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‘The SDLP hasn’t gone away, you know’

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SF vs

Nationalist Vote

Tom Luby • 12 May 2005

The headlines in the aftermath of the recent Westminster and council elections in the North from the Nationalist viewpoint all dwelt on Sinn Fein’s continuing success. One more seat was won - Conor Murphy taking Newry-Armagh from the SDLP’s Seamus Mallon - and that was seen as underlining that party’s domination of its rival, the SDLP and Northern Nationalism.

A closer examination of the vote, however, reveals a more complex picture. The collapse of the Unionist centre ground as seen in the Ulster Unionists’ decimation at the hands of the DUP was not repeated in Nationalist politics. The much-promised and predicted (at least by Sinn Fein) melt-down of the SDLP did not happen and to judge from the results is unlikely to happen. Wee Joe Devlin-style Nationalism is still alive and well and prospering where Catholics are in a majority or have their place in the sun secured (Derry and South Belfast) or where sectarian politics are less bitter than elsewhere (South Down).

Sinn Fein meanwhile appears to have reached a ceiling of some sort. If the party wishes to continue its growth and to render the SDLP irrelevant a re-think of its strategy may well be necessary, especially in relation to the continued existence of the Provisional IRA.

The evidence for this is there to see in the figures. Sinn Fein’s performance in the Council election was almost exactly the same as it was four years ago and the same pattern is evident in the Westminster result where SF’s vote actually fell by over 800 votes from the 2001 result. Hardly the performance of party sweeping all in front of it. The SDLP's vote appears to have settled and stabilised yet there is a mystery - the party's vote still dropped by 31,000 votes in the council poll and by 44,000 in the Westminster election yet didn't end up in Sinn Fein's box.

So where did the missing SDLP votes go? Or put another way, why did the total Nationalist vote drop from a high point of 345,000 in the 2001 Westminster election to 300,000 in 2005?

It is possible that the recent tightening up of the voting registration procedures is responsible and that the 40,000 or so missing Nationalist votes had all been personated in the past, most of them presumably stolen by the Sinn Fein and IRA machine. Possible but unlikely, for the results could only be explicable if the number of false votes removed from the rolls were matched almost exactly by desertions from the SDLP to Sinn Fein. That is too much of a coincidence to have happened. Not only that but it is possible, as Luby has always believed, that the extent of personation has been exaggerated. 45,000 votes amounts to 13 per cent of the total Nationalist vote in '01 and the machine required to mobilise that sort of effort would have to be truly awesome. Personation does happen but mostly it is done by small parties or in tight races. For parties of Sinn Fein's size it is far better to use election machines to get genuine voters to the polls.

In such circumstances it might be wiser to avoid unprovable speculation and judge the results as they stand. Accordingly, it is now possible to say that the upper limit of Sinn Fein’s votes is in the region of 170,000 votes while the bottom limit to the SDLP’s decline is in the region of 120,000 votes. Some 50,000 votes separate them but the gap would be even narrower if those missing SDLP votes had turned out instead of turning off.

One can only speculate about why this SDLP vote deserted the party. It appears that only a small number switched over to Sinn Fein and that the bulk stayed at home presumably because they couldn’t bring themselves to vote for the Provos, or that the SDLP’s message was less than inspiring. Is it possible that Mark Durkan’s strategy of following stubbornly in Sinn Fein’s steps, refusing to put clear blue water between him and the Provos was responsible? Possibly but the search for the answer to that question is the key to the party’s revival and must be its urgent task in the months ahead. Nonetheless if fear of being swallowed up by Sinn Fein was the reason that Durkan refused to break with Sinn Fein on power-sharing with Unionists then this result frees him, at least in theory, from that yoke. Clearly he now has the room to move - if John Hume will allow him.

There are two implications for Sinn Fein from the result. One is that it may be impossible for the Provos to ever rout the SDLP and, denied top dog status, Messrs Adams & Co will have to accept that they need the SDLP’s support to advance the Nationalist agenda. That means doing deals with the SDLP and giving as well as taking. The other implication is that the surviving SDLP vote can only be won to Sinn Fein by accelerating the journey into constitutional politics and away from the armed struggle era, thereby erasing altogether any difference between them.

The danger facing Sinn Fein is that if there is no engagement with the DUP and politics in the North begin to stagnate the party could be vulnerable to a challenge from an SDLP prepared to cut its own deal with Unionism. At the very least it is a threat that Durkan could hold over Adams’ head. Also worrying for Sinn Fein is the knowledge that any faltering in the electoral enterprise North of the Border could have implications for the party South of the Border.

Either way there is a message here that underlines the need for Sinn Fein to put the IRA to bed in an unequivocal fashion. In some ways the Provos are more vulnerable now than at any time since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. But don’t expect Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair to see that, nor any of their advisers.



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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

15 May 2005

Other Articles From This Issue:

'The SDLP Hasn't Gone Away, You Know'
Tom Luby

Facing Fire
Anthony McIntyre

Venezuela: Arrival
Tomas Gorman

Fred A. Wilcox

Support IRELAND and PALESTINE on June 4th
Mags Glennon

11 May 2005

Always the Centre Ground
Anthony McIntyre

Those Voting Outside the Box are the Overall Winners
Sean Mc Aughey

Voting Respect
John Devine

Stand Down or Deliver
Paul A Fitzsimmons

Testing Free Speech in America
M. Shahid Alam

Whither Disorder?
Colin Kalmbacher



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