Will ongoing slump in Sinn Fein’s vote undermine its calls for a border poll?

Experts have disagreed on whether the trend of declining electoral support for Sinn Fein will undermine its credibility in pressing for a border poll.

By Philip Bradfield
Tuesday, 17th December 2019, 6:30 am
Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald is leading her party's calls for a border poll: Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald is leading her party's calls for a border poll: Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

While much of the focus last week was on the DUP losing two seats in Belfast, with a drop of 5.4% in their vote, Sinn Fein actually lost a larger share of the poll – 6.7%.

The decline comes after the party, under the leadership of Mary Lou McDonald, suffered a devastating loss of seats in local government and European elections in the Republic in May.

Speaking to the News Letter, Sinn Fein refused to address this year’s losses, instead focusing on the fact that nationalist MPs now outnumber unionists for the first time.

Reflecting on the issues, a range of commentators agreed Sinn Fein has suffered serious losses, though some drew differing conclusions.

Slugger O’Toole editor Mick Fealty said: “Personally I think that their border poll idea is now dead... Sinn Fein has not been listening to its own voters. There is no greater evidence of that than the absolute landslide victory of the SDLP in Derry.”

Sinn Fein is not pushing the DUP close, he says, as it now has only 22% of the vote compared to the DUP’s 30%.

“A party on 22% cannot dictate to the rest of the electorate what should come next. They need to be at 45–46% before they can start to do that.”

And the SDLP is not pressing for a border poll, he says, so Sinn Fein cannot claim their voters as supporters for unification. “Nationalists are not all the same,” he added.

Unionist commentator Alex Kane said that Sinn Fein’s vote is in decline – and that it appears to be the only party truly interested in unification.

“Sinn Fein has been banging on about a border poll and the ‘unity project’ for years now,” he said. “But there is little to suggest that it has had much traction: maybe that’s why civic nationalism is organising its own events and writing letters to Leo Varadkar – precisely because it knows that SF seems to be treading water on the subject.”

Sinn Fein would like a border poll urgently “just in case Brexit turns out to be okay” he says. “But it is experiencing electoral problems on both sides of the border, suggesting that unity is a priority for no one but themselves.”

University of Liverpool Professor of politics, Jon Tonge, agreed that Sinn Fein “have got a problem in terms of the fall in support”.

It was “slightly camouflaged” last week by the scalp of Nigel Dodds, but the overall trend is “not healthy”.

But he does not think the party’s loss of votes this year is too significant. Sinn Fein will see “short term punishment” for not being in Stormont and a strong performance by Fine Gael in the south in May as “retrievable” he says.

And he believes a contest to decide Stormont’s First and Deputy First Minister could “revive” the party.

However he also notes that of 12 opinion polls since the Brexit referendum, the highest figure in support of unification “was only 27%”.

Former Sinn Fein TD Peadar Tóibín, now leader of Aontú, notes that last week was “the 5th election in just over a year where the Sinn Féin vote has dropped”. He added: “I have canvassed in the north of Ireland for over 20 years and I have never witnessed the level of anger towards and detachment from Sinn Fein at the doors.”

This is because the party has put “culture wars and Identity politics” ahead of Irish Unity and Economic Justice, he says. However, like his former party, he too sees the end of a unionist majority for NI’s MPs as “another significant towards Irish Unity”.

But Sinn Féin MLA Karen Mullan declined to acknowledge her party’s loss of votes.

“Sinn Féin won seven seats in the recent Westminster election including the removal of Brexit architect DUP Westminster leader, Nigel Dodds in North Belfast,” she said. “The political unionist majority is gone - nationalism now has more seats than unionism at Westminster. There is no good Brexit and in the aftermath, poll after poll alongside shifting demographics has demonstrated that the demand for a referendum on Irish unity is growing.”