‘The Fearghal McKinney effect’

There obviously won’t be any pact between the SDLP and Sinn Féin anytime soon and the latest comments from Michelle O’Neill and Colum Eastwood reaffirm their party positions.

Eastwood is keeping one eye to the unionist voters in Foyle and especially South Down that will be considering voting strategically for his party to keep Sinn Féin out.

A pact with republicans may scare the horses.

No pact is good news for the SDLP in South Down and Foyle, less so South Belfast. With Sinn Féin, the Greens and Alliance throwing their hats into the ring this could have a salami slicing effect on Alasdair McDonnell’s slim majority.

Looking at past election figures this is a hugely significant poll for Eastwood. The SDLP has held at least 3 seats for the past 30 years since Eddie McGrady, John Hume and Seamus Mallon were returned to Westminster in 1987 . They added West Belfast to this tally briefly between 1992 and 1997 but have consistently held a trio of seats ever since. Remarkable to think that whilst the SDLP Assembly tally has reduced at every single Assembly election from 1998 to 2016 that the MP tally has remained static.

Sinn Féin of course knew that the SDLP were going to reject the proposal that they stand aside in Fermanagh / South Tyrone and North Belfast. The SDLP have already stated that they would not engage in a pact with abstentionist candidates. John Finucane has a big challenge ahead of him to overturn the DUP majority in North Belfast but to come within range he needs to eat into the SDLP base significantly.

A case study in point is when Fearghal McKinney stood in Fermanagh and South Tyrone in 2010. Because there was a single unionist candidate – Rodney Connor – this helped mobilise the nationalist vote significantly behind Michelle Gildernew who won by 4 votes. In the process the SDLP vote crashed from 14.8 to 7.6% and has never really recovered since. Sinn Féin expect that Finucane will have a wider appeal to the middle classes and hope that nationalists will buy into the ethos of what could have been the anti-Brexit pact – back the progressive candidate that is best placed to win a First-past-the-post poll.

One of the biggest vote swings in the March Assembly election was from the SDLP to Sinn Féin in South Down  and almost led to the SDLP losing their second Assembly seat to the Alliance’s Patrick Brown. The SDLP majority over Sinn Féin here has reduced consistently at each Westminster election and this may be the year that republicans finally take the South Down crown. However whilst the Assembly figures are quite stark the big question is how many thousand votes is Ritchie’s incumbency worth?

Mark Durkan has always maintained a majority of 4-6,000 in Foyle and will benefit from the decision of the Ulster Unionists not to stand. He remains the best placed of the three incumbents.

There will be concern in the SDLP that there is a quickening growth in the Sinn Féin vote following the March election. It may contribute to the loss of two of their three seats. However if Colum Eastwood and the SDLP can hold all of their sitting MPs it would be an equally extraordinary result.

This week may not represent the best of starts though. The SDLP position of not backing an abstentionist and proceeding to stand in North Belfast and Fermanagh/South Tyrone will not be well received – in the main – by a more pragmatic nationalist electorate. They would rather that Tom Elliott and Nigel Dodds did not emerge victorious on 8th June regardless of arguments over abstentionism. That view will be held by voting nationalists across the north, not just in those two constituencies.