Assessing the Nationalist Battle in AE17

Prior to last year’s Assembly election, I wrote this article on Slugger about the impending battle for nationalist votes. I predicted that it was unlikely the nationalist parties would hold the 43 seats they held between them on account of the developing trend of a declining nationalist turnout over many years, which I have written about on Slugger, including after the Westminster election in 2015 when I labelled it the Nationalist Malaise.

In the aftermath of the 2016 Assembly election, one in which the combined Sinn Fein and SDLP percentage of the overall vote shrunk to pre-ceasefire levels, I wrote this piece, articulating the view that nationalists were voting with their feet to stay away from the polls in droves as a direct result of the failure of their political parties to raise their game in the devolution era.

It is worth reflecting upon just how poor last year’s electoral performance was for both nationalist parties.

The combined Sinn Fein-SDLP share of the overall vote in last year’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. The 40 SF-SDLP MLAs returned amounted to the worst combined representation for nationalism in the Assembly since the Good Friday Agreement.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this election will be to see if the manner in which Sinn Fein finally pulled the plug on Stormont, and in the process seized the initiative (albeit perhaps temporarily) for the first time in a decade from the DUP, will have the effect of incentivizing nationalists to turn out.

The beginning of northern Sinn Fein’s transition to a post-conflict/peace process leadership has been late in coming, and was hastened only by unexpected health issues experienced by Martin McGuinness.

Nevertheless it has meant that the face of Sinn Fein has changed dramatically, and not just at leadership level in the north.

In that piece following last year’s election, I identified many of the difficulties and challenges facing Sinn Fein:

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.

One of the more interesting features of the party’s candidate slate for this Assembly election is the sheer number of young female candidates who have been selected, and for winnable seats.

Sinn Fein are likely to end up with a seat tally in the mid-20s, which means the number of female elected MLAs for the party is likely to amount to touching 50% of their total representation, with only Mairead O’Donnell (East Belfast) entering the contest without any realistic hope of election.

Sinn Fein’s Female Candidates in AE17 by Constituency

Candidate Constituency   Candidate Constituency
Orlaithi Flynn West Belfast Nuala Toman Upper Bann
Sinead Ennis South Down Jemma Dolan Fermanagh & South Tyrone
Megan Fearon Newry and Armagh Elisha McCallion Foyle
Caoimhe Archibald East Derry Linda Dillon Mid Ulster
Michaela Boyle West Tyrone Caral ni Chuilin North Belfast
Mairead O’Donnell East Belfast Michelle Gildernew Fermanagh & South Tyrone
Michelle O’Neill Mid Ulster

While the public face of the party is set for a significant change, the real challenge for a Michelle O’Neill-led Sinn Fein at Stormont will be to effect internal changes to how the party conducts itself and is organized in order to sharpen performance. That won’t happen overnight, and must involve changing the party’s internal culture and modus operandi in order to support and empower a new leadership that will otherwise face the same difficulties which contributed to the party- and nationalism- putting in a subpar performance in the first decade of the all-in post-St Andrews’ devolution phase.

But that’s for another time.

My sense is that one of the main themes that will emerge from this election will be a modest reversal of fortunes regarding relative turnout between nationalists and unionists.

The context of this election is unprecedented. The DUP, who secured a remarkable mandate in 2016 demonstrating their dominant position within unionism, have been in a state of turmoil for months. The RHI scandal shows no signs of abating, and will continue to have a corrosive impact on the party’s image and the reputation of leader Arlene Foster long into the future.

Yet Mike Nesbitt’s Ulster Unionist Party do not appear well positioned to benefit from discontented DUP voters. In Belfast, for instance, it will still be a major surprise if the Ulster Unionists win more than the one outgoing MLA seat of the 20 available city-wide, and the low profile of their candidates in the north and south of the city does not augur well for their campaigns to upset the odds in constituencies where voters have been getting used to not voting UUP for quite some time.

Nesbitt’s SDLP transfer pitch can be depicted as a brave step, yet the fact that he has been so publicly (and rapidly) undermined by fellow party candidates declaring their support for pro-Union voting in defiance of Nesbitt’s call does not send out a positive image of a leader fully in charge of a party hoping to capitalize on the DUP’s misfortunes. The transfer discussion has also allowed the DUP to deflect attention from the RHI scandal, and do so on grounds upon which they are more sure-footed then their UUP counterparts.

All of which means that, when polling day arrives, discontented DUP voters may decide to register the type of non-voting protest that has been the hallmark of voters from both of the mainstream nationalist parties in recent years.

Assembly Seats by Party 1998-2016 (including Equivalent Seat Tally for 2017 on 2016 Seat tally figures)

‘17 Eq

‘16

‘11

‘07

‘03

‘98

DUP

31.5

38 38 36 30 20
UUP 13.3 16 16 18 27 28
SF 23.3 28 29 28 24 18
SDLP 9.9 12 14 16 18 24
ALL 6.6 8 8 7 6 6
GP 2 1 1 0 0
TUV 1 1 0 0 0
PUP 0 0 1 1 2
PBP 2 0 0 0 0
OTH 1 1 1 2 10

In contrast, the battle within nationalism has been heating up due to a number of factors.

Whilst Sinn Fein are slowly beginning to face into a period of transition that will leave behind those who have held onto the torch for too long, the SDLP are several years into their latest attempt to reinvent themselves and reconnect with the nationalist community.

This time, however, the SDLP will hope that the success they have had with regard to bringing in new faces like Daniel McCrossan and Nichola Mallon will help them fend off Sinn Fein in key battles for the fifth and final seat in a set of constituencies including West Tyrone, North Belfast, Upper Bann, East Derry and Fermanagh South Tyrone amongst others. Indeed, the fact that Sinn Fein never established the level of electoral superiority within nationalism that the DUP did within unionism means that there remain active intra-community battles for seats across the north between the two nationalist parties that could help raise the overall nationalist turnout rate.

Interestingly, there are four comfortably majority nationalist constituencies in which a battle will commence between nationalists and unionists to determine whether unionist candidates claim one or two seats. Demographics, turnout and transfer rates will determine whether or not Sinn Fein and the SDLP can claim four of five seats in South Down, Newry and Armagh, Mid Ulster and West Tyrone this time around, or if that will have to wait until the next electoral contest (or beyond.)

One of the factors that will count against both nationalist parties, and that must finally be addressed by them, is that neither are mounting credible campaigns in all eighteen constituencies.

Sinn Fein continue to underperform to an alarming degree in this regard, with the party’s failure to address its shortcomings demonstrating the problem it continues to have with regard to attracting people from outside of the core republican base.

In North Down, Lagan Valley and Strangford, the party will put next to no effort into seeking an Assembly mandate in spite of their being sufficient nationalists in the latter two constituencies to be in a position to challenge for an Assembly seat in the short to medium term future, if the groundwork was done and time invested in supporting local party structures, selecting and profiling the right candidates.

Similarly, the SDLP continue to struggle in such constituencies. The party has continually failed to motivate the nationalists of Strangford to turn out in sufficient numbers to elect party candidates, though they have made more of an effort in Lagan Valley since 2016.

Ironically, in 1998 the SDLP candidate in North Down, Marietta Farrell, claimed some 2,048 votes and 5.5% of the vote in the constituency. By 2016, this had shrunk to 426 votes, just ahead of a similarly token 307 votes secured by Sinn Fein.

For the SDLP, this story has been repeated on a larger and more worrying scale across the north.

The party’s demise in Belfast paints a picture of gloom that is particularly sobering. In the first Assembly election (1998), the SDLP secured 28,944 votes across the four Belfast constituencies. By last year, their total vote across the city was less than half of that tally, sitting at 14,015. More worryingly for the party, nationalists in the west of the city seeking an alternative to Sinn Fein had bypassed the SDLP and opted for People Before Profit in unprecedented numbers, demonstrating the increasing irrelevance of the SDLP in the most nationalist of constituencies in the state.

As the table below illustrates, the 40 seats and 36% share of the overall vote achieved by the two nationalist parties in 2016 was a sharp decline from the peak figures obtained in 2007, when 44 nationalists were elected with 41.4% share of the vote.

 

SF-SDLP Performance at Elections to the NI Assembly 1998-2016

Election

Sinn Fein

 

SDLP

 

Comb Nat

  Votes % Seats   Votes % Seats   % Seats
2016 166,785 24.0% 28 83,368 12.0% 12 36.0% 40
2011 178,224 26.9% 29 94,286 14.2% 14 41.1% 43
2007 180,573 26.2% 28 105,164 15.2% 16 41.4% 44
2003 162,758 23.5% 24 117,547 17.0% 18 40.5% 42
1998 142,858 17.6% 18 177,963 21.9% 24 39.5% 42

With that in mind, I will outline what I believe to be the ideal target outcomes for the combined nationalist parties and for each party respectively below.

Nationalism’s Ideal Outcomes

Secure a combined total of 34 seats: The 44 seats won collectively by Sinn Fein and the SDLP in 2007 amounted to just over 40% of the Assembly representation. The equivalent seat tally in a 90-seat Assembly chamber would be to return 36-37 MLAs. That won’t happen this time around as it would require (at least) the SDLP to claim a second seat in South Belfast and one of the two nominally nationalist parties to retake Gerry Carroll’s People Before Profit seat in West Belfast.

The 36 seat total secured by the two parties last year equates to just over 33 seats in a 90-seat chamber, and therefore returning with 33 or less seats will amount to a further reduction in nationalist representation from the already historic low returned in 2016.

Increase combined nationalist percent of the overall vote to above 38.5%: The 2016 combined nationalist share of the overall vote dipped dramatically as a result of two factors that had been building over time: increasing disillusionment within nationalism leading to declining turnout and the growth in support for People Before Profit. The latter party claimed two seats and 2% of the overall vote on account of their impressive showing in the two strongest nationalist/ republican constituencies in the north of Ireland, West Belfast and Foyle. They also garnered in excess of 1,200 votes in North Belfast, overwhelmingly from strongly nationalist and republican districts.

In real terms, then, a SF/SDLP percentage of the overall vote exceeding 40%, as occurred during successive elections between 2003- 2011, is unlikely at this time. It is more realistic to gauge as significant an increased combined nationalist share of the vote that would push the figure above 38% in next month’s election.

Nationalist parties mounting more effective campaigns (and gaining credible electoral returns) in more constituencies: The reduction in total seats per constituency raises the quota needed to secure a seat in a manner that is likely to mean that, after the votes are counted, five of the eighteen constituencies will be without a nationalist MLA: Lagan Valley, East Belfast, Strangford, North Down and East Antrim. Oliver McMullan pulled off a shock when he first won a seat for Sinn Fein in the latter constituency in 2011, and repeated the feat in 2016. The higher quota may make it too much of an ask this time though. In Lagan Valley, the SDLP’s Pat Catney will seek to consolidate his growing vote and position himself for a credible run at claiming the seat in the next Assembly election.

Addressing the shortcomings within both parties that have prevented them from effectively organizing, attracting members and local representatives and cultivating political and electoral support in these constituencies will be central to growing support for not just nationalist parties but also a pro-Unity vision in the future.

Sinn Fein’s Ideal Outcomes

25 seats: This would represent a 27.7% share of the total Assembly seats, above the 26.8% share the party secured when claiming their highest tally of 29 Assembly seats in 2011. It is more likely that the party will claim 24 seats, which would be a slight advance on the equivalent Assembly seat share secured last year. Falling to 23 seats would represent a further step backwards for the party.

25%+ of the overall vote: The party’s vote share in the 2007 and 2011 Assembly elections was above the 26% mark (26.2% in 2007 rising to 26.9% in 2011), before falling back sharply in the 2015 Westminster (24.5%) and 2016 Assembly elections (24%) on account of the declining nationalist turnout and votes lost to People Before Profit. Pushing the party’s percentage share of the vote back above the 25% mark would signal that the party was beginning to reconnect with that section of the electorate whose absence from the polling booth in recent elections has set the republican party back in a number of key strategic electoral battles.

SDLP’s Ideal Outcomes

12 seats: The SDLP’s 2016 Assembly election return of 12 seats was nothing short of disastrous. The party knows that it is in a battle for survival this time, as the fall in overall Assembly seat numbers means the SDLP are facing huge electoral contests to retain representation and prevent the party’s overall numbers falling into single figures. I have a sense that they will fall between 9 and 11 seats, with transfers proving crucial in many constituencies. Coming in at 10 seats would almost perfectly match the % share of the total Assembly seats they secured in 2016, though that would not be a great consolation given how poorly they performed last year. Taking 11 or more seats will rightly be celebrated as a step in the right direction.

14%+ of the overall vote: The SDLP’s 14.2% of the vote taken in 2011 was the first time the party had fallen below 15%, and was regarded as a low point at the time. The party could not have imagined that subsequent elections would see the vote share plummet further to the 12.0% low of last year. Securing 14% would at least suggest that they had begun to reconnect with lost voters and give the SDLP reason for optimism moving forward.

 

The Key Nationalist Battlegrounds

North Belfast SF’s 2nd seat v

SDLP’s 1st seat

Nichola Mallon is a strong candidate for the SDLP, but SF will also be confident that their own two high profile candidates can be returned. Mallon will need strong transfers, but if SF can motivate their vote to turn out here, they should be able to keep both of their seats.
West Belfast SF’s 4th seat v

SDLP’s 1st seat

Attwood is in real trouble. He needs a massive transfer boost from unionists as well as an enhanced first preference tally on 2016 to survive.
East Derry SF’s 2nd seat v

SDLP’s 1st seat

The SDLP are in trouble due to internal turmoil meaning John Dallat is fighting against the incumbent SDLP representative, Gerry Mullan, and against a SF pairing who came close to seizing both nationalist seats last time round.
Mid Ulster SF’s 3rd seat v

SDLP’s 1st seat

Michelle O’Neill will hope a fresh wind of support on the back of her promotion can help the party oust Patsy McGlone and sweep three nationalist seats for SF.
Fermanagh South Tyrone SF’s 3rd seat v

SDLP’s 1st seat

SF will struggle to claim the third nationalist seat if unionists transfer in significant numbers to the SDLP candidate. SF’s best hope will be if the SDLP candidate is eliminated before the third unionist candidate. Ironically, unionism’s best hopes for stealing 3 of 5 seats rests on poor transfers between the nationalist candidates.
West Tyrone SF’s 3rd seat v

SDLP’s 1st seat

McCrossan has developed a high profile combative persona that might be enough to see off SF’s efforts to wipe out SDLP Assembly representation again in this constituency.
Upper Bann SF’s 2nd seat v

SDLP’s 1st seat

Losing Catherine Seeley from the ticket was a real blow for SF, and if the SDLP reclaim the seat here it will be due to Sinn Fein not managing to retain a clearly talented future prospect who, with John O’Dowd, provided a formidable constituency pairing.
Newry and Armagh SF’s 3rd seat v

SDLP’s 1st seat

SF will struggle to claim the SDLP’s solitary seat in a constituency with a solid SDLP support base.

On a disastrous day for the party, the SDLP’s 2nd seats in Foyle and in South Down could fall. On a great day for them, the SDLP could be in for shock seat advances in Lagan Valley and Strangford, and even a 2nd seat in South Belfast.