The McGuinness to Foyle gamble has added much needed spice to the electoral contest within nationalism. As I have noted at length on Slugger before, the nationalist parties in the North have failed to inspire their voters to turn out in recent electoral contests, with the result being a declining overall share of the vote for both nationalist parties, and Irish nationalism as a whole.
Part of the reason for that has been the absence of any credible notion that there was anything resembling a contest for the position of lead nationalist party. Sinn Fein’s dominance was established in 2001 and, whilst they may have peaked and began to partially decline in the most recent electoral outings, the fortunes of the SDLP have been almost consistently disappointing since Stalingrad fell to a triumphant Sinn Fein machine.
Nationalist politics has gotten stale. The SDLP have appeared dead on their feet for well on a decade now, whilst Sinn Fein have appeared sluggish and short on ideas at Stormont.
The end result was evident in the reversal of fortunes that saw the combined SF-SDLP Assembly seat tally fall in 2011 for the first time since the creation of the new power-sharing Executive and Assembly in 1998, and in the loss of Fermanagh South Tyrone and retention of South Belfast with a minimal vote share in last year’s Westminster election.
The McGuinness move makes sense on a number of levels for Sinn Fein, whilst also explaining why the party was so determined to deliver progress regarding upgrading the roads joining Derry with Dublin and Belfast (the A5 and A6 ) ahead of the Assembly contest.
Regardless of whether or not McGuinness carries three seats across the line, expect a Derry Deal to form a major part of Sinn Fein’s demands ahead of a Programme for Government post-election. This is likely to impact upon issues ranging from Invest NI strategies for tackling unemployment in the city to Magee University places.
Sinn Fein know that there is no question but that they will comfortably be returned as the largest nationalist party in the north. They are also banking on a realistic expectation that northern nationalists will take to the polls in May only a few short months after Sinn Fein have delivered the party’s greatest ever electoral performance at a Dail election since partition, with the Easter Rising commemorations in the interim serving once again to underline for nationalists that it is Sinn Fein who can most credibly lay claim to the mantle of the party most interested in pursuing an all-Ireland agenda.
But party leaders must also be aware that, in contrast to the southern wing of the party, northern Sinn Fein does not appear to be wholly fit for purpose in terms of its Assembly operation. In fact, the party appears to have lost its way in terms of the process of transitioning away from a movement and towards an effective political party capable of setting and delivering an agenda shaped by a republican vision, with all that entails in terms of ensuring the representative and advisory tier of the party is populated with those holding the skills and experience in these fields, as opposed to the community activist-oriented representatives who invariably cut their teeth in active republicanism during the conflict era- a phase which ended a generation ago.
In this sense, Sinn Fein leaders will have noted that the SDLP under Colum Eastwood have stolen a march on Sinn Fein in fairly rapidly beginning an effective process of phasing out the old guard and replacing them with a new tier of representatives. In Nichola Mallon, Justin McNulty, Daniel McCrossan and Claire Hanna, the SDLP have ushered in a new age for the party which, ironically, turns the tables on a Sinn Fein that has made much of the relatively more youthful appearance of its party and its representatives since the turn of the century saw Adams and McGuinness steal the mantle from the then ageing Hume/Mallon axis.
Consequently, delivering a crushing blow to a youthful SDLP leader still trying to establish a credible revival narrative is a very enticing prize. If McGuinness’ shift delivers 3 seats for Sinn Fein and reduces the SDLP to just two, it will decisively demonstrate who bosses nationalism, even in the SDLP citadel of Derry, buying the party more time to effect the final phase of transition to a post- Adams/McGuinness movement into a fully functioning all-Ireland political party.
There are obvious risks, however, and in these risks can be located the very real opportunities now presenting for Colum Eastwood and the SDLP.
Heading into the 2016 Assembly election, Colum Eastwood must be conscious that his primary objective has to be to emerge with something that allows him and the party to portray the SDLP as being on the way back. After decades of being chased down and then left for dust by a rampant Sinn Fein, the SDLP need a win in order to begin the process of planting the seeds of an SDLP revival in the hope that momentum can grow and develop in the time ahead.
Before this announcement, identifying the likely source of that ‘win’ was difficult. The SDLP, in spite of a number of fresh new faces, remain in an electoral rut. The four rather impressive representatives referenced above will mark as a success merely returning with seats that were already the possession of the party.
The party’s main hope for an Assembly gain is the Strangford seat that nationalists have continually failed to turn out in sufficient numbers since 1998 to deliver- something that says an awful lot about the political organisation of both nationalist parties in the constituency. Even if they did manage to finally claim the seat, the possible loss of the solitary Upper Bann SDLP seat to Sinn Fein would leave the party returning with the same number of seats.
Standing still is better than falling back, but it’s not likely to be bought nor enthusiastically sold as an advance. That was a problem for Eastwood.
This announcement means that Eastwood and the SDLP have been challenged to a bout in their own home town, knowing that victory will bring with it a genuine opportunity to launch the party as a new political/ electoral brand under a new leadership that has seen off the ageing nationalist leadership in the person of Martin McGuinness.
In one sense, this is an unnecessary gamble for Sinn Fein.
Without this Foyle tete-a-tete, Eastwood faced an uphill battle to emerge with any notional victory and certainly nothing that could have seriously dented the aura of invincibility that continues to surround Sinn Fein in terms of support within northern nationalism. This is a roll of the dice that can come back to haunt Sinn Fein pretty quickly in the post-election period.
Fortune does favour the brave though, and Sinn Fein’s senior strategist will only have to look to the successful Adams shuffle southwards to Louth, or Mitchel McLaughlin’s poll-topping performance after transferring from Foyle to South Antrim to see how successful such initiatives can be for the party.
However, the recent history of electoral performances in the Foyle constituency suggest that Sinn Fein, even with McGuinness on the ticket, face a stern test.
Sinn Fein has been huffing and puffing in a vain attempt to dethrone the SDLP in Foyle since Hume departed the scene, never managing to come close at a Westminster election, though they did manage to reduce arrears to less than 2% at the last Assembly election in 2011.
After that, the party must have thought they were in with a very good chance of challenging Mark Durkan for the Westminster seat in 2015, which must have formed a part of the reason that they opted for Gearoid O’hEara as a candidate.
Although he had been a party councillor stretching back almost three decades, he had also been identified with other city initiatives more recently, such as the Culturlann and being co-ordinator of the Fleadh Cheoil, which theoretically should have helped him expand the party’s appeal beyond its base in the city.
Alas, it was not to be, and Mark Durkan delivered, at first glance, one of the best performances by an SDLP candidate in the 2015 election to see off the Sinn Fein challenge. O’hEara’s share of the vote actually dropped some 0.4% on the party vote in 2010, whilst Durkan’s increased by 3.2%.
However, when the fact that almost 8% of voters in 2010 backed Eamonn McCann, these results once again illustrate the declining nationalist turnout as there was no PBP candidate in 2015, as well as revealing the full scale of the Sinn Fein retreat in 2015 on the high point reached in 2011.
If O’hEara found it difficult to penetrate the soft SDLP base in the city, then it is highly likely that Sinn Fein strategists will conclude that the two incumbent SF MLAs, Maeve McLaughlin and Raymond McCartney, are even less likely to make that breakthrough and, consequently, I would not be entirely surprised if McGuinness wasn’t the only new name on the Sinn Fein ticket this time around.
Having said that, the party might have been expected to co-opt in a new representative over the past year to make a start on developing a candidate profile were that a part of the plan.
The absence of the now retired former SDLP MLA, Pat Ramsey, from the SDLP ticket will have further encouraged Sinn Fein in believing that the breakthrough was on in 2016.
Of course, it is possible that a non-nationalist left wing candidate could build on Eamonn McCann’s 2010 and 2011 performances and join the People Before Profit candidate from West Belfast, Gerry Carroll, in securing election in Foyle, though I would calculate that the sense of anticipation surrounding the impending nationalist contest between the de facto Sinn Fein northern leader and the SDLP’s new leader is likely to ensure that an independent/ socialist candidate will have to wait at least one more term to secure a foothold in Foyle.
There is renewed interest in the nationalist contest, and time will tell if that proves sufficient to reverse the declining nationalist turnout.
It’s game on in Foyle.