headlines in the aftermath of the recent Westminster
and council elections in the North from the Nationalist
viewpoint all dwelt on Sinn Feins continuing
success. One more seat was won - Conor Murphy taking
Newry-Armagh from the SDLPs Seamus Mallon
- and that was seen as underlining that partys
domination of its rival, the SDLP and Northern Nationalism.
closer examination of the vote, however, reveals
a more complex picture. The collapse of the Unionist
centre ground as seen in the Ulster Unionists
decimation at the hands of the DUP was not repeated
in Nationalist politics. The much-promised and predicted
(at least by Sinn Fein) melt-down of the SDLP did
not happen and to judge from the results is unlikely
to happen. Wee Joe Devlin-style Nationalism is still
alive and well and prospering where Catholics are
in a majority or have their place in the sun secured
(Derry and South Belfast) or where sectarian politics
are less bitter than elsewhere (South Down).
Fein meanwhile appears to have reached a ceiling
of some sort. If the party wishes to continue its
growth and to render the SDLP irrelevant a re-think
of its strategy may well be necessary, especially
in relation to the continued existence of the Provisional
evidence for this is there to see in the figures.
Sinn Feins performance in the Council election
was almost exactly the same as it was four years
ago and the same pattern is evident in the Westminster
result where SFs vote actually fell by over
800 votes from the 2001 result. Hardly the performance
of party sweeping all in front of it. The SDLP's
vote appears to have settled and stabilised yet
there is a mystery - the party's vote still dropped
by 31,000 votes in the council poll and by 44,000
in the Westminster election yet didn't end up in
Sinn Fein's box.
where did the missing SDLP votes go? Or put another
way, why did the total Nationalist vote drop from
a high point of 345,000 in the 2001 Westminster
election to 300,000 in 2005?
is possible that the recent tightening up of the
voting registration procedures is responsible and
that the 40,000 or so missing Nationalist votes
had all been personated in the past, most of them
presumably stolen by the Sinn Fein and IRA machine.
Possible but unlikely, for the results could only
be explicable if the number of false votes removed
from the rolls were matched almost exactly by desertions
from the SDLP to Sinn Fein. That is too much of
a coincidence to have happened. Not only that but
it is possible, as Luby has always believed, that
the extent of personation has been exaggerated.
45,000 votes amounts to 13 per cent of the total
Nationalist vote in '01 and the machine required
to mobilise that sort of effort would have to be
truly awesome. Personation does happen but mostly
it is done by small parties or in tight races. For
parties of Sinn Fein's size it is far better to
use election machines to get genuine voters to the
such circumstances it might be wiser to avoid unprovable
speculation and judge the results as they stand.
Accordingly, it is now possible to say that the
upper limit of Sinn Feins votes is in the
region of 170,000 votes while the bottom limit to
the SDLPs decline is in the region of 120,000
votes. Some 50,000 votes separate them but the gap
would be even narrower if those missing SDLP votes
had turned out instead of turning off.
can only speculate about why this SDLP vote deserted
the party. It appears that only a small number switched
over to Sinn Fein and that the bulk stayed at home
presumably because they couldnt bring themselves
to vote for the Provos, or that the SDLPs
message was less than inspiring. Is it possible
that Mark Durkans strategy of following stubbornly
in Sinn Feins steps, refusing to put clear
blue water between him and the Provos was responsible?
Possibly but the search for the answer to that question
is the key to the partys revival and must
be its urgent task in the months ahead. Nonetheless
if fear of being swallowed up by Sinn Fein was the
reason that Durkan refused to break with Sinn Fein
on power-sharing with Unionists then this result
frees him, at least in theory, from that yoke. Clearly
he now has the room to move - if John Hume will
are two implications for Sinn Fein from the result.
One is that it may be impossible for the Provos
to ever rout the SDLP and, denied top dog status,
Messrs Adams & Co will have to accept that they
need the SDLPs support to advance the Nationalist
agenda. That means doing deals with the SDLP and
giving as well as taking. The other implication
is that the surviving SDLP vote can only be won
to Sinn Fein by accelerating the journey into constitutional
politics and away from the armed struggle era, thereby
erasing altogether any difference between them.
danger facing Sinn Fein is that if there is no engagement
with the DUP and politics in the North begin to
stagnate the party could be vulnerable to a challenge
from an SDLP prepared to cut its own deal with Unionism.
At the very least it is a threat that Durkan could
hold over Adams head. Also worrying for Sinn
Fein is the knowledge that any faltering in the
electoral enterprise North of the Border could have
implications for the party South of the Border.
way there is a message here that underlines the
need for Sinn Fein to put the IRA to bed in an unequivocal
fashion. In some ways the Provos are more vulnerable
now than at any time since the Good Friday Agreement
was signed. But dont expect Bertie Ahern and
Tony Blair to see that, nor any of their advisers.