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.

 

 

 

  • Msiegnaro

    Anything else to go on?

  • T.E.Lawrence
  • Ryan A

    I don’t think it will be enough. I think it will be a bumper turnout and the LCCC announcement this morning will have the effective of pushing some voters from unionism to Paula and some from Paula to Al in a bid to shut the DUP out.

  • Msiegnaro

    I’m not sure if you’re being serious or if you know NB is gone?

  • the Moor

    Quite. Remembering too that Mussolini’s demise was to be strung up with piano wire! My feeling increasingly, over the years, is that Ulster unionism behaves in a manner more akin to a pathology – of unrequited adoration for the obscurantist symbols of English suzerainty over the Irish – rather than a political ideology with corresponding material interests that may thus be accommodated in negotiation. The unreason of its sectarian basis in history is Ulster unionism’s genetic flaw. Hysterical, closed to argument or presuasion, its likely fate instead of a feasibly common future in an agreed Ireland is the certainty of a sad, melancholic ending, for which few tears will be shed outside of its bitter self and surroundings.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    North Belfast is returning a Unionist MP get your house on it !

  • Msiegnaro

    Most bookmakers are at 1.35 that’s suggests danger.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Indeed! A political “Miss Havisham ” or “Norma Desmond” with a fifty year long affair with Westminster to mull over in her declining years. Recently Am Ghobsmacht on another Slugger thread has called for a local Christian Democrat party to replace an increasingly moribund and self-referencing Unionism (my evaluation of them, not his), but the closest I see to that occurring is the natural marriage that will come about between FF/FG and the most blatant opportunists from both wings of mainstream Unionism a few years down the line from now when we have re-unification and accordingly, “the end of an old song…”

  • the Moor

    The re-convergence of FF & FG would indeed be a fitting end to Ireland’s civil war century, were it to occur. Under Varadker, however, FG appear keen to re-new their right-wing (anti-welfare) trajectory, while FF seek as-opportunistically-as-ever to re-occupy the left-populist ground of the Lemass years/project. You’re right, of course, an Irish unionism (called something else – e.g., the Northern League!), were it minded so to do, could readily find a comfy spot within a reconfigured politics of conservatism on the island. That they won’t do so willingly doesn’t mean they’ll not come to that settlement among their fellow catholic–reactionaries in the end. But a christain democrat party (bigots of both persuasions welcome) is just about the last thing we need in a pluralist Ireland of the future.

  • the Moor

    Is that a joke/lampoon or for real? It’s hard to tell with the weird alternative realities of the unionist worldview …

  • the Moor

    So long as your house isn’t in north Belfast?

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Plenty of unionist houses in north Belfast yet !

  • grumpy oul man

    I see. So no point in trying to change it then.it a loyalist thing and catholics wont be wellcome.
    Well see you in a UI then.

  • the Moor

    at the cheap end of the Antrim road surely, but up in the heights?

  • Nevin

    Sam McBride is keeping his eye on South Belfast:

    https://twitter.com/SJAMcBride/status/871689197891014656

  • grumpy oul man

    Yes let us hope that when people see the local UDA busing people to to polls on behalf of the DUP they will take a stand against the Anti democrats and paramilitaries.
    or do you think they will ignore the Unionist active connection to terrorists and criminals and instead rant on about what republicans done 20/30 years ago.
    that seems to be what unionists are doing on slugger.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    AS we finally watch the working out of that hoary old prophesy of capitalism slowly collapsing under its own irreconcilable contradictions nowadays, I doubt that the current parties we see today north and south will survive what is coming. Whether this is simply Global money cynically dismissing them as an now unneeded layer of middle management (with that wasteful even when rigged electoral process eating up too much money), or when the inevitable dog eat dog disintegration of the financial system makes their brands of ideology clearly redundant, even in the eyes of the most besotted, either way, the “old song” looks to have a short encore in any re-unified Ireland……..

  • the Moor

    is that fat lady in the wings?

  • Madra Uisce

    They were form the Rathcoole area and would mostly have been known around the Newtownabbey district A delightful bunch who helped my in-laws relocate courtesy of a petrol bomb though the front window

  • SeaanUiNeill

    That’s her, reading a copy of “One-Dimentional Man” upside down….

  • Madra Uisce

    M at least you are honest about the base sectarianism within Unionism

  • Granni Trixie

    Thats terrible …but then their name implies they are/were the bottom of the barrel.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    I will stick with Frampton territory Tigers Bay ! The Working Class Unionists of North Belfast ! Great People !

  • the Moor

    No doubt. But in this instance and increasingly, outnumbered …

  • Vince

    I think/hope there may be enough reasonable people across the community that help to keep the seat out of the hands of DUP/SF/UDA. If Alasdair McDonnell lost the seat, SF would be celebrating just as much as the DUP (perhaps even more than). They really are a Coalition.

  • Madra Uisce

    Nonsense the only reason you re backing Pengelly is to stop themmuns, the rest of your posts make it plain

  • Oggins

    Seaan, do you have a foreseen time line for all this? If you were a betting man !

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    That’s a very honest answer, thank you.

    If Protestantism were to divorce itself from unionism (as in the two didn’t automatically go hand in hand as they pretty much, but not always, do now) then would that assuage your fears?

    It’s the Protestant relationship with ‘Britishness’ or the union that singles it out for criticism (and much more besides).

  • Msiegnaro

    You fancying SF then?

  • the Moor

    Am hoping so. We’ll know on Friday.

  • the Moor

    A ‘kick-the-pope’ flute band by the same name took part in the main 12 July parade at the time. They wore a ‘uniform’ of black ‘parallel’ trousers and black acryllic v-neck jerseys. Limited repertoire of tunes and not good at walking in orderly lines as I recall, sprawling across the road rather like a line of toddlers who broken from their crocodile.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Good days and bad days with the old Quartz Crystal Ball, Oggins. It never seems to work when any betting opportunity is in the offing, so I have to fall back on my older system of looking at half a millennia and more of History, and tracking the possible form that way. At the McClay, though, rather than Paddy Powers.

    We are on the fulcrum turn of long expected 50%+1 either now or very soon, and with irelands economy steadily maintaining growth, while the UK boasts nine of the ten poorest areas in northern Europe ( NI is 22% lower than the European average income) the outcome is pretty obvious and does not need spelling out. Only Poland and the Baltic states offer us any competition in this race to the bottom.

    The old Irish Unionist party took seats in the Free State Senaed in 1922, and showed in far less easy circumstances what might have been achieved if the Unionists had negotiated with the IPP and embraced Home Rule. I doubt our own politicians in the north will be selling up and buying farms in Ayrshire in the event of re-unification, so the engagement with the two parties in the Dáil who they most accurately mirror seems a natural solution to me. But I may be wrong, and they may be sharpening in ernest those swords and muskets used on the twelfth for “colour” as I type.

  • the Moor

    Red bull?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    The brilliant Geoff Dunbar used to animate those “Red Bull” commercials. He used to have a hard back copy of Kinsella’s “Tain” amongst the books in his studio as I remember. I had the privilege of working with him early in my own career.

    http://www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/858602/index.html

  • the Moor

    Interesting. Didn’t know that. The name does invite other connotations too, of course …

  • the Moor

    … in all ideology, men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura …

  • Oggins

    Do you have any good reads or link’s in relation to what happened to the Irish unionist party in the south after partition?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    All systems must distort what they focus on in some manner, but at least anyone with a decent visual imagination can re-assemble what they are seeing through a Camera Obscura.

    The real problem arises when distortion starts to become open mutilation, as in many of the post Thatcheregan ideologies of our masters….

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I have about half chapter on it in hand for something I’m writing at the moment. From my researches, there is no single decent source that analyses this, although there are relative mentions in much work, so my own work may be the first serious study. Perhaps I should write a focused article for History Ireland?

  • T.E.Lawrence

    WE ARE THE KAI ! Now to you believe us !

  • T.E.Lawrence

    GONE you said ? Ballicks !

  • T.E.Lawrence

    My house is still in North Belfast and it is still UNIONIST !

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Granni – You underestimated the master – a political strategist the best I have fought against all my life ! He is a WINNER not a Loser !

  • T.E.Lawrence

    As a little child going to my first Linfield games I was taught this little song “And now you are going to belief us, And now you are going to belief us, And now you are going to belief us, We’re going to win the CUP !

  • Granni Trixie

    How nippy you are, TE. I concede the DUP have exceeded expectations. But it will take more than that to gain respect for PR.

  • Granni Trixie

    Infact he has been ‘stopped’.

  • woodkerne

    Congratulations

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Belfast is UNIONIST !

  • T.E.Lawrence

    BELFAST is UNIONIST !

  • woodkerne

    For now … Enjoy while you can

  • woodkerne

    Demographically, no it isn’t …

  • Granni Trixie

    I can tell you’re happy. Enjoy.

  • Ryan A

    Congratulations – I assume you’ve now joined the DUP?