Nationalist Turnout: What it means for SF & the SDLP

Another election has taken place and the pattern of declining nationalist turnout has been further underscored. The combined Sinn Fein-SDLP share of the overall vote in last week’s election was a paltry 36%, the lowest combined share of the vote for the parties at Assembly, Westminster or European level since the 1992 Westminster election saw the SDLP take 23.5% and Sinn Fein 10% of the overall vote.

That particular contest was noteworthy as it marked the low point for Sinn Fein and high water mark for the SDLP as the latter triumphed in West Belfast when Dr Joe Hendron delivered the shock result to seize the seat from Gerry Adams.

The 1992 result injected renewed momentum into Sinn Fein’s peace strategy, a historic shift that would ultimately see the party regain the seat and emerge as the leading party and voice of northern nationalism within just nine years of the crushing seat loss to Hendron.

Sinn Fein were quick to learn the harsh lessons being delivered by the nationalist electorate 24 years ago, and they haven’t had reason to look back since.

Until now.

The dip in nationalist turnout has become a pattern that can no longer be ignored by either party. From comments made by elected representatives from both in the election’s aftermath, I think it’s safe to conclude that neither appears to be confident that they know the precise reasons explaining the low turnout.

Poor voter turnout is often attributed to a sense of alienation, discontentment with the status quo and/ or direction in which society is travelling. Contrastingly, it has also been argued that apathy can derive from a sense of comfort, a feeling that declining to participate in the electoral process can be a choice made by the secure middle-classes as much as disengaged working classes.

One thing is certain.

Nationalists have never been as assertive and self-confident within northern Irish society as they are today, so this is not a crisis of identity, aspiration nor conviction.

There are other factors at play, and they relate to the performance (or, to be more accurate, underperformance) of the main nationalist parties in the post-peace process era.

At this point, it is important to counter some of the more dubious interpretations being floated by some to explain the turnout issue. There is no sense that nationalists are turning away from their core beliefs, and attempts to interpret a rise in non-voting nationalists in such a manner ignores the fact that unionism has faced similar issues relating to poor voter turnout in the past.

In 1999, the SDLP’s John Hume and Sinn Fein’s Mitchel McLaughlin secured some 45% of the vote in the European election contest, a feat only possible due to unionist voters staying at home. Even today, the overwhelmingly unionist constituencies of North Down and Strangford regularly top the table for lowest percentage voter turnout. Interpreting that as meaning a diminution in support for the Union in those respective constituencies would be as spurious as suggesting poor nationalist turnout means nationalists are turning against Irish unity.

Special mention should go to those suggesting that Catholics may be turning to the DUP on account of the latter’s position on certain moral issues. I would contend that anyone making that case has no business in serious political commentary, ignoring as it does the DUP’s deeply antagonistic relationship with the Catholic Church, its schools and the culturally Irish outlook of its flock. It is akin to arguing that working class Protestants are voting for Sinn Fein on account of sympathy with Sinn Fein’s views on academic selection and other left-leaning positions. There is no credible evidence to suggest either vote pattern emerging and nor will there be (beyond the level of the famous count tally anecdotes and rarest of exceptions to prove the rule) unless and until the respective parties fundamentally alter their visions, policies and practices in ways not even as yet conceived of by our parties.

In reality, the reasons are much simpler.

Nationalists want more for their votes, and are demanding better from their politicians.

That’s an inherently good thing, and is entirely in character with a community bristling with self-confidence in an age where society in the north of Ireland is more equal than at any time in the history of the state.

Sinn Fein may be an all-Ireland party, but an inspection of its northern and southern wings would lead to two very separate conclusions.

Northern Sinn Fein appears tired and jaded, short on ideas and with a track record in the Executive era that has been short on delivery. To date, this has been overshadowed and, to some extent, compensated for by the patriarchal role fulfilled by Martin McGuinness that has seen him emerge as the great stabilizing influence of the devolution era.

But the passage of time since the peace process has brought with it a greater level of expectation within northern nationalism regarding the performance of their political class which has simply not been satisfied, and the dwindling appeal of voting for reasons attributed to fear or hostility to the other has meant many nationalists are either choosing to opt out or register their discontent by voting for alternatives- and, in 2016, that took the form of the urban fringe left party, People Before Profit.

Put bluntly, nationalists look at their two parties and have concluded that they do not represent nationalism putting its best foot forward. The sense that the DUP have the upper hand at Stormont, the lingering cynicism as a result of the local expenses stories, Sinn Fein’s confused handling of the welfare reform issue are but a few reasons encouraging the view that nationalism needs to sharpen its game.

Sinn Fein have failed to complete the transition process from a party born in conflict to one fit for purpose to govern which will bring the renewal and reinvigoration required to sharpen performance and enhance capacity to deliver through the Executive and elsewhere. Ironically, progress on this process of transition should now be hastened by the impact of the presence of a threat in the heartland constituencies of West Belfast and Foyle.

This will not be an easy process for Sinn Fein. It will need to be instigated by the leadership and will ultimately have as its aim creating the conditions in which those leaders can finally depart the stage. The healthy state of southern Sinn Fein will have the impact of fuelling desire for the necessary change internally, and this can already be seen in the welcome moves to remove the laudable yet damaging salary policy which continues to restrict the party’s ability to attract and retain individuals with much needed skills and experience across the breadth of policy areas.

In order to advance an ambitious and comprehensive all-Ireland agenda, as well as succeed in sharpening up the party’s policy platform and devise strategies to ensure delivery on key policy objectives within the existing structures in both jurisdictions, the party needs to begin attracting the best and brightest minds from within the community. Serious questions are now being asked as to whether or not that is possible if such people are to be paid the £22,750 per annum on offer from the party.

The SDLP, on the other hand, are facing a deeper crisis. The SDLP’s problem is not related to transition, but more fundamentally to their very identity and their increasing irrelevance in Irish politics.

The trajectory has been consistently downward for the party since the turn of the century, and shuffling the deck to produce new leaders has made not the slightest impact on their capacity to improve their credibility with the electorate.

The SDLP need to decisively address fundamentals. They need an all-Ireland presence and they need a space and place on the ideological spectrum distinct from Sinn Fein where they can tap into discord with the lack of delivery at Stormont. If they fail, the party is now at such a low ebb electorally and politically that the arrival of a new party- most likely in the shape of Fianna Fail- can not be ruled out, a development that could transform nationalist politics across the island in the era to come.

Learning lessons

Success in politics, as in life, requires learning from one’s mistakes and also from the successes and failings of others.

Peter Robinson and Pope John XXIII make a very strange pairing (if not exactly bedfellows), yet the experiences of both the former leader of the stoutly protestant political party and the great reforming pope of the 20th century provide vital lessons for the republican leadership at this juncture in history.

The Executive has been operational since 2007 with the DUP and Sinn Fein at the helm. Since then, it has become increasingly apparent that the DUP are considerably better equipped and positioned to formulate and shape the direction of the Executive across many policy areas. The recent debacle over welfare reform further underlined the sense that Sinn Fein continue to be a bit at sea when it comes to important matters at the heart of government.

I have written about this on Slugger before, where I highlighted the particular role played by Peter Robinson in molding the post-Good Friday Agreement DUP into a party best positioned for the era of devolved governance.

Robinson successfully courted the Baby Barrister generation of young Ulster Unionists who provided the aspiring class of political leaders within the DUP and whose defection en masse to the party in the post-Good Friday Agreement phase brought to the party a changed face more representative of the breadth of the Protestant/ Unionist community, a vital factor in helping former Ulster Unionist voters make the decisive electoral leap to the DUP.

In this, he succeeded where the northern republican leadership failed due to a multitude of reasons which has meant that Sinn Fein continues to be distinctly unrepresentative of the breadth of the northern nationalist electorate and not as effective in their various roles at Stormont.

Robinson’s eye for detail always contrasted favourably with the approach of the republican leadership under Adams and McGuinness, who have always excelled at- and been more comfortable with- big picture politics.

In their favour, the republican leadership’s approach has been more effective in transforming the republican narrative over the course of the past 20 years.

Where Sinn Fein’s leadership excelled at preparing the base and broader nationalist/republican community for the changes required to make and work peace, Robinson excelled at transforming his party to achieve the twin objectives of positioning the DUP as the undisputed voice of unionism and at subsequently preparing the party for government.

Robinson had his share of problems and shortcomings. Whilst he succeeded in transforming the DUP into a vehicle capable of capitalizing on unionist discontent with the Good Friday Agreement, he singularly failed to change the unionist narrative, leaving unionism metaphorically and physically still camped at Twaddell by the time he departed the stage, and there is little sign in the words and actions of his successor that political unionism has embraced the full reality of what the shared society of today and tomorrow will and must look like.

And yet his very departure once again illustrated his talent: the DUP left behind by Robinson was one he had shaped at every level. Even the choreography delivering Arlene’s coronation demonstrated Robinson’s flair.

Robinson’s legacy includes having successfully managed two leadership transitions (his own dethroning of Ian Paisley and his passing of the baton to Arlene Foster) that left the DUP stronger than they were before, a considerable achievement.

Sinn Fein

For Sinn Fein, the failure to expedite the process of transitioning northern Sinn Fein into a party best equipped for the era of governance has played a significant role in explaining the leveling and now falling back in electoral support.

Now, before going any further, it is important to note the stunning successes experienced by the Adams-McGuinness led Sinn Fein since 1992, when Adams was ousted as West Belfast MP, leaving the party without Westminster representation nor even a hope of a solitary Dail seat.

Today, Sinn Fein has arrived as a central player in southern Irish politics, with 23 TDs, and is firmly established as the primary voice of the Irish Left. The southern wing of the party is a different creature altogether from their northern sibling. In the South, the party has a clear, credible and consistent ideological outlook which is openly articulated by the breadth of representatives. The party abounds with fresh faces at the highest level of representative in constituencies across the state who clearly have flocked to Sinn Fein due to a mix of affinities with the republican objectives and left wing sentiment.

In the north, the shadow and legacy of the past continues to affect all aspects of our society, in ways that have not previously been examined in detail.

Sinn Fein remain distinctly unrepresentative of the northern nationalist community, over-reliant on representatives from a core republican activist base that has remained loyal to the party for several decades. Crucially, this situation pertains not just at representative level but also in the background within the party.

At leadership level, Sinn Fein appears almost afraid to let go of the reins. At a representative level, it has proven very difficult for new voices to emerge beyond the lowest rung of the ladder, and where the real power resides remains the domain of those who’s expertise lay in navigating a political movement through the choppy waters of a peace and political process, not in the intricacies of governance nor in policy formulation, articulation and implementation.

There are many and varied reasons for this, including the reality that Sinn Fein continues to act as a bulwark against dissident republicans, and that requires a visible and tangible connection with the past era in order to prevent dissident groupings seeking to gain traction within nationalist communities across the north. Many informed voices from across society- and governments- are quick to point to the necessity of Sinn Fein fulfilling this role, including in the aftermath of the killing of Kevin McGuigan and those of more recent days and weeks.

The impressive feat accomplished by the Adams-McGuinness leadership in carrying militant republicanism from war to peace is widely recognized beyond these shores, and history will only further confirm the scale of that achievement. Today, there is no political leader on this island with anything remotely approaching the gravitas of Gerry Adams, something that continues to instill fear in the political and media mainstream in Dublin.

But part of managing that process involved crafting an internal political culture which emphasized and rewarded attributes like discipline, deference and loyalty. These characteristics can prove invaluable when a protracted process of compromise and concession has been required, and beneficial when helping to portray the party as speaking in unison, a powerful contrast to other political parties often plagued by internal divisions.

Yet the same attributes can and have acted as a significant block on what should have been a natural process of political evolution.

The spirit of aspiration and innovation, often prevalent within political parties and acting as a vehicle driving internal change at a personnel and policy level, is absent. For Sinn Fein, this has meant that the party of the aspiring, assertive and self-confident northern nationalist community for the past generation has singularly failed to attract a membership reflective of the breadth of that same community.

The internal culture, including the well meaning but deeply flawed salary policy, has acted as a disincentive to a party desperately in need of an influx of a membership with the skills and experiences required to optimize the returns from the devolved era.

The consequences of this are clear. The momentum for change in northern Sinn Fein will not come from below: the legacy of the successful transformation of the Republican Movement into the exclusively political Sinn Fein of today includes that the transition must be triggered by Adams and McGuinness alone.

Their final challenge as Republican leaders will be to prepare and implement a plan that has as its ultimate objective their departure from the stage and legacy of a healthy, vibrant political party capable of advancing the republican argument across the country. They need to place their trust and faith in the enduring appeal of the ideal, and not in personnel trusted due to past services rendered.

Sinn Fein’s relationship with the Catholic Church has famously been a tense and fractious one, but the words of Pope John XXIII with regard to Vatican II and its significance are particularly relevant and instructive at this time:

“Throw open the windows…..and let the fresh air of the spirit blow through.”

The SDLP

The SDLP’s difficulties are much more problematic than that of Sinn Fein-who, it must be remembered, have just come through two elections across the country where their collective electoral and political profile is greater than at any time since partition. If Sinn Fein’s failure is relative, there is no such caveat to be attached to the sorry demise of the once dominant party of Hume and Mallon.

Casting minds back to the 1990s, the SDLP made a fatal error in the early days of the SDLP-SF battle for domination when they conceived of the ridiculous notion that SDLP voters were ‘lending their votes’ to Sinn Fein to help the peace process. In hindsight, it should have been easy for anyone to see how preposterous the claim was, but the fact the party clearly believed it betrayed an arrogance and extent of denial that prevented the party from taking the decisive steps required to stave off Sinn Fein’s advance.

20 years on and the SDLP appear still incapable of taking the bold, decisive step of addressing the need to challenge Sinn Fein on the all-Ireland front. The party responsible for post-nationalism now speaks of progressive nationalism, but the truth is that the partitionist nature of the exclusively northern organization has made it all but impossible for the SDLP to challenge Sinn Fein on the nationalist front without emerging a distant second in that contest. The SDLP should long ago have forged a credible alliance with one of the main southern parties, and in the time to come the option of going cap in hand to Micheal Martin, in the event of Fianna Fail living up to his pledge to contest northern elections from 2019, should increasingly be viewed as a credible and attractive option for a party now struggling to merely keep its head above the water.

Compounding their difficulties has been the fact that no leader has decisively sought to position the party ideologically in a space where the SDLP could exclusively connect with a section of the electorate distinct from Sinn Fein.

The SDLP remains a coalition of disparate voices once removed from ageing fiefdoms, at one time united under the clear, bold and attractive banner of being the nationalists not associated with the IRA. That carried the SDLP for decades through the conflict and into the immediate years of the peace process, masking the real contradictions in terms of policy positions that divided many of the party’s leading lights.

What is not often enough remembered is that Sinn Fein surpassed the SDLP when Mallon and Hume remained in charge. The rot set in on the watch of the revered heavyweights. The sorry tenures of Durkan, Ritchie, McDonnell and, now, Eastwood have been consistent only in marking the further decline of the party.

There is a space for another nationalist party in the north of Ireland. What is becoming increasingly clear is that northern nationalists are less and less convinced that that party is the SDLP.