Belfast Telegraph

What a difference a year makes for Sinn Fein as O'Neill looks to make even bigger gains at polls

Opinion by Suzanne Breen

Sinn Fein is entering this election in a far superior position to any other party - and that certainly came across at its manifesto launch yesterday. The candidates and their leadership were oozing confidence.

Michelle O'Neill declared her party was heading for another "groundbreaking" election with old certainties gone and "a new political era opening up in Irish politics".

What a difference a year makes. In May 2016 Sinn Fein was licking its wounds after the Assembly poll. Hot on the heels of the Easter Rising centenary commemorations, the conditions couldn't have been better.

Yet Sinn Fein's results were poor. It lost more votes (3%) than any of the other four main parties.

Its support in urban working-class areas declined at a remarkable rate. In West Belfast, it was down 12%; Derry 6%; North Belfast 5%.

The SDLP had an articulate new leader and Sinn Fein looked old and jaded.

But, more significantly, People Before Profit was breathing down Sinn Fein's neck and attracting disillusioned former supporters.

Fast-forward 12 months and everything has changed following Sinn Fein's hardline withdrawal from Stormont. The SDLP is struggling to hold off the republican challenge in its seats in South Down and Foyle, and People Before Profit's star has fallen.

While the DUP is battling to save two key seats - East Belfast and North Belfast - Sinn Fein can relax. Its four seats of West Tyrone, Mid-Ulster, Newry and Armagh, and West Belfast are rock solid. And it's the bookies favourite to snatch two more - Fermanagh and South Tyrone and South Down - which would leave it holding a third of Northern Ireland's Westminster seats.

It wasn't surprising that the party chose to launch its manifesto in Dungannon. Fermanagh and South Tyrone is of huge symbolic significance for it. Winning back Bobby Sands' old seat is a primary goal.

While South Down holds no emotional importance, defeating the SDLP in what was once their safest stronghold is an even greater priority because it would severely damage an already weakened rival. Although it overtook the SDLP in Foyle in March's Assembly election, Sinn Fein knows that unseating Mark Durkan is unlikely this time.

It's throwing the kitchen sink at North Belfast with a huge presence on the ground promoting John Finucane. I just can't see the numbers adding up for him, but his recruitment as a candidate is in itself a big propaganda boost for the party.

There was nothing unexpected in Sinn Fein's manifesto. An Irish Language Act, marriage equality, and a referendum on Irish unity have been key positions all year.

In terms of Brexit, the party knows fine well that it's powerless to stop or even alter the reality of Northern Ireland leaving the EU. But Brexit allows Sinn Fein to dress its Irish unity agenda in new clothes and try to appeal to a wider middle-class audience.

Mrs O'Neill vigorously defended Sinn Fein's abstentionist policy from Westminster yesterday. She's right when she says that it isn't an issue for the nationalist community, no matter how the SDLP or unionists try to make it one.

It's hard to see Sinn Fein not having a good election. But a greater unionist turnout and the DUP holding its current eight seats - and maybe winning one or two more - would also change the political landscape.

There's two weeks to go, and still everything to play for.

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