In his contribution to our 2017 election supplement, Chris Donnelly on the contest within nationalism:
In the 2016 Assembly election, the nationalist parties were returned with the fewest number of MLAs and the smallest combined percentage share of the overall vote in the post-Good Friday Agreement period, confirming the developing trend of a declining nationalist turnout which had cost Sinn Fein one Westminster seat (Fermanagh South Tyrone) and both parties several Assembly and council level seats over the course of the most recent election cycle.
From a nationalist perspective, one of the most significant aspects of next week’s Assembly election will be to discover if the manner in which this surprise election was triggered, and the reasons behind that decision by Sinn Fein, will have the effect of incentivising nationalists to turn out and vote in greater numbers than they have done in elections over the past six years.
The reduction in the overall number of Assembly seats from 108 to 90 has meant that there are a significant number of key constituency battles between Sinn Fein and the SDLP, the outcome of which will determine the party able to emerge from the electoral contest with the greater sense of optimism moving forward.
Sinn Fein have been in quite buoyant form since determining in early January that they would be taking this course. There is a real sense that their decision to pull the plug on Stormont captured the prevailing mood across a nationalist and republican base that had grown weary and disillusioned with the party’s inability to deliver at ground level through the institutions, contributing towards the declining voter turnout.
The change of leadership may have been forced due to Martin McGuinness’ ill health, but nevertheless it has meant that a transitioning Sinn Fein under Michelle O’Neill will either emerge from the election feeling vindicated and strengthened or under pressure from a resurgent SDLP.
Sinn Fein’s choice of candidates suggests that the party leadership is firmly in transition mode. The party is likely to end up with a seat tally in the mid-20s, with anything above 23 seats representing an improvement on their proportional share of Assembly seats (28) taken in last year’s election. Sinn Fein is running no fewer than 13 women amongst its slate of candidates, meaning that it is quite likely that almost half of its Assembly representatives will be women once the votes are counted.
Sinn Fein will be hoping to return with 25 seats and with an increased share of the overall vote bringing the party back up towards the 25% figure.
Whilst the SDLP may be able to win a number of head to head contests with Sinn Fein, I have no sense that the republican party will emerge from this election disappointed with their performance.
The SDLP are starting from a very low base of just 12 seats and 12% of the overall vote from 2016. Returning with 10 or more seats will be a success, but they face a number of challenges from Sinn Fein- and others- to avoid being reduced to single figures in terms of seats.
For the SDLP to emerge with a sense of renewed purpose and optimism, the party will need to recapture the seat lost in Upper Bann last year and hold onto its solitary seat in East Derry. The retirement of Sinn Fein’s Catherine Seeley will boost the SDLP’s prospects in Upper Bann, but the in-fighting in East Derry that has led to the party’s former MLA, Gerry Mullan, running as an Independent is likely to bolster Sinn Fein’s prospects at stealing two seats in this constituency.
One of the major stories of the 2016 election was the emergence of the People Before Profit party, which claimed seats in the two most nationalist/republican constituencies in the north, West Belfast and Foyle.
The fact that these two constituencies also rank as the most socio-economically deprived across the state is no coincidence, as the stridently socialist all-Ireland party has been quite effective at cultivating support across constituencies in Dublin.
Their ability to attract votes overwhelmingly from the republican and nationalist electorate reduced the overall percentage share of the vote held by Sinn Fein and the SDLP by some two percent, but also indicated that the nationalist community was beginning to look beyond the traditional two parties as the devolution era was becoming more firmly embedded.
People Before Profit will be fighting to retain the seat won by Eamonn McCann in Foyle, but their target in West Belfast will be to take a second seat. In this they will be facing off against a fourth Sinn Fein candidate and the solitary SDLP MLA, Alex Attwood.
The fact that the SDLP have gone from holding the West Belfast MP seat in 1997 to now struggling to retain any form of representation in a five-seater West Belfast constituency tells its own story about the party’s struggles over the past two decades.
In North Belfast, the PBP’s Fiona Ferguson will be aiming to further enhance her profile to position her to challenge for a Belfast city council seat.
In a number of other key contests between Sinn Fein and the SDLP, the latter party will hope that their ability to transition to a new generation of representatives at an earlier period than Sinn Fein may help them squeeze through and win decisive victories.
In North Belfast, the SDLP’s Nichola Mallon is likely to be involved in a tight race with the second Sinn Fein candidate (either Gerry Kelly or Caral ni Chuilin), whilst the SDLP’s Daniel McCrossan will also face a battle to be returned ahead of a third Sinn Fein candidate.
In the event of nationalists voting in larger numbers than has been the case in recent years, it is likely that Sinn Fein and the SDLP will not only take three of the five seats in Fermanagh South Tyrone, but they could also seize four of the five seats in South Down and challenge for a fourth seat in Mid-Ulster.
There is even an outside chance that the SDLP’s Pat Catney could take a seat in Lagan Valley, though it is more likely to be the case that an impressive performance by the SDLP candidate this time around will lay the foundations for a nationalist to be elected at the next Assembly election in that overwhelmingly unionist constituency.
Oliver McMullan’s ability to secure election in 2011 and retain his seat last year in East Antrim stood as Sinn Fein’s most impressive result in both elections, but the enhanced quota required to cross the line in 2017 may prove beyond him this time.
The reduction in Assembly seats per constituency has the obvious effect of raising the quota and vote share required to gain representation. As a result of this, it is very likely that at least four (and most likely five) of the constituencies will fail to elect any form of nationalist representation: North Down, Strangford, East Antrim, East Belfast and Lagan Valley.
One of the key priorities for the two nationalist parties going forward will be to broaden their appeal by setting up party structures and profiling local representatives in these majority unionist constituencies. That will be a challenge for both nationalist parties, who have failed to prioritise party development outside of core nationalist/ republican communities. The threats and attack on the North Down Sinn Fein election worker’s car in Bangor illustrates how this likely development will also pose a challenge for some in the unionist community.
• Chris Donnelly is a nationalist commentator and former Sinn Fein election candidate