SDLP ‘underestimated’ symbolic importance of first minister post in battle for nationalism

Party suffered the most bruising battle of any of the political parties, with ‘incredible losses’

Shortly before 1am on Sunday, the last Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) candidate was elected to the Stormont Assembly.

In the increasingly chilly Magherafelt count centre, Sinead McLaughlin, dressed in the blood red of the Labour movement, scraped through on transfers in Foyle, to represent her beloved Derry – John Hume's Derry, the party's cradle.

For the once dominant voice of nationalism in the North, it was an increasingly rare win. The day had been marred by “incredible losses of incredible people,” she admitted.

Losing a third of its MLAs, down from 12 to eight, the SDLP suffered the most bruising battle at the ballot box of any of the political parties.

Nichola Mallon, its deputy leader and Infrastructure Minister, is gone. Long serving Pat Catney and Delores Kelly are out too. In South Down – once an SDLP stronghold – Karen McKevitt failed to retain the party seat.

Even in its citadel of the Walled City, Sinn Féin had vaulted the SDLP’s defences.

Pádraig Delargy, a quietly spoken 26-year-old teacher virtually unknown to most in Derry before the election, topped the poll in the constituency, romping home on the first count.

Another Sinn Féiner, Ciara Ferguson from Strabane in Co Tyrone, followed him.

Second fiddle

While Mark H Durkan, a former Stormont minister steeped in the SDLP tradition and nephew of the city's one-time MP and Hume aide Mark Durkan, was returned on first preferences, it was second fiddle to Sinn Féin.

An ambitious offensive to gain a third seat in Foyle ended in defeat, the party’s command relieved to retain their two MLAs as it retreated to lick its wounds.

The siege of Derry’s SDLP reflects a clear pattern for the party across the North. It is under attack from a pincer movement involving Sinn Féin on one side and the march of the centrist Alliance Party on the other.

Then there is the anti-abortion Aontú chipping away at the SDLP’s more socially-conservative, traditionally Catholic rump.

Last Thursday, 78,237 voters gave the SDLP their number one tick – just over 9 per cent of overall first preferences cast. It was a drop of nearly 3 per cent on the last Assembly election in 2017.

That time, they also dropped their first preference vote marginally by 0.1 per cent.

Sinn Féin took more than a quarter of a million (250,388) first preferences in this election or 29 per cent, an increase of 1.1 per cent. Last time out, they upped their share by 3.9 per cent.

Alliance increased their first preferences by 4.5 per cent this poll, up again from the 2.1 per cent rise in 2017. Nationalist newcomers Aontú, meanwhile, took 1.5 per cent of first preferences on Thursday.

On Friday, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood blamed the nationalist surge towards Sinn Féin on the fight for the first minister post.

"They just didn't like being told by [DUP leader] Jeffrey Donaldson that a nationalist couldn't be first minister. So, they went out and they voted for Sinn Féin in big numbers," he told The Irish Times.

‘Potentially delusional’

But Jon Tonge, professor of politics at University of Liverpool, says it is "dangerous and potentially delusional" for the SDLP to imagine any lent votes will ever return.

“If there is a devolved government formed with a Sinn Féin first minister, and that was to work well, where does the SDLP go from there?” he asked.

“What this election did was to confirm Sinn Féin further as the dominant party of Irish nationalism in the North. That begs the question in the next election ‘what is the motivation for voting the SDLP?’.”

While the party increased its vote share at the last Westminster election – up 3.2 per cent, while Sinn Féin dropped 6.6 per cent – it was against the backdrop of an abstentionist Sinn Féin being blamed for collapsing Stormont, and the resultant crisis in the health service. It still managed to return seven MPs to the SDLP’s two.

Tonge says the SDLP needs to carve a distinctive niche for itself after years of Sinn Féin “stealing their clothes” on everyday issues.

“Sinn Féin has taken the whole wardrobe at this election,” he says, in a nod to its avoiding the Border poll and focusing on immediate bread and butter issues, like the cost of living crisis, health and education.

Then there is the generational issue. Sinn Féin’s biggest lead over the SDLP is in the 18 to 24 age group. The SDLP only dominate their rivals among voters over 65 those who most lived the Troubles.

Over the weekend, the lack of militant chanting at post-election celebrations in the North – unlike recent outbursts among Sinn Féin figures in the Republic – was notable, as was the lack of the party’s old guard at count centres.

Sinn Féin also has the highest percentage women of any party – another draw.

On the Alliance attack, the centrists are arguably more transfer friendly than the SDLP. In a number of battles for final seats, Naomi Long’s party led the counts over the moderate nationalists.

It was Alliance’s Nuala McAllister who took Nichola Mallon’s seat.

“Once upon a time nationalists wouldn’t vote Alliance. They were soft unionists, unionists without sectarianism,” says Tonge.

“Now, Alliance are seen as constitutional agnostics, the barrier to nationalists supporting or transferring to them has been largely removed. That further squeezes the SDLP again.”

All-island party

Although peripheral, Tonge also points to Sinn Féin’s organisational advantage over the SDLP as an all-island party, poised to take government in the Republic.

"The SDLP has flirted with Fianna Fáil, which Colum Eastwood didn't even believe in, and Claire Hanna didn't believe it either. They can't even agree which political party in the South they want to work with," he says.

"It is not that the SDLP has done anything wrong. They have very clear talent, particularly in Eastwood, Hanna and [South Belfast MLA] Matthew O'Toole. They are no fools, but it is not just about being bright and able. They need a reasonably clear political message that is distinctive to attract voters.

“Of course this election was about putting food on the table and paying the bills, but don’t tell me a Sinn Féin first minister isn’t important in a country that was devised to preserve a unionist majority.

“That did matter to people, the symbolism is massive. That is the one piece of criticism I would have of Colum Eastwood. He underestimated the symbolic importance of a Sinn Féin first minister and nationalist voters didn’t underestimate it.”

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