After #GE2015… Sinn Fein, former revolutionaries in need of a new narrative?

I would have loved to have heard Sinn Fein’s take on their general election campaign at our joint event with Ulster University. It seemed to me to have involved a huge amount of effort and energy for not a lot of return.

Clearly there was disappointment at losing Fermanagh South Tyrone (the whole leadership team was shipped to Enniskillen for the results announcement), but a few decent night’s sleep will likely fix that. A slight dip in the percentage vote -0.1% was always going to be enough to wipe out the four vote lead.

There were decent performances in most in East and North Antrim and East Londonderry. And a safe swap of big hitter Conor Murphy for Mickey Brady. Although with the loss of Gildnernew the party’s Westminster team now has more than a passing resemblance to Dad’s Army.

There’s no point in overdoing there analysis here. One because I’ve already written a piece for the Irish Indpendent, and two the Westminsters are largely just a series of two horse races.

The data and the implications you can safely extrapolate are tiny in Northern Ireland compared with the huge changes seen on the other side of the North Channel.

So for brevity’s sake, let’s clip straight to Belfast for lessons to be drawn. The rising vote in West, I’ve already touched on in the Indo piece, North and South are far more telling.

In Kelly and O’Muilleoir we saw for the first time two completely compartmentalised locally focused and personal campaigns, which you could roughly cut as One Belfast and Two Belfasts played out less than a mile from each other.

One or the other might have worked, if it had been given focus, budget and thought.

But, and just to push the point home, Gerry Kelly’s Star Wars video indicates a huge lapse for what has become the outstandingly high level norm in SF’s YouTube output (and I’m not even going near the whole Stormtroopers v the Rebel Alliance thing)…

Every year Sinn Fein have been able to rely on the incoherence of the SDLP, such that they have been able to move almost everyone  of talent in the party into Leinster House, or in other parts of the south in order to build up new Cummain there.

For the first time the effects of that talent drain became publicly apparent. Pushing two stories, each of which undermined the other, was one aspect of it. The other was the sheer paucity of a story to tell on Westminster or Stormont.

That lack of a new story saw talent like Chris Hassard pushed into the public limelight with nothing much to say for party policy beyond vague promises of helping people in distress and need.

It’s been said that ‘the populist is clueless when he cannot hijack someone else’s ideas’. The SDLP’s long term competitive absence from the electoral stage has been a banker for Sinn Fein.

But as Pat Doherty told RTE on election night it has also given rise to rising complacency within the party. And, I would add, a reliance on old or new nostrums of division and/or unity of the people* arguments which are getting harder to reconcile in the voter’s mind.

Whether anyone likes it or not, Northern Ireland is moving from a contested spaces to slightly more shared space model. And that’s where the new lines of political argument are moving.

That requires new stories and new narratives capable of bridging gaps, not just muscling whole communities up for more ground action over tribal spaces.

Dumping loads of oil soaked pallets on a bonfire of Unionist outrage is no longer the one way street it once seemed to be.

That said, beyond puncturing the inevitability myth, I don’t see much lasting damage here. And whilst the SDLP remain a basket case, it’s hard to see where the incentive to change is going to come from.

*Delete as appropriate.

You can find all Mick’s election profiles here.

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