Belfast Telegraph

SF has effectively seen off the final remnants of the old nationalist tradition

By Eilis O'Hanlon

Sinn Fein starts every Westminster election with one huge advantage over other parties.

Most candidates seeking an electoral mandate to return as Members of Parliament have to stand on their record. Sinn Fein MPs don't take their seats at all, and therefore have no track record to defend.

Canvassing must be a doddle.

"Hello, I'm your local MP. Can I rely on your vote?"

"What have you done for the constituency?"

"Absolutely nothing."

"That's good enough for me."

As a way of managing voter expectation, it couldn't be bettered. Nor can it be denied that the strategy has been ruthlessly efficient for republicans, who've ended this campaign with another three seats in the bank, bringing the party's total to seven.

The symbolic significance of some of those new seats cannot be overstated, not least Foyle, where John Hume once held a commanding majority, and now Elisha McCallion reigns supreme after ousting another former SDLP leader, Mark Durkan.

McCallion, a former mayor of Derry, edged out her rival by just a few hundred votes, a mere 0.4% difference, but the size of the victory doesn't matter. That Sinn Fein managed to overturn what was still a large majority only two years ago is the crucial statistic.

The SDLP won't be getting that one back again. Once Sinn Fein has a seat, it holds it. There'll be no more upsets such as Joe Hendron's defeat of Gerry Adams in West Belfast in 1992 with the help of tactical unionist voters on the Shankill Road. Sinn Fein has now effectively seen off the last remaining remnants of the old Nationalist Party tradition in Northern Ireland, an end that was inevitable from the moment the Belfast Agreement institutionalised the drive towards a sectarian headcount, but no more worth mourning for that. Nationalism has got stronger, but seems simultaneously smaller, poorer.

Sinn Fein also retook the historically emotive seat of Fermanagh-South Tyrone, which IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands won from his death bed. This was the seat that first convinced the IRA that Sinn Fein's electoral ambitions might advance the cause of a united Ireland.

Now this perpetual marginal is back in the republican fold after Michelle Gildernew once again saw off unionist unity candidate Tom Elliott. Add in Chris Hazzard, who took South Down from the SDLP's Margaret Ritchie, together with the four seats the party retained from last time, and it's not a bad night's work for leader Northern leader Michelle O'Neill.

The left-wing challenge from People Before Profit, meanwhile, appears to have stalled.

There are no challenges left to Sinn Fein's hegemony as it also lays the groundwork for future electoral advances by promoting republican royalty in the shape of John Finucane in North Belfast.

He didn't win this time, but it wasn't about this time. The party is always planning its next move. Like a shark, it never stays still. There are always more votes to be gobbled up like fish. Given the success of Sinn Fein's electoral strategy, SDLP representatives could be forgiven for wondering why they bothered spending all those years working in Parliament, voting on legislation, sitting on committees, making representations to other parties on behalf of Northern Ireland.

If Sinn Fein can simply sweep the board in nationalist areas by promising to brandish the constituencies it wins like scalps in Britain's face, what role is there for Irish nationalist MPs at Westminster? None whatsoever, and that's the whole point. The UK Parliament is being politically cuckolded. "Look", Sinn Fein's non-MPs are jeering. "We have your seats, and we don't even want them. So why do you keep pretending that they belong to you in the first place?"

Not even the prospect of getting an old comrade like Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street was enough to tempt Sinn Fein into flirting with the possibility of ending abstentionism.

As the votes were still being counted, Adams was already ruling out any suggestion of his MPs taking their seats at Westminster. The emblematic value of not sitting in the House of Commons always overrides any short-term political gain.

It was just as telling that it should be Adams who ruled out such a move. Was that not Michelle O'Neill's call, since these were her MPs, the first won under her watch?

Evidently not.

No one can take away the spoils which she brought home after her first Westminster battle, but for the party's southern-based president to be the one to issue that rejection put her firmly in her place.

In the end, it didn't matter. Corbyn wouldn't have had the numbers to become Prime Minister even with Sinn Fein assistance, but it was another reminder that, when it comes to Irish republicans, solidarity is a one-way street. Their internal demands trump all other considerations. Unsurprisingly, Sinn Fein is already using the results of Thursday's election as further ammunition in its calls for a border poll. That was to be expected.

Less encouraging for the party is that every election is effectively a border poll anyway.

Seen as such, the combined vote for those who want to do away with the border this week was nudging only a little over 40%. Sinn Fein may have decisively won the battle inside nationalism, but the political realities remain the same.

DUP leader Arlene Foster's new role as Westminster powerbroker may prove to be an even more bitter pill to swallow.

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