Northern Ireland news

ANALYSIS: Sinn Féin stands on the edge of an electoral crisis

John Finucane's victory in North Belfast masked the Sinn Féin slump elsewhere. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire
John Manley

SINN Féin won seven Westminster seats this month including an impressive victory in North Belfast. But, Political Correspondent John Manley finds the party stands on the edge of an electoral crisis.


IT'S worth noting that at almost 182,000, Sinn Féin's total number of votes in this month's Westminster election was its second highest ever tally.

However, in many of the party's traditional heartlands its vote fell spectacularly compared to 2017 and across the north it shed nearly a quarter of its total vote, while its overall share fell by 6.7 percentage points to 22.8 per cent.

Although the DUP saw deputy leader Nigel Dodds ousted in North Belfast, Emma Little-Pengelly trounced in South Belfast, and the party fail against the odds to take North Down, its vote still held up better than Sinn Féin, whose victory with John Finucane in North Belfast masked the slump elsewhere.

Looking at the figures since 2001, when Sinn Féin first superseded the SDLP as nationalism's largest party, it appears the 2017 election witnessed a huge spike in support in a poll that took place in the aftermath of the RHI storm and soon after Martin McGuinnes's death. From that unprecedented baseline, the party has subsequently suffered a major decline, which coupled with the drop in vote for Martina Anderson in May's European Parliament election, suggests there is a problem holding onto new voters.

Various commentators have attempted to account for the collapse, which represents 1.7 percentage point drop in Sinn Féin's share of vote since the last Westminster election but one, by pointing to specific policies or strategy but it's more likely it stems from a number of factors, the least cited being the aforementioned context of 2017's poll.

Abstentionism from both Westminster and Stormont has been seen by some as key in driving voters to the SDLP and Alliance. Sinn Féin's contention that a handful of MPs at Westminster can hold little sway is given vindication by the size of the Tories fresh majority, though whether it was a convincing argument in the last mandate is a moot point. No doubt the SDLP's Colum Eastwood will stress how important promising Westminster representation was to his victory over Elisha McCallion in Foyle, while Sinn Féin will counter that the role it played opposing Brexit in Dublin, Brussels and the US was much more effective.

What appears to have damaged the Sinn Féin to a greater degree, and especially since the escalation of the health crisis in recent weeks, is the party's role not so much in the collapse of the institutions but in their continued dormancy. The 2017 result – along with that of the assembly election weeks previously – would indicate that Martin McGuinness's resignation had popular support but clearly the electorate has become increasingly frustrated with the paralysis since.

Former Foyle MLA Maeve McLaughlin has acknowledged that the so-called double abstentionism has reflected badly on her party.

"Cleary abstentionism was an issue for some people, but it equally is not an issue for many, many republicans," she told the BBC.

"But I do think that things like Stormont delivery were clearly on people's minds."

Unionists in particular have highlighted the party's recent push for a border poll in spreading disillusionment among the electorate, though such a policy from a republican party should hardly be surprising. Arguably, the tone of such calls is as important as the content and when accompanied by cries of "Tiocfaidh ár lá" from one of the party's most senior elected representatives, it tends to debase the argument.

There's also a question mark over the calibre of its candidates and senior personnel, an issue that John O'Dowd's recent challenge for the deputy leadership showed is an internal concern also. A lack of transparency, coupled with the party's industrial wage policy, are seen as impediments to recruiting and developing fresh talent. It's argued that the only reason the SDLP didn't retake South Down was due to the strength of incumbent Chris Hazzard compared to his low-profile challenger. The former Stormont infrastructure minister is seen as an exception rather than representative of Sinn Féin's upcoming generation.

It's probably too early to talk of a crisis at the polls for Sinn Féin in the north but if the current trend continues in the next electoral cycle, the party could be in serious trouble.

Northern Ireland news