Moving on to the nationalist side of the fence, there is no question but that this election has been a triumph for the Provos. If the DUP election machine is impressively slick, the PSF machine is space-age. Incredible vote management delivering five out of six in West Belfast; all three Mid-Ulster candidates returned on the first count; Paul “Butch” Butler winning an unlikely seat in Lagan Valley on the back of an enormous turnout from Lagmore. The deployment of the Provos’ small army of election workers in the latter stages – notably an invasion of South Belfast by Shinners from the West – was wondrous to behold. Even their own activists were stunned by some of the results, such as Mitchel the Draft Dodger topping the poll in South Antrim, young Dáithí McKay only a whisker behind Papa Doc in North Antrim, and coming close to a second seat in Upper Bann.
By contrast, the results make grim reading for the South Down and Londonderry Party. The Stoops are now below a quota in Fermanagh/South Tyrone, East Derry, North Antrim, South Antrim, North and West Belfast and Upper Bann. In some constituencies – notably West Tyrone and South Antrim – they have been wracked by internecine warfare that lost them their seat in the former and nearly did so in the latter. In their former fiefdom of South Down the Provos are sitting on their shoulders like vultures. Only in Foyle and South Belfast do they retain anything like a credible claim to be the leading nationalist party.
The SDLP is not quite ready to expire yet. Despite the fact that there is little more to the party than meets the eye – its lack of organisation has been cruelly shown up yet again – there remains a certain sociological base that can keep the party going for years to come. But the prognosis is grim. Anyone familiar with the SDLP will know that for decades it gained support by being a) the leading Catholic party, b) the party favoured by the bishops, and c) the non-violent party. Only b) really applies any more, and to an increasingly limited extent as the Provos have got more respectable. Meanwhile, the party on the ground consists as always of little fiefs – some doctor, solicitor or head teacher who did something in the civil rights movement, has lived off that reputation ever since, and can get elected to the council in his own right but won’t organise a branch for fear of building up a successor. The party may end up literally dying out in some areas before long.
And that’s without mentioning the lunatic electoral strategy of the Attwood brothers, whose approach is to brag about the SDLP’s success in civilising the barbarians, and then expects those same barbarians to vote SDLP. It is more likely that affronted barbarians would vote Provo just to spite them.
So the Provos have consolidated their leadership of nationalism. But hidden beneath the overall advance of some 2% in the PSF vote, there are some interesting dynamics going on. One is that there is some erosion of PSF support in the party’s traditional working-class base. Some of these people are going over to dissidence, but much larger numbers to abstention. (Actually, my hunch is that those who voted dissident last week were more likely abstainers than direct Provo defectors.) But these losses are more than made up for by to human waves of new voters – firstly, former SDLP supporters, and secondly young voters who have no memory of pre-peace process politics and who vote, when they do vote, monolithically for the Provos.
This sets up a political circle which may be vicious or virtuous depending on your point of view. The Provos will find it exceedingly hard to win back traditional supporters who have lost confidence in them. A return to strident republican politics, even if the leadership wanted it, would tend to alienate the typical Sinn Féin Nua supporter who wants a more aggressive version of the SDLP. Furthermore, the Provos’ shift on policing has ramifications that go beyond the ideological republican’s opposition to a colonial police force or to Belfast Defenderism. One of the main ways the Provos used to reassure a restive base was to go on a spree of punishment beatings, maybe nutting a couple of drug dealers for good measure. They can’t do that any more.
Therefore the Provo strategy – and this makes perfect electoral sense – is to decommission the SDLP post haste. This is desperately bad news for an SDLP that doesn’t know what its function is supposed to be any more. But, as the Provos transform inexorably into a slightly constitutional party – not a million miles from being a less elderly and jaded SDLP – there is an obvious question. The tensions within Northern nationalism are such that a single, monolithic nationalist party is no more possible than a single, monolithic unionist party. If PSF are becoming the new SDLP, where will the new Sinn Féin arise from? That’s of course assuming we would even want a new Sinn Féin, an outcome that I personally would be less than thrilled with. However, there is a smallish but potentially significant space opening up in the old Provo base, and it will be fascinating to watch how different tendencies try to build out of it.