The Battle within Nationalism: SDLP Ground Game crucial to Saving Alasdair

I had a piece in Thursday’s News Letter election supplement about the battle taking place within nationalism in the Westminster election.

I agree with Alex Kane that unionists will be out in numbers on Thursday in an attempt, from their perspective, to rectify what happened in March.

Primary emotions play a major role in producing higher voter turnout at election time. Fear, anger and hope have each played a role in determining major upswings in turnout, with significant electoral landmarks attributable to each.

Hope brought about the massive vote in 1998’s historic first Assembly election. On an international stage, hope also led to the 2008 US Presidential election turnout which ushered in the Obama Presidency. At some 57%, it remains the highest since 1968, itself a contest fought against the background of high profile political assassinations and unrest from the Vietnam War.

In a local setting, fear and anger have always been – and continue to be- more easily triggered within unionism. Poor political leadership has played a role in this, as have some media sources via the drip feed of contrived ‘fury’ and ‘rage’ headlines, but one of the consequences continues to be that unionist turnout at election time can be more reliably predicted.

Over recent years, I have written numerous articles on Slugger and elsewhere on the declining nationalist turnout, which had frustrated both nationalist parties and led to successive electoral setbacks at local, Assembly and Westminster level from 2010 until 2016.

The story of March’s Assembly election was the Nationalist Surge, which led to the highest percentage of nationalist elected representatives ever being returned at a NI-wide election since the foundation of the state.

That was a product of anger incentivising nationalists to turn out and vote in numbers not seen in the post-St Andrews era of all-in devolution.

It was not because of unionists failing to turnout.

They did. And in large numbers.

The 225,413 votes won by the DUP in March represented the 2nd highest vote registered in an election for the party (topped only by the 2005 Westminster vote which saw the party demolish the Ulster Unionist Party on the back of winning some 241,856 votes.)

This election contest was unexpected, but it does come at a time which both of our leading parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP, believe to be more than a little fortuitous.

Post-March, unionists are itching to hit back, and I fully expect a significant unionist reaction in the form of turnout and further swing to the DUP that should see the party consolidate vote share and seats, with South Antrim likely to be added to their tally and East Belfast more comfortably retained than has been predicted.

But their real target is South Belfast.

Peter Robinson has come out of retirement to score a final victory, and the UDA’s Jackie McDonald has been lined up to claim an assist in the event of Emma Lyttle Pengelly pipping Alasdair McDonnell at the post to take the seat.

South Belfast will be important because it represents winning back a seat from Nationalism, as both Unionist parties will quietly admit that Fermanagh South Tyrone should be lost to Sinn Fein if nationalists vote in the numbers they did in March regardless of unionist turnout in that constituency.

Within Nationalism, the battle is restricted to the three seats currently held by the SDLP, with Sinn Fein set to comfortably hold their four seats and, in the process, further reduce the People Before Profit threat in West Belfast.

Foyle should be safe for the SDLP, even though Sinn Fein did succeed in pulling ahead of their rivals in March here for the first time. Durkan’s appeal is greater than that of his party, and it is likely that Sinn Fein will pull up just short this time.

The SDLP will know that South Down looks precarious for the party.

Margaret Ritchie was never the strongest of candidates to retain and consolidate party support at a time when the SDLP are struggling, and with Sinn Fein finally identifying in Chris Hazzard an impressive, local and long-term prospect to seize the majority nationalist position in this constituency, it looks like South Down is set to go Sinn Fein barring tactical voting from unionists on an unprecedented scale in the constituency.

Whilst that is possible, the post-Nationalist Surge context of this election will have significantly diminished the appeal of tactical voting for many Unionists in a manner that could prove fatal for Ritchie’s prospects of clinging on to the seat.

Apart from South Down, the two most intriguing contests from a nationalist perspective will be in North Belfast and South Belfast.

In John Finucane, nationalism has an election candidate with unity status appeal under a Sinn Fein label for the first time. He is set to register a massive vote in a constituency which always previously had a lower ceiling on the republican party’s ambition due to its difficulties in connecting with voters from the upper Antrim Road/ Glengormley end of the constituency.

That has not been a problem for Finucane. He has been helped by the SDLP and Alliance running low profile candidates, and how close he is able to run Nigel Dodds will be fascinating.

Which brings us back to South Belfast.

It is not a coincidence that the SDLP Leader, Deputy Leader and candidates for North Belfast, East Belfast and Lagan Valley have all been out on the doors with Alasdair McDonnell in his constituency (as opposed to their own) in recent days.

In 2001, Alex Attwood described West Tyrone as the SDLP’s Stalingrad. Back then, the party had decided to parachute into the constituency Brid Rodgers, the high profile Agriculture Minister who’d been viewed as doing a good job in her role over the foot and mouth crisis.

With Sinn Fein biting at their heels electorally, the SDLP saw this tactical move as a potentially game-changing opportunity to halt Sinn Fein’s electoral advance across the north.

This was a constituency in which the sitting MP, Willie Thompson, had managed to squeeze through and get elected only because the two nationalist candidates had so evenly shared the nationalist vote in 1997.

The Rodgers’ gamble did not pay off, and Sinn Fein’s stunning ground game performance in the constituency convinced local nationalists that Pat Doherty was the only candidate who could take the seat from Willie Thompson, which he proceeded to do with over 40% of the vote.

In many ways, South Belfast is a modern Stalingrad for the SDLP.

Lose here, and they stand at the precipice, in all likelihood with only their Maiden City stronghold yet to be breached.

In their favour, the SDLP will know that the post-March nationalist electorate is hungrier for electoral success and more attuned to the necessity of tactical voting to achieve that than has been the case for many years.

In both North Belfast and Fermanagh South Tyrone, Sinn Fein’s John Finucane and Michelle Gildernew will benefit handsomely from that sharpened sense of awareness across nationalism.

The SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell is the only nationalist who can win in South Belfast, but whether or not the SDLP’s ground game has been convincing enough to deliver a turnout for their veteran candidate in the face of the Robinson-orchestrated DUP challenge, we will soon know.