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Northern Ireland's tribal politics now veering to dark side

The DUP-UUP electoral pact in four constituencies was widely criticised as 'anti-democratic' and a 'sectarian headcount'. But Sinn Fein is actively engaging in precisely the same type of campaigning, says Henry McDonald

Published 05/05/2015

Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly in his ‘Star Wars’election campaign advertisment
Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly in his ‘Star Wars’election campaign advertisment
Mr Kelly has been criticised for an election leaflet that features a sectarian headcount

Move over Tim Pat Coogan. The new Mr "Count-the-Catholics" is none other than Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly. Coogan - the former editor of the Irish Press newspaper - earned the nickname over his obsessive post-IRA ceasefire references to a possible Catholic majority coming in Northern Ireland and its implications for the Union with Britain.

In Coogan's mind this would be a case of breeding for victory - with the automatic assumption that all those extra Catholics around would eventually vote for a united Ireland.

However, as successive opinion polls have shown, a significant proportion of northern Catholics - while very much "cultural nationalists" - are quietly pro-Union.

Certainly, there's enough of them around to make the main unionist parties rethink the way they should be reaching out to the pro-Union population beyond their traditional appeals to the Protestant faith, the Crown and the Orange Order.

Now the former IRA Old Bailey bomber, junior minister in the power-sharing Executive and Maze prison escaper is taking up the bio-bomb option - at least in North Belfast.

As Kelly mounts another serious challenge to unseat the DUP's Nigel Dodds, his election team produced one of the most controversial leaflets of the 2015 general election campaign here.

In a blatant appeal to basic tribal instincts, Sinn Fein's literature included one leaflet reminding everyone that Catholics make up 46.94% of North Belfast's population while Protestants (decked out in orange, naturally) were now a minority at 45.67%.

This cynical attempt at out-breeding triumphalism has even drawn criticism from within Sinn Fein's ranks, with the extremely rare sight of one of the party's rising stars Sean Fearon, a former chairman of the party's branch at Queen's University, describing the leaflet as basically sectarian (after his outburst, you wonder, though, if this chap will have a big future in the party after all).

For those on the unionist side, Kelly's "Count-the-Catholics" literature was a case of the mask slipping. Because, while the likes of Gerry Adams has been appealing to working-class unionist voters to switch to Sinn Fein because of the party's anti-austerity stance, his comrades in North Belfast resort to the good old-fashioned tribal politics of "Us" versus "Themuns".

While Sinn Fein and the SDLP accuse the unionist parties of cynical sectarianism in terms of their pact in North and East Belfast, as well as Fermanagh/South Tyrone and Newry/Armagh, the DUP and UUP bite back that the Shinners, in particular, are equally guilty of banging the tribal drum.

The SDLP has come under fire from its larger nationalist rival over Alasdair McDonnell ruling out any prospect of a pan-nationalist election pact. McDonnell and the SDLP leadership insist they will not engage in squalid sectarian headcounts, but, in reality, whether they like it or not, their core voters might say otherwise.

Certainly, the SDLP is not engaged in any type of blatant dog-whistle politics. The party is not hinting, or nodding and winking, in Sinn Fein's direction in certain constituencies in return for support elsewhere. On the surface there have been - and will be - no deals now with just two days left.

Nonetheless, the party's core voters might say and do otherwise. In certain areas, "Us" versus "Themuns" will come into play no matter how unpalatable and reactionary this type of tribal voting is.

Michelle Gildernew, for example, will only survive as MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone if some SDLP voters back her to keep "Themuns" - ie Tom Elliott, the lone standard-bearer for unionism in the constituency - out. Local polling and veteran commentators on the ground in the border constituency certainly expect this to be the case.

If it does happen, the SDLP can look back to when it first let the Sinn Fein electoral genie out of the bottle; all the way back, in fact, to the 1981 hunger strike by-election, when the SDLP stood aside and left Bobby Sands with a free run to defeat Harry West and win the seat.

Paradoxically, by doing so the SDLP opened up an electoral space for Sinn Fein and, in the long-term, probably advanced the cause of the pragmatic, peace process faction within mainstream republicanism - albeit not until a lot more senseless bloodshed was visited upon this society.

Tactical nationalist voting may also come into play to keep out another unionist in a constituency at the opposite end of the region - East Belfast.

Quietly, very quietly, some (not all, but some) nationalists in enclaves such as Short Strand, or those living in middle-class areas like Belmont, will tell you that they are voting tactically this time around. There may even be a few Sinn Fein voters among them who are willing this time to switch party allegiances and vote for Alliance's Naomi Long to keep "Themuns" out, namely the DUP's own rising star Gavin Robinson. Conversely, the SDLP clearly benefits from cross-community tactical voting in its Foyle redoubt. Back in 2001 I recall sitting in a pub near the only Protestant enclave on Londonderry's West Bank, the Fountain estate, and noting that almost every adult in the bar, unionists to a man and woman, said they were voting for Mark Durkan.

They were doing this not because of their love for the SDLP and its philosophy of an agreed Ireland, but simply to keep out the then-Sinn Fein challenger for John Hume's old seat, Mitchel McLaughlin.

I have absolutely no doubt that tactical voting will play a part this time around in re-electing Durkan to the House of Commons.

Even in South Belfast, unspoken, organic tactical voting might even come to the assistance of the man who dismissed pacts as sectarian and narrow - the last MP for the area. With the DUP this week publishing polls which, it claims, show Jonathan Bell closing in on Alasdair McDonnell, the main unionist challenger in the south of the city may be inadvertently sending out a dog-whistle warning to nationalists in the constituency - especially those considering voting for Sinn Fein.

Bell's alleged advance might just convince enough nationalists - particularly those in middle-class districts - that only McDonnell can stop the DUP recapturing South Belfast for unionism.

Of course, none of these tribal and even unstated cross-community tactical voting patterns in varied constituencies contributes to the goal of building a settled and united society in Northern Ireland.

Instead, they only bolster the Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz's assertion that: "War is simply the continuation of political intercourse with the addition of other means."

Or, in the case of Northern Ireland, in the absence of actual war, it's the other way around: elections are merely the continuation of the tribal wars on this narrow ground.

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