Sinn Féin and SDLP target younger voters – but will it pay off?
‘It’s quite clear in terms of generational change that 18-25 year olds are voting Sinn Féin’
Rebecca Doherty has just turned 18 – and among the birthday greetings she received was a letter from the SDLP.
“We are writing to wish you a happy 18th birthday,” it reads. “Should you wish to get in touch with us, just use our contact details below. Best wishes and enjoy your special day.”
As well as studying for her A-levels, she’s about to vote for the first time, in the UK general election.
“Up until now I hadn’t really thought about who to vote for,” she admits.
“I do know it’s important to vote because people had to go out and protest so that I could vote, but this has made me realise that I should investigate it more so that I can make an informed decision about who I vote for.”
It’s a tactic routinely used by political parties as a way of connecting with first-time voters, and not just at election time; however, a strong showing among younger voters could make all the difference between success and failure at the ballot box.
In Rebecca’s constituency, Foyle – which largely corresponds to Derry City – the race is between the SDLP’s Mark Durkan, who has represented Foyle at Westminster since 2005, and Sinn Féin’s Elisha McCallion, a former mayor of Derry who topped the poll in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections in March.
At 35 McCallion is one of the party’s many young MLAs – even Sinn Féin’s Northern leader, Michelle O’Neill, is only 40 – and the party believes its support for same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland and their campaign to have the voting age lowered to 16 have particularly resonated with young voters.
Indeed, in the North’s newly-engaged political landscape, which saw voter turnout rise to 64.8 per cent following the collapse of the Stormont Assembly in March, Sinn Féin is confident that they are the party which is engaging young nationalists – and that, in the longer term, this will enable them to take seats such as that in Foyle.
“It’s quite clear in terms of generational change that 18-25 year olds are voting Sinn Féin,” says political commentator and former Sinn Fein MLA Daithí McKay.
“As that generational change continues to come in over the next five to 10 years you will ultimately see a Sinn Féin MP in Foyle.”
That’s despite the election of two young SDLP MLAs in Foyle – the party leader, Colum Eastwood, is, at 34, a year younger than Elisha McCallion – and the party’s increased focus on connecting with potential voters through social media.
Indeed, the Pat Ramsey Facebook page – belonging to the former SDLP MLA – is well-known throughout Derry and is used by people of all ages as a community noticeboard.
“Part of the Sinn Féin narrative is that they are the party of younger voters but there’s no statistical way of showing whether or not that translates into votes,” says election analyst Gerry Murray.
“They have specifically targeted younger voters and they are very orientated towards younger voters, but of course part of that is also about portraying themselves as young and vibrant and the SDLP as old and tired.
“Young people do not appear to be voting in any greater numbers than older people, and while more of them voted in the Brexit referendum that trend does not seem to have continued.
“I know the political parties said they hoped young people would be energised by the referendum and continue to vote but it seems to have translated more into annoyance with the whole political system and is leading to them not voting at all.”
It’s not hard to see why voters of any age could be disillusioned. In the last two years, Northern Ireland has gone to the polls five times – a UK general election in 2015, Assembly elections and the Brexit referendum in 2016, another Assembly election earlier this year, and now a further Westminster election.
“I voted for the first time in 2015, and a lot of people in my school didn’t want to vote, but I didn’t want my vote to go to waste so I deliberately found out about the parties and thought about who I would vote for.”
One of those trying to decide is 19-year-old and fellow student Jason White, who spread his votes between the SDLP and Sinn Féin in the last Assembly election.
“Northern Ireland is still in the UK so what happens in Westminster will end up affecting us here as well, so I do think it’s important to have someone over there who will take their seat and who will represent us.
“I’ve looked at both their Brexit strategies and I know they’re both against it and I think they both have solid approaches, but I think Sinn Féin are more likely to act on it than the SDLP would.
“I think the SDLP are more likely to look for loopholes whereas Sinn Féin are more likely to create them.”
Another student, 21-year-old Caolán McGinley, is among those out canvassing for Sinn Féin. As president of Sinn Féin Republican Youth in Derry, he’s been involved in politics since he was at school, when he got involved in a campaign to save a maintenance allowance for students.
“I came from a republican family, but for me it’s being able to drive change in your own community.
“That could be something as small as getting somebody a passport, or being involved in getting a new playpark. Those are the things that people notice, and that then gets them engaged with politics.
“It’s important that young people vote because at the moment it’s vital that we elect MPs that are anti-Brexit and anti-Tory so that we can send a clear message about the need for special status for the North within the EU.”
His concerns about the potential implications of Brexit for Northern Ireland are shared by many of his fellow students – but not all agree that Sinn Féin is the best party to tackle it.
“I think young people don’t realise that what happens in Westminster affects them,” says Cassidy.
“We need to have an MP over in Westminster who is sitting in the chamber and who is voting, because they’re our representative over there.
“The current MP, Mark Durkan, is on the Brexit Select Committee so is asking questions about what Northern Ireland’s position is going to be in the future, and holding the Brexit minister to account.”
The importance of having an MP in the chamber – unlike Sinn Féin MPs who do not take their seats – and Durkan’s anti-war voting record is credited by the SDLP as helping to connect with younger voters.
Shauna Crossan, 20, is also undecided – but says her decision will be based on her opposition to Brexit and the Conservative government.
“Getting the Tories out of government, that’s the main thing.
“I saw a video saying vote for Sinn Féin and send a message to the Tories, so I think that’s what everybody’s focus needs to be, but I don’t actually know how they plan to do that.
“Maybe it’s the principle of having a strong opposition vote.
“I found a website online where you can type in your postcode and it’ll tell you who to vote for to get the Tories out, but when you type in Foyle it just says, “complicated”.
“I actually thought the website was broken. It just shows you how complicated politics is here.”