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General Election 2017: Can Sinn Fein wake up more sleeping voters and be biggest Northern Ireland party?

By Malachi O'Doherty

Presumably, when the Secretary of State James Brokenshire decided to prolong the pain at Stormont and avoid a Good Friday crash, he knew that a general election was about to be announced.

Had he kept his resolve to conclude the talks last week, he would be now under irresistible pressure to call an Assembly election to coincide with May's surprise Westminster poll.

As it is, he can say that there is unfinished business here, that there is nothing clear for people to vote on, that the time is not right.

That position complicates things in other ways.

Sinn Fein, which has seemed most eager for an Assembly election, might feel that it has at least part of what it wants, a major contest with unionism, a further chance to wake up more sleeping voters and establish itself as the biggest party in Northern Ireland.

That is unlikely to be as attainable at Westminster as at Stormont where currently the DUP has double the number of seats Sinn Fein holds.

The March Assembly election produced a staggering result for republicans and nationalists, bringing them neck and neck with unionists, but for one seat. And that unionist surplus can be accounted for by Jim Allister who opposes the entire agreement. It is not a lead for pro-Assembly unionism.

This was a gain that had still seemed years away for nationalism, a tipping point long anticipated and yet presumed long out of reach, when unionists would be firmly eclipsed and the question of Irish unity might be on the table.

Gauging those political communities by religion put them about equal in size already, going by the 2011 census (Roman Catholics 40.8%, Non-RC Christians 41.6%).

And two things are in flux.

One is the number of sleeping voters, those who don't bother their wee heads on polling day.

Another is the proportion of Catholics/nationalists who want a united Ireland.

Sinn Fein's current calculation is that it can sprint ahead of unionism by waking up some of the sleepers, as it clearly did in March.

It also believes that there are nominal nationalists who would not previously have voted for a united Ireland who might now think that their best post-Brexit hopes reside in 32 county Republic, or something that looks a lot more like it than the present arrangement.

Sinn Fein is urging more and more people to register to vote and it will be able to test on June 8 how well that campaign is working.

It may not be able to show them a good outcome from a high turnout.

The party seems unlikely to take the six or seven seats it would have to win to make the kind of impression it made in the March Assembly election.

There will be a hard fight to recover Fermanagh-South Tyrone, and much will depend on whether the new Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann makes a pact with the DUP.

And, in terms of the community head count project, it makes no difference whether or not they take, say South Belfast, from the SDLP.

Sinn Fein is disadvantaged at Westminster. The DUP was only 6,000 votes ahead of them in 2015 but took four more seats. Republicans could, theoretically, overtake the DUP in number of votes and still end up behind.

What they need is a clear leadership position as the largest political party in Northern Ireland for then it would be impossible to refuse them the border poll they want.

They are more likely to get that in an Assembly election so they are likely to be pressing hard for that.

They could howl about the injustice of so many votes yielding so few seats at Westminster. So also could the Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance.

It takes on average just over 20,000 votes for the DUP to get a seat. That rate would have given the Alliance three seats, but they got none.

It would have given the Ulster Unionists five instead of two.

Alastair McDonnell is the outrider, he held South Belfast on less than 10,000 votes, having slipped nearly 5,000. This makes him vulnerable to a unionist pact unless Sinn Fein pulls out to let him win, as it did in 2010.

This election seems unlikely to be the one in which nationalism pushes to the front of the field, even with greater urgency and a growing demographic share.

But the DUP have much to worry about, aside from the Sinn Fein threat.

Currently they feel they have leverage with the Tories because they have a narrow majority. Their anticipated landslide - if it happens - will strip them of bargaining power.

Northern Ireland, it appears, is a sideshow in this election.

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