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Can nationalism bounce back at the polls?

Support for the 'green bloc' has been steadily sliding over recent elections. Political Correspondent John Manley asks if Thursday's poll will see a reversal in nationalism's fortunes

Sinn Féin activists say the party has been re-energised by its new northern leader Michelle O'Neill. Picture by Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press

THE consensus among commentators is that if this election is to herald any significant change it will mostly likely be within unionism.

If there is to be a noticeably different outcome from what we've had for the past decade or more, it's thought the Renewable Heat Incentive and the DUP's close association with the botched scheme will likely be the catalyst for change.

The Ulster Unionists therefore, and to a lesser degree the TUV, Alliance and other middle ground 'small u' unionist parties, will be the main beneficiaries of any disillusionment with Stormont's biggest party.

Electoral upheaval within the nationalism/republicanism constituency is much less likely and despite Sinn Féin's insistence that there will be 'no return to the status quo', the proportion of votes cast for it and the SDLP is expected to closely mirror last May's result.

But will the overall number of nationalist/republican votes fall again, continuing a trend that has been evident since the Westminster election of 2010?

In the assembly election 10 months ago, support for Sinn Féin and the SDLP fell significantly compared to 2011's corresponding poll.

While overall turnout dropped by less than one percentage point, the combined nationalist vote was down by more than five to just 36 per cent of the first preference vote – Sinn Féin with 24 per cent and the SDLP with 12.

Gains by People Before Profit certainly ate into the 'green bloc' but even discounting the left-wing party's surge of support in the nationalist-dominated seats of Foyle and West Belfast, there was still a notable slide in votes for both Sinn Féin and the SDLP.

Commentator Chris Donnelly has characterised this trend as the "nationalist malaise".

He believes its roots lie in the fact that the nationalist-republican community has become more contented within Northern Ireland.

For those who believe changing demographics will ultimately deliver Irish unification, this electoral apathy is a deep concern. On the evidence of recent election results, the prospect of the secretary of state calling a border poll any time soon are slim, to say the least.

So can the two dominant 'green' parties arrest the decline of recent years and demonstrate that the aspiration of a united Ireland remains relevant?

Sinn Féin may have lost a key figure in Martin McGuinness but they insist the party has been re-energised by Michelle O'Neill's recent appointment as northern leader.

It is also hoped anger at Arlene Foster over RHI and the Irish language will drive more supporters to the polling booth.

But while the party's election slogans may focus on the DUP, in the ground war People Before Profit is its main target.

Party insiders concede that Sinn Féin has taken its eye off the ball in terms of community activism, concentrating its efforts on the 'establishment politics' of Stormont and council chambers.

The recent street agitation around the Irish language, for example, is seen as one way of redressing this neglect of its grassroots – but has it come too late?

The SDLP, meanwhile, believes it too is revitalised with leader Colum Eastwood now 16 months into his tenure.

The election last May of new faces such as Nichola Mallon, Colin McGrath and Daniel McCrossan has also introduced a new generation of representatives who have savoured their role in Stormont's new opposition.

However, the fact that two SDLP veterans who retired last year – Dolores Kelly and John Dallat – have decided to run again suggests the party's renaissance as yet lacks depth.

With Brexit looming and an increasing likelihood of a second independence referendum in Scotland, politics across these islands is clearly in a state of flux.

The last thing northern nationalism needs at this juncture is for most of its supporters to stay at home.

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