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Election not going to be easy ride for Sinn Fein within nationalism

By Malachi O'Doherty

Sinn Fein, as the largest nationalist party, enters this election fighting on two fronts. While its declared enemy is the DUP, it has nothing to fear from unionists. The DUP does not take votes from republicans, nor does it lose any to them. Yet an outsider might think that the Sinn Fein party slogan is directed straight at Arlene Foster and her team - Don't Get Angry, Get Even.

There is a lot in that. Anger too easily turns to violence here, so a call for purely peaceful politics is implied in it. And getting even this times implies an interest in equality as much as in revenge.

And what matters is not how this slogan goes down with unionists anyway, but how it resonates in the communities from which Sinn Fein takes its votes, and among supporters of rival parties in those communities.

Those rivals, this time round, are the SDLP and People Before Profit, both of which dented Sinn Fein just last year.

People Before Profit is interesting in that it took almost enough votes for two seats in West Belfast last year.

All calculations are complicated by the fact that every constituency has five seats this time, not six.

But Gerry Carroll of PBP must think he has a chance of pulling in a running mate in West Belfast, though he stands to lose Eamonn McCann in Foyle.

Alex Attwood of the SDLP had a near miss last year in West Belfast and will have to fight hard to get in this time.

Much depends on how the traditional Sinn Fein base views the party's approach. Some who were disillusioned, fearing that the republicans were getting no return on self-abasement, will think they have rediscovered their gumption and will return to the party.

Others, sensing that a long game is on now, might think that a vote for the SDLP is a vote for a party that would at least get the institutions back up if it had the numbers.

The SDLP has problems in several constituencies. Claire Hanna should be safe in South Belfast. It won't be so easy for Nichola Mallon in North Belfast, nor indeed for Caral Ni Chuilin.

The loss of either to their respective parties would be felt.

Colin McGrath, in South Down, has proved himself stroppy in an admirable sort of way. But he got in on the eighth count last time. Then again, Caitriona Ruane is not running, and being up against a less familiar Sinn Feiner might help him.

We don't know yet whether Martin McGuinness will stand in Foyle. This is a tricky seat that returned two Sinn Fein and two SDLP MLAs last time. One of them is likely to drop an MLA, so there will be a tense battle between the parties. In West Tyrone three Sinn Fein candidates got in on the last count, but that was through careful vote management. Tactical good sense would probably dictate that it drop one of those. The SDLP will probably keep its one seat, held by Daniel McCrossan.

Similarly, in East Londonderry, Sinn Fein ran two candidates and only one of them scraped through. It would be safer running only one this time. The SDLP got one seat there for Gerry Mullan and on the last count. He's vulnerable.

Coming sixth last time doesn't necessarily predict a loss this time. Justin McNulty in Newry and Armagh is probably safe. There were nearly enough votes there to get a second SDLP candidate in. But the party will have to do its sums right in several constituencies and all parties will be telling some past candidates that they have to stand aside this time.

Fermanagh South Tyrone is scary for both Sinn Fein and the SDLP, where either could lose a seat.

And similarly, in Upper Bann, Sinn Fein might be as well dropping one candidate, though that could help the SDLP return there.

And it wouldn't want that.

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