If one thing characterises Sinn Féin as it prepares for elections north and south of the border, it’s momentum. Consistently strong election results in the north and rising support in the south mean the party is feeling very optimistic about its future, with party leader Gerry Adams recently stating his belief that Sinn Féin will enter government in the Dáil after either this year’s general election or the next. For the first time, political pundits are referring to it as a serious possible coalition partner in a future government (an idea Fine Gael have also been expressing, though not as a positive). In the north, Sinn Féin’s progress over the last decade has been strong. The party has gained votes and seats in each successive Assembly election since 2003. Some hiccups in local and Westminster elections have been the only real blemishes on its recent record, but how likely is this to continue?
2003: Becoming the Largest Nationalist Party
The 2003 Assembly election was a huge victory for Sinn Féin, marking the first time the party eclipsed the SDLP as the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland. Its share of the vote rose by 6.8%, the largest rise of any party besides the DUP, and it returned strong showings in all constituencies bar those with traditionally strong unionist support – Antrim, East and South Belfast, and the northern Down constituencies. The party’s main support bases were in Mid-Ulster, Newry & Armagh and of course, West Belfast, where Gerry Adams returned a typical strong showing along with three of his four running mates.
The Assembly was suspended shortly after this, and in the meantime Sinn Féin experienced more success in the 2004 European elections, in which Bairbre de Brún won the party’s first European Parliament seat with a 9% increase on their last European election performance and on a much lower turnout than the Assembly elections. The local elections in 2005 saw a smaller increase in their vote share, but a net gain of 18 seats from the previous result. The only decline the party saw in this period was a negligible 0.1% drop in their vote in the UK general election that year, which had no impact on their number of seats.
2007: No Slowing Down
Against this backdrop of growing successes, Sinn Féin committed themselves to the St. Andrew’s Agreement and power-sharing with the DUP in Stormont. The party’s acceptance of the PSNI generated some internal controversy, but in electoral terms this didn’t affect the party at all – two MLAs elected in 2003, Davy Hyland and Geraldine Dougan, resigned from the party in protest, with Hyland running in the 2007 Assembly election as an independent. He failed to win a seat, and Sinn Féin increased their vote share by another 2.7% in this election and became the second biggest party overall. The number of first preference votes cast in that election (180,573) remains its peak result in any Northern Ireland election to date.
The party’s support increased in all but three constituencies – the unionist-dominated East Belfast and Strangford, and the SDLP’s stronghold of Foyle. The overall decline of the SDLP’s vote benefitted Sinn Féin in other areas such as West Tyrone and South Down. In Lagan Valley, Paul Butler won a seat for Sinn Féin with a large increase of 4.3% on the party’s previous result there. Mixed results in the general election for the Dáil that same year interrupted this run of good luck somewhat, but that didn’t stop 2007 from being a good year overall for Sinn Féin.
2011: The Good News Keeps Coming
A low turnout in the 2009 European elections didn’t harm Sinn Féin at all – quite the opposite, in fact, as Bairbre de Brún won 38,000 more votes than the next most successful candidate, placing Sinn Féin in first place in a Northern Ireland election for the first time ever. The UK general election in 2010 meant a slight increase in votes, though seats remained the same, and the party made huge gains in the general election on the other side of the border a year later in 2011, winning more votes and seats than any incarnation of Sinn Féin has enjoyed in Dáil Éireann since the 1920s. When the next Assembly election rolled around in May of that year, it was more good news for the party, with slight increases in their vote share and a new seat won.
The only constituency to see a major shift here since 2007 was Lagan Valley. Paul Butler had decided not to contest the election and continue his work as a councillor, and with increased unionist support in that area, replacement candidate Mary Kate Quinn came nowhere near keeping his seat.
Sinn Féin’s years-long streak of good luck started to decline a bit as the 2014 local elections took place and the party actually lost 10 seats and a marginal share of the vote, though the DUP and the SDLP took even bigger hits with their vote shares. Sinn Féin still remained the second largest party in local government. The UK general election the following year saw a further upset as Michelle Gildernew lost her seat in Fermanagh and South Tyrone by a margin of 1%. Gildernew and Sinn Féin had held that seat by an even smaller margin in 2010.
2016: What Next?
As the 2016 elections draw near, Sinn Féin are positioning themselves as potential victors on both sides of the border. The centenary of the 1916 Rising affords the party a great deal of attention as they organise commemorative events, with the party’s árd-fheis taking place on the days before the actual centenary on 24 April. It might not be all plain sailing – the retirements of both Bronwyn McGahan in Fermanagh & South Tyrone and of Mitchell McLaughlin in South Antrim may affect the party’s chances in those areas, especially in Antrim where they have yet to come anywhere near breaking 20%. Unless the replacement candidate is strong, it is unlikely they will keep their seat there. The SDLP will rival Sinn Féin in their traditional strongholds of Foyle and South Down, but this is unlikely to have any major impact on the latter party’s prospects there. Michelle Gildernew is set to run again in Fermanagh & South Tyrone, and new SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has made clear his intentions to strengthen his party’s representation there. With the new DUP leader Arlene Foster based there as well, it will be interesting to see who wins out.
Sinn Féin are campaigning as a party that can work well with their partners in the executive and one which is coming into its own throughout the island. Will the voters of Northern Ireland agree enough to grant more votes and more seats in the Assembly for the fourth successive time since the Good Friday Agreement? We’ll have to wait until May to find out.