In elections it’s the figures and percentages that matter most.
The real story lies in the trends and the rumblings in the undergrowth.
Yes, I know that it sounds like the sort of territory that the nerds and geeks like to scramble over; but just like archaeological finds it’s the smallest fragments that pave the way to the most important truths.
On May 22 Sinn Fein polled 159,813 votes at the Euro election, to the DUP’s 131,163. At the council election on the same day there was a narrowing of the gap, 151,137 to 144,928. That works out at an average of 25 percent for Sinn Fein and 22 percent for the DUP. It was also the first time that Sinn Fein became the largest party at both a council as well as a Euro election. If those trends continue – and they probably will in the absence of a unionist pact at the Assembly election in 2016 –then Sinn Fein is on course to become the largest party at Assembly elections, too.
At this point complacency usually creeps in on the unionist side. They remind us that while the SDLP topped the Assembly poll in 1998 the UUP still ended up with more seats. They point to the fact that while Sinn Fein got more votes at last month’s council elections the DUP got more seats. And they will soon argue that it doesn’t matter if Sinn Fein gets more votes at the Assembly election as long as the DUP (“as the only party that can”) gets more seats and holds on to the post of First Minister.
Some observers argue that Sinn Fein’s vote has peaked and that they will struggle to retain their present position. Many of these were the same observers who disagreed with me in the late 1990s when I argued that Sinn Fein would soon eclipse the SDLP. They also disagreed with me when I said that it wouldn’t be long until unionists lost control of Belfast City Council. And they tended to be the same observers who argued that Sinn Fein would make ‘no traction south of the border’.
Yet here we are, less than two years away from the centenary anniversary of the Easter Uprising, and Sinn Fein is the largest party in Northern Ireland and, if polls are to be believed, neck and neck with Fine Gael as the most popular party in the Republic. In other words, it may not be very long until Sinn Fein has ministers in both countries. And don’t underestimate their determination to milk that anniversary for every single drop of propaganda and electoral advantage; nor their determination to eat into an SDLP base which has given up on Alasdair McDonnell and which would also like to send a message in 2016.
But here’s a question: would it really matter if Sinn Fein won the largest number of votes and seats at the Assembly election and occupied the office of First Minister? In one very practical sense it wouldn’t matter at all, because the DUP (assuming it remained the largest unionist party, of course) would still have a veto on every aspect of Executive and Assembly business. Yet the psychological impact on unionism of a Sinn Fein First Minister would be enormous. At the moment party political/electoral unionism can cope – just about, it has to be said – with a power-sharing relationship which has Sinn Fein in what they regard as a lesser role. But they would have huge problems with a relationship in which unionism was seen to be in the lesser role: and that’s why most of the next campaign will be focused on some sort of unionist pact or ‘arrangement’ designed to prevent the possibility of a Sinn Fein First Minister. The talks are taking place already.
Maybe, just maybe (and I’m going to whisper this) unionism could learn something from Sinn Fein? For all of the unionist complaints that the British, Irish and American governments have rolled over for Sinn Fein, the inescapable fact remains that Sinn Fein has built an enormous electoral base here. For all of the media vilification of Gerry Adams in the southern media, the equally inescapable fact remains that Sinn Fein has soared in electoral support and that Adams is one of their most popular politicians. For that to happen they must be doing something right.
And what they are doing right is focusing on the weakness of other political parties, exploiting their internal problems and targeting very specific issues and voter groups on the ground. Their propaganda machine is ruthlessly effective and their message is honed and dog-whistled to the nth degree. They are always on the ground, always campaigning, always linked to key players across a range of ‘communities’ and always ‘on message’.
Now then, contrast that approach with unionism, where factionalism and paranoia seem to trump every other consideration. When was the last time you heard any unionist leader sound genuinely positive? When was the last time you heard them promote a vision rather than bellyache about someone or something? When was the last time you heard them champion an agenda which went beyond carping on and on about ‘how much republicans get away with?’.
Here’s the blunt reality: it’s not that Sinn Fein is necessarily brilliant at what it does, but it is helped enormously by the fact that unionism is mostly crap at what it does in response.
Look at where Sinn Fein was in 1994 and look at where it is now. That transformation and electoral success hasn’t been accidental and nor is it because everyone else has made life easy for them. Politics is about knowing what you believe, knowing how to promote those beliefs and knowing how to convert others to your cause. That applies as much to republicanism as it does to unionism.
There is a pro-Union majority in Northern Ireland – a pretty substantial one by my reckoning – but you wouldn’t be able to tell that from the propaganda, poor-us press releases and picking of pointless battles by our unionist leaders and parties. Seriously guys, stop whingeing about Sinn Fein and start offering an attractive, credible alternative. Just for once – surprise us with original thinking and sensible strategies: and surprise Sinn Fein, too, while you’re at it!