Chris Donnelly nailed it on one of the primary emerging themes during BBCNI’s coverage at the Belfast Count Centre yesterday. A 5% drop in Nationalist turnout in an election which actually saw overall turnout rise should trigger a profound review in both main parties.
True it has probably been ill served by the false cover its been given over much of the last ten years out of legislate concern for maintaining a hard won peace.
But in the process it has become highly risk averse and hypersensitive to external criticism and, unlike unionism – for whom the media has never knowingly spared the rod – it has struggled to adapt to new circumstances.
That has left it abjectly reliant on the increasingly spare fruits from a Peace Process™ which is little more than a stagnant and managed stalemate. A stalemate from which it lacks the courage (or the vision) to break free.
Comforting itself with such odious and deeply sectarian myths like ‘the Catholic birth rate will one day deliver a United Ireland without us ever having to lift a finger’ northern nationalism has become an idea without substance, leaving the parties little choice but to cannibalise each other to disguise the outward signs of its long decline.
Ten years ago, according to Sinn Fein, 2016 was to be the year of unification. Today that has become little more than a palimpsest overwritten with vague new slogans which in turn will be erased and updated with yet more ‘polite and meaningless’ slogans.
Far from staging a rising vote levels argue strongly that there’s been a long falling away of sentiment since those tumultuous days of the early peace process.
Nationalist voters aren’t stupid, and their parties shouldn’t continue to behave as though their only business was to keep them awake by spinning implausibly tall tales about when and how a United Ireland might happen.
The starkest warning yesterday was the election of Gerry Carroll and Eamonn Mc Cann (political anti hero par excellence). The people who have driven them to such stark and emphatic victories (despite McCann’s abiding personal instinct to do almost everything he can, not to get elected) once supported SF when it was deeply unpopular (and deeply uncool).
They’ve done so by going back to a tried and tested Marxian recipe of rooting their politics in an unsentimental understanding of material reality of real voter’s lives in the poorest parts of Derry and West Belfast.
The SDLP on the other hand needs to confront the cruel reality that for much of its existence it largely existed only inside the head of John Hume. Unlike Paisley’s DUP there was no Peter Robinson to give it structure, form and narrative content.
At least it has sloughed off that babyboomer generation who climbed into public office and promptly pulled up the ladder. In doing so they choked off their supply of mid level aspirational activists that every party needs in order to regenerate (and re-imagine) its future with the generation of voters.
As a result it has got smaller and has taken more than a few bruises the head. That’s the cumulative effect of persistently walking into solid political walls. That should tell them to stop almost everything they’ve been doing up to now and just look for the door.
Given the DUP and Sinn Fein have been planning to stitch them up with their own PfG they should probably withdraw to the opposition benches whether or not they are entitled to a Ministerial seat. In the short term withdrawal of cover for SF (who’ve barely contributed to the policy content of that stitch up) is justification enough for hitting the opposition benches.
(Incidentally, if they do become part of the official opposition they should stubbornly insist that SF move to the same side of the chamber as the DUP and take their proper place beside the Speaker. The ‘naughty corner’ is no place from which any serious political party should seek to hold power to account.)
From there they’ll have the space to get their heads around the reality of their much reduced status within the political life of NI. Wilderness and the contemplation failure can make or break a political project. After today they have three years take their future (if they even have one) in their own hands.