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 Elections||Sinn Fein (seats)||SDLP (seats)||Combined Nat. % Vote|
|2010||25.5% (5)||16.5% (3)||42.0%|
|2005||24.3% (5)||17.5% (3)||41.8%|
|2001||21.7% (4)||21.0% (3)||42.7%|
|1997||16.1% (2)||24.1% (3)||40.2%|
|1992||10.0% (0)||23.5% (4)||33.5%|
|1987||11.4% (1)||21.1% (3)||32.5%|
|1983||13.4% (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.