On Celebrity Endorsements & Battleground Constituencies

Celebrity endorsements are a feature of political life across the western world. We are well used to prominent figures in the entertainment industry lining up to endorse or criticise political candidates- in the United States, Britain and Ireland.

Figures within the sporting world are also known for raising their voices to offer opinions on political developments and at election time.

In recent days, snooker’s Ronnie O’Sullivan publicly offered his support to Jeremy Corbyn ahead of June’s election. Gregg Popovich, head coach of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, has been using the platform of regular media briefings throughout the season and playoffs to regularly criticise President Trump.

During the Brexit referendum campaign, Ulster and Ireland rugby captain, Rory Best, publicly backed the Remain side.

As this leaflet from the 2012 Irish Presidential election campaign illustrates, candidates seeking to use the endorsements of high-profile figures in society is nothing new.

BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback covered the issue of political endorsements from sports figures at length on Friday, with contributions from Sean Kelly (Fine Gael MEP & former President of the GAA) and a number of local contributors. This came in the aftermath of Pete McGrath, former Down GAA senior football manager and current senior football manager of Fermanagh, endorsing South Down Sinn Fein candidate, Chris Hazzard.

Tyrone legend, Peter Canavan, appeared in a similar Twitter video to endorse Sinn Fein’s West Tyrone candidate, Barry McElduff, whilst Cliftonville FC striker, Joe Gormley, signed the nomination papers for Sinn Fein’s North Belfast candidate, John Finucane.

Of the Talkback contributors, former senior SDLP figure, Tom Kelly, was the most critical of the decision of Pete McGrath to participate in the video endorsement.

Tom Kelly described it as “a departure” in Northern Ireland, claiming that this was a “groundbreaking move” because McGrath was “the public face of the GAA for many supporters.”

Tom has a background in communications, so I can only imagine he recognises that this story augurs well for the Sinn Fein candidate- ironically, even more so given the publicity arising as a result of Tom’s criticism.

There are two aspects of this story that interest me.

Firstly, a person’s sporting profile should not act to exclude them from expressing opinions when it comes to politics. Different sporting organisations will have their own rules (like many other public and private bodies) in relation to political affiliations, but  the principle of free speech in this regard should be preserved.

In a similar way, this was an issue prior to the March Assembly election, when permanent secretary at Stormont’s Health Department, Richard Pengelly, emailed health trust chiefs to express concern at “overtly political” tweets. At that time, there was a sharply negative reaction from across the political spectrum to Pengelly.

The second issue relates to the worth of receiving an endorsement.

In the USA, celebrity endorsements heavily favour liberal candidates, usually from the Democratic Party, at both State and Federal level. If presidential election contests were determined by celebrity endorsements, there would not have been eight years of President George W Bush and nor would we be many months into the Trump era.

Celebrity endorsements, on their own, don’t have a significant effect in terms of swaying the opinions of voters.

Where they can have an influence is if they are viewed as tapping into and affirming a mood.

The South Down constituency is a critical battleground within nationalism this time in a way that it has never been before.

Traditionally an SDLP stronghold, Sinn Fein returned after March with an emphatic victory, securing more than 19,000 votes to just 12,500 for the SDLP candidates.

The sheer scale of the Sinn Fein lead, particularly when contrasted with Foyle, where the SDLP post-March have a much smaller deficit of some 2,000 odd votes to make up, has meant that Hazzard is well-positioned to finally claim the South Down seat for Sinn Fein.

The McGrath endorsement will sting many in the SDLP because it is consistent with March’s clear statement from the electors of South Down.

In the end, it is those voters who will make the decision.