just having to follow Yeats’ advice to “Stay at home/And Drink your beer?And let your neighbour vote, (Said the man in the Golden Breastplate/Under the Old Stone Cross)”, yet again this particular dreary round. There must be better ways to practice “The Art of Being Ruled” (to use Wyndham Lewis’s book title)!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Actually, as a (successful) practicing artist myself, its fair criticism, I’d feel. Without the public profile of her family, I’d doubt if she would be in apposition to exhibit meaningfully. Her painting is both weak and derivative:


    I cannot see how the comment is in any way “genocidally nasty”, this is dramatically more hyperbolic than my own worst exaggerations! I’ve already commented on the Gerry Kelly gag as “the politics of the junior playground” on another thread on Slugger, but feel that Kelly’s exposing his mental age with this sort of thing is no less silly and tasteless (the real evaluation) than much that is similar coming from the other side. The real point of such trivialisation is that there are very serious issues that effect peoples lives (such as Wells’s comment) being side tracked for a cheap and tasteless laugh. These things need to be addressed in an adult manner if we are ever to clamber out of the political mud pit we are all stuck in.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Yes, and Jeff’s nomination would have pointed to at least the shoots of a new kind of Unionism, one we could all have down with in 1968! Jeff is one of those really articulate and provenly courageous people whom they can front, alongside a few excellent people like Danny Kinahan.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I find the Greens, Ernekid, perhaps the only place today that echoes the real radical idealism of the 1960s that was stifled by the drive to mutual assured destruction by the “two traditions” after the tacit Unionist support for attempts to intimidate or block the Derry PD march. They are the only party who can honestly say they are thinking outside the matrix of the conflict.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I imagine, no more so than support by the other faction for centuries of similar stuff, some of it quite recent. The recourse to violence endemic to both factions is an intractable problem for me, for I’m unwilling to support the misdeeds (or implicated party structures) of either end of the local see-saw of acrimony.

    You may say that no one “is talking about voting for Billy Hutchinson”, but Unionism has been all too willing to reap the benefit of the actions of Their own “wild men” without actually owning their actions publicly, as occurred in 1968. Some strongly implicated in the 1920s were even awarded state honours:


    I write this not in support of any side’s violence, but to suggest that it is only when we honestly evaluate these things that were done by those we identify ourselves with (something those voting for SF also need to do just as much as Unionists) that we may even begin to have any chance to build a more honest community with the possibility of mutual respect. Simply hammering the misdeeds of an opponent is easily done, but gets us nowhere significant.

  • Mirrorballman

    I as a nationalist, would not vote for any Nationalist/Republican party that took their seats in the British HoC. Never ever ever!!!

  • Chingford Man

    You must be incredibly gifted to be able to predict election results 20 years from now. Still, if it keeps republicans out of mischief…

  • Robin Keogh

    I am

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I’d include, Mbm, any of the other “clones” of the British representative system anywhere, but then I find the entire system of representation utterly “undemocratic” if you consider that a true democracy should articulate the will of the community and not simply of the politicians.

  • John Gorman

    odds back at 11/4 for DUP with will hill so guessing it was indeed a mistake at 1/3

  • james

    How about the British Stormont?

  • Woeful handling of the abortion issue? It bugs me that we have this assumption that we are on this road to enlightenment where the “right” thing to believe is pro choice. In fact, I think he is playing a blinder here. There is a significant share of the Catholic population who are devoutly religious and who traditionally voted for Sinn Fein. This could be a great opportunity to steal Conservative Catholics now that Sinn Fein are running with policies which would go down better in North London than North Belfast.
    I suppose i see the point in terms of South Belfast specifically, as it is the most “liberal” seat in Northern Ireland, but he is certainly positioning the party more strongly on a wider basis.

  • barnshee

    substitute was for is