Finally, some nuance comes to NI

By Anton McCabe

The UK General Election in the North saw the stalling of the Sinn Féin juggernaut. Its share of the vote fell by 1% compared to the last election – despite fighting an extra seat, South Belfast. This was the party’s first electoral setback in the North since 1992, when Gerry Adams lost his West Belfast seat at Westminster.

Overall, the long-running apparently inexorable rise of the Nationalist vote was halted. The Nationalist share of the overall vote was down 3.6%. For the first time in 32 years, Unionists took a Westminster seat from Nationalists – Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Another nationalist seat is extremely vulnerable, that of SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell in South Belfast. He was only 900 ahead of the DUP candidate, despite a three-way Unionist scrap. In North Belfast, seen as a possible Nationalist gain, the total Nationalist vote in fact fell by 4.2%.

While not as prominent as in the Republic, social issues are at last and at least bubbling below the surface. The conservative wing of the DUP were losers. Health minister Jim Wells resigned after claiming child abuse was more common among gay people, then police being called to an incident with a lesbian couple in Rathfriland.

Wells stood in the Nationalist-held seat of South Down. His vote fell sufficiently to allow the Ulster Unionists to outpoll him. The Reverend William McCrea, traditionalist Free Presbyterian minister and outgoing MP for South Antrim, lost to Ulster Unionist Danny Kinahan. Kinahan was the only Unionist Assembly member to vote for equal marriage.

The election has weakened the threat to the DUP from the right. The right-wing Traditional Unionist Voice polled poorly: six of seven candidates polling under 2,000 votes. A DUP source told Village this indicates the DUP’s future is in the centre, in electoral competition with more moderate forces.

Under the radar, there is a peculiar development. The DUP is courting Catholic social conservatives – an estimated minimum 10% of the North’s Catholics. They are more middle-class and motivated to vote.

A Catholic social conservative told Village: “I have three issues: Abortion; Homosexual marriage; A united Ireland. The DUP is with me on two of them. Sinn Féin is only with me on one, and even then it is compromised”. He said he was reluctant to vote Ulster Unionist, because some of their candidates took liberal stances on social issues.

After the election, a Catholic pro-life group in Dungannon has claimed credit for the Unionist victory in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. It circulated 20,000 leaflets, targeting Sinn Fein as pro-abortion.

The DUP source was careful not to exaggerate the support from Catholic social conservatives. “It may be only a handful”, the DUP source said. “But in an election, a handful of votes can make a difference”. He pointed out that, while all the Churches have sought DUP support on social issues “only one Church ever backed that up with a statement – that’s the Catholic Church”.

A priest in a nationalist rural area has said he has been surprised at a number of parishioners telling him they were voting DUP. They were former SDLP voters, who saw that party as standing for Catholic principles – but have lost faith in it. Certainly, with constitutional issues and controversy over flags and marches having retreated, the DUP is no longer as toxic to a section of Catholics. Its difficulty may be that the issues which attract these Catholics are increasingly toxic to the majority of the North’s Protestants.

Sinn Féin’s stalling in the North  has certain implications for the Irish general election. The political opponents most avidly anti-Sinn Féin were those who most strongly believed it was unstoppable. They will breathe more hopefully now.

Sinn Féin has perhaps been nurturing excessive expectations or the next election. Strategists believe its seat tally will probably be in the mid-20s, from the current 14. It has suffered from the reduction in the total number of Dáil seats, and changes in constituency boundaries. In a number of seats, it has a weak organisation and no well-known candidate. However, North and South Sinn Féin has shown an ability to learn from setbacks. From the Northern results, it is clear that the Republic will be the area of growth. •