MIRRORING the DUP’s likely success in the forthcoming May election will be Sinn Féin. More than any other the party seems to have a handle on the vote management and balancing which characterises the single transferable electoral system. As well as a comment on the authentic strategic ability of its activists it also reflects the fact Sinn Féin supporters try where they can to avoid casting votes for other parties. However the SDLP are not the nationalist version of the declining Ulster Unionists and so the battle here is more competitive, and just as abrasive, as the DUP–UUP duel. Newton Emerson rather exaggerates with assertions the party ‘is on the threshold of irrelevance’ (Irish News, 3 March 2011), as the SDLP remains in good financial stead with a middle class constituency that has remained fairly loyal. Ground was ceded to Sinn Féin in the early–2000s as the latter gained Peace Process respectability, but the SDLP vote tends to hold up well and it actually possesses – as this author witnessed at the February 2010 party conference in Newcastle where the party chose its latest leader – a well–educated, progressive youth wing mired in a seemingly endless war with socially conservative older members for political viability in modern Northern Ireland.
Following on from Bairbre de Brún topping the European poll in 2009, Sinn Féin is naturally dining out on its recent performance in the southern election as the party more than trebled its seats. While this was an impressive haul – unthinkable until very recently – it would be a grave error to view this either as an endorsement of the party’s socio–economic programme or as a sudden outbreak of socialist republicanism in the Irish populace: the phenomenal loss of 57 seats by the governing Fianna Fáil organization was always going to spread and reward virtually all the other parties in the Dáil handsomely. However in keeping with the kind of symbolism favoured by Sinn Féin on March 1st, Gerry Adams did walk into Leinster House with 14 seats, the very same day Bobby Sands began his hunger strike 30 years previously. Anthony McIntyre, an articulate critic of the Sinn Féin leadership from within the republican movement, has written of how the dissident ‘Bogeyman’ is often issued to silence critique of Adams–McGuinness (Good Friday: The Death of Irish Republicanism, 2008: 232-43), but the lamentable murder of Constable Ronan Kerr on 2 April illustrates the threat is still very real. McGuinness’s approval rating rockets across the board every time he comes out to denounce such activity and broadly Sinn Féin can expect a good showing in May, possibly picking up extra seats in Foyle, East Antrim, Upper Bann and Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Michelle Gildernew pulled off a superb result against a Unionist ‘Unity’ candidate last year to take the latter Westminster seat by just 4 votes, though she has a reputation for being one of the few Sinn Féin representatives with any appeal across the religious divide in one of the most polarized parts of the North and thus an extra MLA in Fermanagh is not guaranteed.
Turning to the other main nationalist group it is worth noting the intriguing alliance which has developed in the Executive between the Ulster Unionist Minister for Health Michael McGimpsey and the SDLP Minister for Social Development Alex Attwood. Presenting the example of the Social Investment Fund (SIF), which allocates aid to the disadvantaged areas of his brief, Atwood sketched the decision–making process at Stormont: ‘Before Executive meetings the bigger parties get together and decide what is going to happen. Then they announce it to the rest of us. When they spent £80m on the SIF two weeks ago the paper was produced during a recess in the meeting. It was clearly cut and pasted together by the big parties’ (Belfast Telegraph, 1 April 2011). This criticism had been presaged by SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie, who defended McGimpsey holding out against cuts to the health budget, and in the same interview spoke of how ‘The Good Friday Agreement was always meant to be evolutionary, it was meant to move on’ (Belfast Telegraph, 2 March 2011). This has led to not unreasonable accusations from Sinn Féin, flanked by the DUP and Alliance that the SDLP are ‘in/out, in /out’ when it comes to the Executive. McGuinness recently claimed Ritchie joined the Ulster Unionists in seeking funding for official opposition from the Secretary of State Owen Patterson (denied by the Northern Ireland Office), something the Deputy First Minister thinks is all ‘about the elections’ (Irish News, 19 February 2011).
Ritchie has seen off highly embarrassing calls from ‘greener’ SDLP representatives to maximize the nationalist vote through a proposed merger with Sinn Féin (Belfast Telegraph, 24 May 2010), withdrawing the whip from Declan O’Loan – whose own North Antrim seat is in serious jeopardy – for advocating such a scenario. Similarly she has not been afraid to take the bull by the horns when it comes to her nationalist rivals, caustically describing Sinn Féin as ‘red communists in the South and green Tories in the North…bringing in Tory cuts in the North where some of them could be avoided, but saying they would fight cuts that are inevitable in the South’ (Belfast Telegraph, 24 February 2011). But Sinn Féin senses weakness and there is something in McGuinness’s sentiments. The SDLP participates in the Executive yet frequently launches stinging attacks on its performance and workings, such as Ritchie’s own dismissal of the proposed budget as ‘lazy and unimaginative’ (Irish News, 21 February 2011). Aside from being bound as coalition partners technically should by an ethos of collective responsibility, the SDLP now resides in a problematic hinterland between devolved Stormont government and the area the Party clearly yearns for of constructive opposition. Despite all this the SDLP has voter potential in Strangford and West Tyrone and is targeting Sinn Féin’s Newry and Armagh seat. A third MLA in the comfort zone of South Down is also not beyond them.
As a welcome coda the SDLP announced in February that it is running the first Polish national in a Northern Irish election, Magdalena Wolska (36), in East Belfast. While she is unlikely in a constituency with no historical SDLP power base to follow Alliance’s Hong Kong–born Anna Lo into the Assembly as another representative from an ethnic minority, the candidacy is nevertheless a further sign of increasing normalcy and tolerance in Northern Irish politics.
Connal Parr is presently writing a PhD on Protestant working class politics and culture at Queen’s University, Belfast.