Belfast Telegraph

Inexorable rise of Sinn Fein comes to shuddering halt

By Liam Clarke

Has Sinn Fein's Northern Ireland vote finally peaked? Is the party's irresistible rise finally being resisted?

The basic facts are clear. They lost a seat held by a popular and personable candidate, Michelle Gildernew, to the UUP in Fermanagh and South Tyrone (FST). Looking at all constituencies together, Sinn Fein dropped a percentage point. They haven't fallen off a precipice, but for a party which relied on the momentum of its own success, any slowdown will cause worry.

FST was a particularly bitter loss. It was the seat won by the hunger striker Bobby Sands. They lost it to the Ulster Unionist Ken Maginnis in 1987 and seeing a return of those days will be dispiriting. The other symbolic blow is that it halts the "greening of the west", Sinn Fein's long-time plan to take all seats west of the Bann.

Sinn Fein are now left with just four MPs, only one more than the SDLP. They were worried this might happen and asked the SDLP for a nationalist deal to match the unionist one. The SDLP refused.

Apart from the smaller party's opposition to sectarianism, they know they must run candidates against Sinn Fein for Westminster to boost candidates in areas like Newry and South Armagh before next year's Stormont election.

Sinn Fein put one of their top people, former Lord Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir, into South Belfast against SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell. Dr McDonnell pulled through despite being engulfed in turmoil and putting his foot in it once or twice in interviews. However, he only got 24.5% of the poll, the lowest winning percentage in modern parliamentary history. He may well step down as leader.

The worrying thing for Sinn Fein is that, as things stand, Mr O Muilleoir is no sure thing to win this seat next time. Jonny Bell of the DUP is way ahead of him.

Why the slippage? It is hard to completely wipe out a rival party. There are nationalist gene pool voters who will never support Sinn Fein, partly due to memories of IRA violence. That line was blurred when John Hume teamed up with Gerry Adams in the peace process. Sinn Fein's vote has risen more or less ever since. Yet they show no signs of emulating the SNP, which largely eliminated Labour in Scotland.

Here the nationalist vote fell overall. Nationalists did not combine against the unionist pact but unionists clearly voted tactically for the SDLP against Sinn Fein in seats like Foyle and South Down. The SDLP's best outcome was achieved by Mark Durkan in Foyle. He increased his majority in a key Sinn Fein target seat, where they had a well-known candidate in Gearoid O hEara.

Margaret Ritchie hung in there in South Down and shows no signs of succumbing any time soon, whoever republicans stand against her. This time the Sinn Fein candidate, Chris Hazzard, got taken apart on Sinn Fein's economic plans by Stephen Nolan.

Tom Elliott believes Sinn Fein's policy of abstentionism played badly with some nationalists who voted for him in FST to get a say in Westminster. Ms Gildernew may have suspected the same thing. When she was asked if Sinn Fein would ever take their seats she replied: "Never say never."

The other problem is how Sinn Fein will react to a Tory victory and the reality that such a Government is unlikely to meet their demands on welfare reform. If they pull out of Stormont rather than implement cuts it will look to southern electors as if they are unable to balance the books. Constantly comparing themselves to Syriza in Greece does little to dispel that impression.

If they just impose the cuts, it will look as if they can't be trusted when they condemn austerity south of the border. They have a lot to think about.

Belfast Telegraph


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