A Day That Comes, Also Goes
A Day That Comes, Also Goes

By Tom Luby (for the Blanket)

The key questions that arise from the recent all-Ireland European election are not to do with whether or not Sinn Féin has become an unstoppable vote-gathering machine which one day soon will relentlessly propel Gerry Adams into the Taoiseach’s office in Government Buildings, but conversely whether the Sinn Féin steamroller is beginning to run out of steam in the North, why this is happening and what impact it could have on SF’s fortunes in the South.

Lost in the brouhaha surrounding the election of two Sinn Féin MEP’s and overlooked by media commentators made dizzy by the spin of the party’s media handlers, is a simple fact. The European election result in the North was the worst for Sinn Féin in five years and is only 1700 or so votes better than the result the party scored in the 1998 Assembly elections, just after the Good Friday Agreement was signed and at the start of Sinn Féin’s post-peace process electoral triumphs. An analysis of the SF vote since then shows a pattern that must be depressingly familiar to Sinn Féin managers who were at the helm when the party first entered electoral politics in the wake of the 1981 hunger strikes. If one was to graph Sinn Féin’s election performances in the 1980’s the result would be a bell-shaped curve reflecting initial success, caused both by anger at the hunger strike deaths and superb mobilisation of the Provo base, which peaked with Adams’s election to Westminster in 1983 and then started to fall off, settling at a level somewhere between the best and the worst results.

The same pattern, albeit at a higher plane thanks to the IRA’s ceasefires and the peace process, is detectable since 1998. In that year’s Assembly election, Sinn Féin won 142,858 votes; it peaked three years later with the election of four SF MP’s in the 2001 Westminster poll at 175,392 votes but has declined in the subsequent two elections, the last of which saw Bairbre de Brun win a seat to Strasbourg but Sinn Féin’s vote fall to 144,541. The image in the media is of a Sinn Féin vote that arches ever upwards; the reality is more complicated.

Hand in hand with this has been a steady but relentless decline in the SDLP vote. In 1998 the SDLP won 177,963 votes and was comfortably ahead of SF. Last week the party, minus John Hume, slumped to 87,559, nearly 57,000 votes behind Sinn Féin.

The temptation, to which so many reporters succumb, is to present this as being somewhow about militant Republicanism supplanting constitutional Nationalism. To be sure there is no doubt that Sinn Féin’s growth has come in large part from the SDLP’s decline but since there are now next to no ideological distinctions between the two parties this is a phenomenon with little political significance; the important differentiating factors these days are more to do with age, energy, style, marketing and money than attitudes towards the British presence and the Unionists. It is as if Tweeledum was to steal Tweedledee’s lollipop; would anyone care or even notice?

A much clearer and revealing explanation of Sinn Féin and SDLP voting patterns can be got by examining the total Nationalist vote and placing its performance in a recent historical context.

Once that is done it becomes clear that Nationalism’s two most impressive performances came in the 1998 Assembly election, when a total of 320,821 Nationalists turned out and in the 2001 Westminster poll when 345,257 voted.

A tentative but credible explanation for these two results goes as follows: Nationalists come out to vote in large numbers when there is a chance of their representatives grabbing a slice of power at Stormont, as in the 1998 poll, or when there is a chance to take seats away from Unionists, as in the 2001 election.

Contrast those two elections with the the 2003 Assembly election, to a set of suspended institutions with little if no prospect of exercising power, when 280,305 Nationalists voted or the 2004 European election when only 232,100 nationalists voted in an election most people believed was in the DUP bag. Between 1998 and 2004 the total Nationalist vote has declined by a third.

The conclusion is inescapable: Nationalists are more likely to vote when there is an opportunity to take a kick at the Unionists, either by taking from them a seat or two or obliging Unionists to accept Nationalists sitting with them around the cabinet table as equals.

So what are the lessons for Sinn Féin in all this? The next big electoral test will come at next year’s Westminster poll but this time round the chance that Sinn Féin can steal seats from Unionists, like they did in Fermanagh-South Tyrone or West Tyrone in 2001, will be minimal. If SF gain this time it will at the expense of the SDLP, in South Down, Foyle and Newry-Armagh. They will probably succeed but there is not much incentive there for the overall Sinn Féin vote to rise; more likely that demoralised SDLP’ers will stay at home.

The best set of circumstances for Sinn Féin’s vote to rise is when Nationalism as a whole sees a chance to exercise power at Stormont. If there is a lesson for Gerry Adams and his advisers in the 2004 election it is to get back into Stormont, even if that means having to satisfy the DUP’s demands to wind up the IRA. Otherwise the decline in the party’s vote will just continue and that will inevitably impact adversely on the party’s image as a growing force in the South.

In the 1980’s, IRA violence was largely responsible for ending Sinn Féin’s then cycle of election successes; if the Provos continue to refuse to decommission the IRA then they run a great risk of the same thing happening again. Far from being an unmitigated triumph for Sinn Féin, it would be more accurate to view the 2004 election as a yellow card from the Nationalist voter.

Urgent Appeal

Despite increasing support for Irish freedom and unity, we need your help to overcome British and unionist intransigence. We can end the denial of our rights in relation to Brexit, the Irish language, a border poll and legacy issues, with your support.

Please support IRN now to help us continue reporting and campaigning for our national rights. Even one pound a month can make a big difference for us.

Your contribution can be made with a credit or debit card by clicking below. A continuing monthly donation of £2 or more will give you full access to this site. Thank you. Go raibh míle maith agat.

© 2004 Irish Republican News