“We can do this”
The words of a Sinn Fein activist on the stump in South Belfast last week.
I must admit I was personally sceptical. But it got me thinking.
Then, this week , South Belfast bubbled to the surface again as a serious point of political interest. Sam McBride over at the newsletter published a predictably, unionist minded piece which Mick referenced in an earlier article here on Slugger. Chris Donnelly has also done an in depth piece on the constituency including the recent vote numbers.
What is clear is that the SDLP share of the vote has decreased from 32.3% to 19.4% (with the exception of 2010 when SF didn’t stand gifting a 41% vote to the sole SDLP candidate) and the Sinn Féin vote has increased from 9% to 17.7% since 2005.
The trend is clear therefore, that barring the unexpected (Or, of course, “events”) Sinn Féin is in a position to overhaul the SDLP as the the largest nationalist party, if not at this election, certainly by the next electoral cycle. It’s a question of when, rather than if.
The overall Nationalist vote, however, has remained essentially static. The two trends that have emerged are the shift in balance between the SDLP and SF, and the growth of the smaller parties. Alliance have doubled their percentage vote over the period but remained largely static since 2010. The Greens have also done very well, increasing from 3% in 2010 to 9.9% in 2017.
Outwith those two, the intra Unionist battle is clearly being won by the DUP who are now gathering votes at a ratio of 2:1 versus the Ulster Unionists. Nevertheless the overall Unionist vote has decreased from 51.1% to 31.9% – a staggering 20% drop in twelve years.
As a number cruncher myself, I must admit to an academic interest but as a republican I must also admit to an emotional and political interest.
There are three clear interesting elements to this election, the inter-nationalist SF v SDLP vote, the broader Nationalist V Unionist result and the issue of how the wider vote fragments among other parties.
The infuriating point of FPP elections is, of course, that it focusses things in a very black and white way. The ultimate sectarian headcount if you’ll forgive me that phrase. For example, in 2017 Green Party transfers broke 70% for the two main nationalist parties – 40% of them went to SF.
Given the nature of this election, a number of questions present themselves:
Will the fragmented voters among the smaller parties actually vote, and if they do, who will they vote for?
Will the big ticket issues impact on voters? – Brexit, Stormont reignition, Equality issues, Political competence?
Will the politically smart and diverse electorate in South Belfast withdraw to the traditional barricades?
Regarding the Intra Nationalist battle – can Máirtín win?
In my opinion, yes he can but for that to happen it’ll require two things to happen.
It will require sufficient SDLP voters to shift their votes in the belief that Máirtin can beat Alasdair to take Mairtin over about 25%. In other words he needs to find 4000 votes above his 2015 total or 2000 above the May 2017 performance.
It will also require voters in the smaller parties to vote SF.
Given the rapid rate of demographic change in South Belfast it will be interesting to see how the vote coalesces this time around.
If, and it’s a big if, he can maintain the momentum he has built over recent elections. Yes Mairtin can win this but the odds are currently not in his favour.
The most recent Lucid talk poll gives the SDLP a 60% chance of retaining the seat with the DUP as the likely winners if they don’t.
The SDLP are clearly pitching their hopes of retaining the seat on a campaign built upon the local popularity of Claire Hanna and the benefits of being the incumbent MP.
I am personally yet to be persuaded as to the benefits of any MP from hereabouts actually taking a seat in Westminster, not to mention taking an oath to an unelected monarch. I am unaware of a single instance of any elected MP from here materially affecting any piece of legislation passing through Westminster.
For me, South Belfast will be the one to watch on the night of June 8th.