Sinn Fein has delivered an object lesson in how to do disruptive politics. A classic example of Tzu Sun’s famous aphorism that: “If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest.”
No one, outside the party, expected or was prepared for what followed.
There were two aspects to the success of its campaign. One was seizing the prime opportunity out of the DUP’s RHI difficulty, then moving quickly and decisively. The other was the enormous preparation and work put into making sure that disruption provided a maximum yield.
After last year’s 5% drop nationalist ratings, the sleeping crocodile roused and grabbed most of it back. Posters, billboards, canvassing teams, cars with loudspeakers. Voter registrations were done, and big numbers of proxies offered to many who hadn’t voted in a while.
Their record in government may have been by their own admission poor, but when Sinn Fein takes elections seriously in Northern Ireland they play the sort of Total Politics we first noted on Slugger back in the bitterly cold election of November 2003.
In terms of results, Sinn Féin’s lowest gains come in places (like North Down and East Belfast) where nationalists are as rare as hen’s teeth. But this is not where the party focused the bulk of their resources.
Where they did they either had specific rivals in mind whilst maximising seats. Where properly surged it is as important as the overall size (+3.9%): Foyle (+8.2%), South Down (+7.2%), Newry and Armagh (+7.4%), West Belfast (+7.3%), Mid Ulster (+6.1%), West Tyrone (+6.1%).
As a result in Foyle and South Down for instance, Sinn Fein would now be well placed to take two seats off the SDLP. A 4% drop in the unionist turnout in FST sets up similar with the UUP. Although with the UK opposition a driverless vehicle, Mrs May is presently under no pressure to do so.
All of this is about the home game, but perhaps even Sinn Fein was surprised at the scale of their score against Unionism at large (even with this huge surge the DUP remain ahead of them, if only by the smallest of margins). For that, they have the DUP leader to thank.
Even before the split, Mrs Foster seemed confused and discomfited by the controversy over RHI. Sinn Fein’s ‘defection‘ from government with that letter from McGuinness the night before Arlene was due to give her account of the RHI scandal threw her completely and she never recovered.
What drove the final scale of the swing in the vote towards Sinn Fein was the huge surge in the audience for the BBC’s leaders debate two days before polling day. The urge to give Foster a kicking led many to cast a first-time vote for Sinn Fein as the most effective way to ‘put manners on her’.
It was a remarkable turnaround.
As Brian Feeney notes “Sinn Féin were almost too late walking away because their voters were walking away from them”. As it happens, they weren’t too late. Two months after Stormont borked Sinn Fein has levelled things up with the DUP in the Assembly.
And the party is back where it is always most comfortable. Out of government, in negotiations, and endlessly in the public eye as the main party of protest. Quite an achievement for a party that’s been in government for all but a few months of the last ten years.
It’s time for the DUP and Unionism at large to learn some harsh lessons (but more of that tomorrow). Another government will have to be formed out of the wreckage of the last one. An uneasy proposition when its chief opponent, the DUP, has been wounded rather than killed.
There are plenty of recommendations on how to get out of trouble cheaply and fast. Most of them come down to this: Deny your responsibility.
– President Lyndon Baines Johnson