Nationalist Malaise: Facing The Facts

The Irish News yesterday led with the banner headline proclaiming ‘Nationalists turn away from the polls,’ one of the two main stories emerging from the 2015 Westminster election in the north of Ireland- the other being the victories secured by the Ulster Unionist Party in South Antrim and Fermanagh South Tyrone.

The combined Sinn Fein and SDLP percentage of the overall vote was 38.4%, a drop of 3.6% on 2010 and the worst overall showing of nationalists at a Westminster election since before the IRA ceasefire (the 1992 Westminster election.)

This performance was not an outlier either, and that is what should concern the leaderships of both Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

As I will illustrate below, in the current electoral cycle, the combined performance of the two nationalist parties has been the worst at elections to each of the legislative institutions (Westminster, Europe and Local government level) since the ceasefire era of the early to mid-1990s.

That does not bode well for the forthcoming Assembly elections.

There are few things more dangerous for political leaderships than adopting a head in the sand approach when problems become apparent. Denial is never an effective strategy, and inevitably leads only to problems being exacerbated.

In this article, I aim to show in a conclusive manner the extent of the problem needing addressed by the political leaderships of nationalism if they are to arrest the declining nationalist turnout before next year’s Assembly elections.

I heard a commentator remark this morning on BBC Sunday Sequence that the politics of fear had won in England, whilst politics of hope had triumphed in Scotland. By that measure, politics of nationalist apathy in the face of a determined opponent, organized and motivated on a clearly ethnic basis, defined not just the results of this election, but those of recent years.

In a subsequent article, I will examine possible explanations for the malaise and suggestions as to courses of action which should be undertaken by the nationalist parties in order to reconnect and galvanise the nationalists who are presently opting to stay at home.

Westminster Elections

As has already been mentioned, this election saw the combined nationalist parties drop 3.6% in terms of the overall vote, with the 1% decrease in Sinn Fein’s support further compounded by the 2.6% lost by the SDLP since 2010.

History of SF-SDLP Performance in Westminster Elections 1992-2015

Westminster ElectionsSinn Fein (seats)SDLP

(seats)

Combined Nat % Vote
201524.5% (4)13.9% (3)38.4%
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%

The loss of Fermanagh South Tyrone provides the most visible evidence of the pattern of declining nationalist turnout and its impact, but there were other clear signs in last week’s election.

The considerable gap opened up over Gerry Kelly by Nigel Dodds in North Belfast, where nationalist % of turnout was down a massive 4.2% on 2010; the failure in Upper Bann to make a credible challenge to the two unionist candidates, with another 4% drop in nationalist turnout; the decreasing nationalist turnout in the South Belfast marginal, held only because the unionist vote split in one too many directions; the drop off in voting nationalists in the majority nationalist constituencies like West Tyrone, Mid Ulster and South Down.

The consistency of the lower turnout in a geographical sense for both parties confirms the fact that there is an issue regarding nationalist turnout which is not constituency-specific.

Across the 18 constituencies, the combined nationalist % of the vote fell in 16 constituencies, increasing by a mere 0.2% in Lagan Valley (from a very low base, at which it remains) and by 2.8% in Foyle. The latter was somewhat misleading as the absence of the People Before Profit candidate, Eamonn McCann, who contested and gained 7.8% in 2010, meant that there was always going to be some additional nationalist votes in play. The fact that the combined nationalist vote increased by only 2.8% indicates that Foyle was actually another constituency where the nationalist turnout was lower, given the high probability that the vast majority of McCann’s voters would be from the broader nationalist community.

SF/SDLP Performance in 2015 by Constituency:

Changes in % Vote Compared to 2010

ConstituencySF Change from 2010SDLP Change from 2010 ConstituencySF Change from 2010SDLP Change from 2010
N Belfast-0.1-4.1 Upper Bann-0.2-3.8
S Belfast+13.9-16.5 Newry & Armagh-0.9+0.7
W Belfast-16.8-6.5 Foyle-0.4+3.2
E Belfast-0.3-0.7 E Derry+0.5-3.2
L Valley-1.1+1.3 W Tyrone-4.9+2.7
N Antrim-0.1-1.8 Ferm S Tyrone-0.1-2.3
S Antrim-1.0-0.5 Mid Ulster-3.3-1.9
E Antrim+0.1-1.7 N Down0.0-1.0
Strangford-1.0+0.2 S Down-0.2-6.1
       
Sinn Fein-1.0%  SDLP-2.5% 

Sinn Fein’s % of the vote decreased in 15 of the 18 constituencies. In the other three, their vote share increased by a paltry 0.1% in East Antrim, 0.5% in East Derry. The 13.9% increase in South Belfast is misleading as Sinn Fein did not contest the seat in 2010. The 13.9% figure represents only a 1.4% gain from the 2011 Assembly election for the party in South Belfast.

The SDLP % of the vote decreased in 13 of the 18 constituencies. In 3 of the 5 constituencies in which the SDLP registered an increased vote share, the increase was very marginal: +1.3 in Lagan Valley, +0.2 in Strangford and +0.7 in Newry and Armagh.

Only in West Tyrone and Foyle did the vote share increase by greater than 2%- in Foyle, Durkan clearly benefitted from the absence of Eamonn McCann this time around, whilst in West Tyrone the party was coming from such a low base that a 2.7% increase still represents a poor vote share for the SDLP in the constituency.

The impact upon nationalist electoral objectives of the poor turnout can best be gauged by assessing the results by the specific electoral targets of nationalism in general and both parties respectively.

In an earlier article on Slugger, I outlined the ideal outcomes for Nationalism in general for this election, but also the specific targets for both parties.

I will take these in turn below.

Nationalism’s Ideal Outcomes Revisited

8 seats remaining in the hands of Sinn Fein and the SDLP: I identified the nationalist imperatives as holding Fermanagh South Tyrone and South Belfast. The former was lost and the latter barely won, and then only by McDonnell securing the lowest ever % share of the vote for a winning Westminster constituency candidate.

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 opposite happened. The nationalist vote slid to just over 38%, representing the lowest combined vote percent share for the two nationalist parties since before the IRA ceasefire (ie 1992 Westminster election.)

The two constituencies of North Belfast and Upper Bann creeping further along the marginal status bar: The opposite happened. The DUP got the unionist vote out in droves in North Belfast, opening up an almost 6,000 vote majority. In Upper Bann, the nationalist vote actually fell in spite of speculation that Seeley could challenge the two unionist contenders, who both managed to push up unionist turnout. In other words, the marginal status of the constituencies did nothing to motivate nationalists to turn out, whilst it did incentivize unionists to turn out.

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: Sinn Fein’s % of the vote declined in all three constituencies. The SDLP suffered a significant 6% loss of vote share in South Down. Whilst the party increased notably in Foyle it rose a disappointing 0.7% in Newry and Armagh, where it had hoped the introduction of a fresh, high profile GAA candidate in the form of Justin McNulty would galvanise its vote base to turn out and signal a return for the party in this one time staunchly SDLP constituency. The 0.7% rise did not indicate that at all.

Local Government Elections

In last year’s local government election, both nationalist parties suffered relative losses in the elections for the newly created 11 District Councils- as I outlined at the time in this Slugger article.

In fact, the combined % of the overall vote registered by the two nationalist parties matched the worst since the 1994 ceasefire, the 1997 elections, as the table below illustrates:

SF-SDLP Performance at Elections to District Councils 1993-2014

ElectionSinn Fein SDLP Comb Nat
 Votes% Votes% %
2014 151,13724.0%  85,23713.5% 37.5%
2011163,71224.8% 99,32515.0% 39.8%
2005163,20523.2% 121,99117.3% 40.5%
2001163,26920.6% 153,42419.4% 40.0%
1997106,93416.9% 130,38720.6% 37.5%
199377,60012.3% 136,76021.7% 34.0%

In real terms, the decreased turnout of nationalists at last year’s local government election resulted in the proportion of seats held by nationalists being reduced for the second consecutive election at this level:

SF-SDLP Total Seats at Elections to District Councils 1989-2014

ElectionTotal SeatsSinn Fein  SDLP Comb Nat
  Seats% of Seats Seats% of Seats Seats% of Seats
201446210522.7% 6614.2% 17137.0%
201158213823.7% 8714.9% 22538.6%
200558212621.6% 10117.3% 22739.0%
200158210818.5% 11720.1% 22538.6%
19975827412.7% 12020.6% 19433.3%
1993582518.7% 12721.8% 17830.5%
1989566437.5% 12121.3% 16428.8%

As the table above illustrates, the high watermark for nationalism at local government election level was 2005, when both the combined % share of votes and % of seats taken by the two parties was at its highest level.

The story since then has been one of increasing apathy, taking its toll on party share of vote and levels of representation at local government level.

NI Assembly Elections

Similarly, the combined % vote share of both parties at the 2011 Assembly election represented a decline of 0.3% from 2007, and the number of nationalist MLAs elected decreased from 44 to 43, as the table below illustrates:

SF-SDLP Performance at Elections to the NI Assembly 1998-2011

ElectionSinn Fein SDLP Comb Nat
 Votes%Seats Votes%Seats %Seats
2011178,22426.9%2994,28614.2%1441.1%43
2007180,57326.2%28105,16415.2%1641.4%44
2003162,75823.5%24117,54717.0%1840.5%42
1998142,85817.6%18177,96321.9%2439.5%42

The high watermark for nationalism at Assembly level was in 2007, when 44 MLAs were returned on a combined % share of the vote sitting at 41.4%.

The 38.4% vote share returned by Sinn Fein and the SDLP at Thursday’s Westminster election is worse than any result recorded at Assembly level since the establishment of the Assembly in 1998, and if repeated next year would likely lead to a loss in the combined number of seats and certainly would scupper the efforts to target additional seats for either party.

European Elections

In keeping with the theme identified above at elections to all other legislatures, the history of nationalist performance at European elections once again shows that the 2014 performance was the worst since before the 1994 IRA ceasefire, coming in 0.2% below the mark reached by both parties in 1994:

SF-SDLP Performance at Elections to the European Parliament 1994-2014

ElectionSinn Fein SDLP Comb Nat
 Votes%Votes% %
2014159,81325.5%81,59413%38.5%
2009126,18426.0%78,48916.2%42.2%
2004144,54126.3%87,55915.9%42.2%
1999117,64317.3%190,73128.1%45.4%
199455,2159.9%161,99228.9%38.7%
198948,9149.1%136,33525.5%34.6%

It’s the Turnout, Stupid

For those unionist politicians and commentators who could read the above and be at risk of losing the run of themselves by suggesting the election results of recent years indicate that nationalists are converting to unionism, the 1999 European election, and that era in general, are instructive.

The remarkable performance in 1999, when John Hume and Mitchel McLaughlin combined to secure 45.4% of the overall vote, represented the highest point ever reached at election level for combined nationalist support in the history of the state.

It also clearly indicated that nationalist turnout was running considerably above that of unionists, and that fact, coupled with many Alliance voters opting to support John Hume (Alliance secured a notably paltry 2.1% of the vote), explains the extraordinary vote share reached by nationalism in 1999.

It is worth remembering that this period in time was noted by the fierce party competition that existed between Sinn Fein and the SDLP, with the former chasing the latter, buoyed by the shock Forum showing in 1996, then the double MP success of 1997 and a strong Assembly vote and seat tally in 1998. The SDLP were also on a high, having topped the 1998 Assembly poll and appearing well up for the fight with a younger Sinn Fein.

Consequently, both parties were highly motivated and proving adept at energizing their voters to turn out, which explained the 42.7% nationalist turnout at the next significant election after the 1999 European election, namely the 2001 Westminster election, which formally marked Sinn Fein’s arrival as the ascendant party within nationalism.

The problem for both parties is that the period of time that has passed since has been one increasingly marked in an electoral sense by growing numbers of nationalists simply deciding to stay at home.

In contrast, political unionism’s torturous efforts to grapple with the realities of sharing Northern Ireland in a post-Good Friday Agreement world has had the knock-on effect of ensuring that a greater proportion of unionists remain electorally active, encouraged by the communal drum beating from Twaddell and rallied by the mobilising drive accompanying the call for ethnic electoral pacts.

For many years, voter apathy was viewed as a problem facing the SDLP alone, as the Sinn Fein vote appeared to be holding and even marginally increasing. But this election cycle proves beyond doubt that the problem is one shared by both parties.

Recognising that fact is the first step in planning effective strategies to address it.