The Old Firm election, part 2

Provos make out like bandits as SDLP continues its slow death

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.

13 Comments

  1. ejh said,

    March 13, 2007 at 8:51 am

    Two questions.

    First – from previous postings on this blog I got the impression that SF were losing large numbers of their supporters – yet they seem to have done very well. Was my impression a false one?

    Second – could somebody explain to me (as my experience of Belfast runs to precisely one day being given the “tour” and going to the Queens Ballroom to see an AC/DC tribute band) why the SDLP are strong in South Belfast rather than anywhere else?

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    March 13, 2007 at 10:20 am

    Well, my impression is that PSF have lost a smallish (in absolute terms) but relatively significant layer of traditional supporters, including long-time cadres. I would regularly run into fairly hardline republicans who nowadays view the Provos with contempt. They aren’t the majority by a very long way indeed, and the election results don’t show that shift because of the human waves of new voters who far outweigh any losses.

    The SDLP in South Belfast is a curious case. Traditionally I suppose it would be the party of the Catholic bourgeoisie such as it is. That means the Derry traders give it a material base in the North West. In South Belfast you’ve a rapidly changing population with a skyrocketing Catholic middle class. You also see a rising SDLP vote in a few other suburban areas, but the biggest concentration is in South Belfast.

  3. Frank said,

    March 13, 2007 at 10:23 am

    I have to agree with ejh here. There was substantial pre-publicity about the alienation of traditional working class republicans from Sinn Féin, in particular from Suzanne ‘RIRA’ Breen in the Tribune.

    It didn’t appear. The Sinn Féin vote was up everywhere but Foyle. Outside of Derry and Belfast the Shinners did well from Independent Republican transfers, ranging from 30% (Not bad) to over 50% (Better than some inter-party transfers.

    As for the point on turnout, it was precisely because SF turned out it’s vote that it won new seats in South Antrim and Lagan Valley, and got three on the first count in West Tyrone.

    I’m not saying there is/was NO alienation, just that we are talking far less than predicted and no more than a couple of hundred votes maximum.

    I think there is scope for a non-SF republican alternative, and in that regard it was interesting to see high transfers to SWP candidates in Foyle and West Belfast. But without a common platform and a better organisation, the Independent Republicans would struggle to take a seat in the Super Councils.

  4. splinteredsunrise said,

    March 13, 2007 at 12:46 pm

    I don’t want to exaggerate the votes independent republicans actually got, just to point out that there is some space opening up as PSF colonises old SDLP territory. The lack of votes for the opposition have to do with, quite frankly, the failings of the opposition, and I’ll post more substantially about that.

    But there are two questions. The small question but the one that interests me more is whether there is space for a political alternative to the GFA process be it trad-republican or Connollyite. The bigger question is, is there space in the North for two constitutional nationalist parties?

  5. Frank said,

    March 13, 2007 at 2:40 pm

    I agree with your point about key activists, hadn’t read it before my first post. Certainly, here in Dublin, Sinn Féin has lost a number of people over the last twelve months. The number is few, but the calibre is very high.

    I think politically the space you refer to is there, and may even grow as Sinn Féin enters government in the North and is forced to make compromises on it’s positions.

    There is a huge question mark over the organisational ability, and to be blunt the calibre, of the people trying to move into that space now.

  6. Frank said,

    March 13, 2007 at 2:40 pm

    I agree with your point about key activists, hadn’t read it before my first post. Certainly, here in Dublin, Sinn Féin has lost a number of people over the last twelve months. The number is few, but the calibre is very high.

    I think politically the space you refer to is there, and may even grow as Sinn Féin enters government in the North and is forced to make compromises on it’s positions.

    There is a huge question mark over the organisational ability, and to be blunt the calibre, of the people trying to move into that space now.

  7. splinteredsunrise said,

    March 13, 2007 at 3:29 pm

    Yeah, one problem being that much of the republican or left opposition is actually still within the Big Tent. Trying to think of organised groups that might fill that space, Socialist Democracy are too small, the IRSP too incoherent and RSF may not want to. I have a feeling some new formation will be needed, but looking at the candidates to create it doesn’t fill me with wild optimism.

  8. WorldbyStorm said,

    March 13, 2007 at 10:09 pm

    ejh, your impresion wasn’t false, it was simply that most here
    entirely explicitly and by their lights quite reasonably would not be enamoured with SF. I don’t share their analysis in full, although I think the critique is valid, but even someone like me who’d be more sympathetic to SF, without being a member or even a supporter, thought that they would do worse and that dissident Republicanism would put up a much stronger show. Not to the point of SF losing seats to them, that was never a runner, but perhaps losing seats to the SDLP or even Unionists in tightly contested constituencies.

    Clear that was a serious misapprehension on our part.

    Something that has struck me talking to SF people since is how this has been a shot in the arm – they’re delighted.

    frank, while it is true that some activists have gone from SF to most notalbly Éirigí they’re very small in number and the organisation appears to be largely intact. In fact, most interestingly those I know who have split away due to issues about what they see as some sort of breach with socialism have also expressed at least some satisfaction with the way the elections went (even those who had enormous problems with the policing issue). So perhaps what we’re seeing is something analagous to the relation of many groups in the past with the British Labour party where it was generally not loved, but seen as the lesser of two evils.

    To be honest splintered I don’t see any serious opening to the left of SF. As you note yourself all the alternatives are either too marginal, too small, or too ideologically (and here I’m thinking of RSF in particular) rigid to make any serious impact. Your last question though is very interesting about whether there can be two constitutional parties in Nationalism. The current answer is clearly yes. But I also think that a central point is that SF remains predominantly a working class party (if not an actual party of the working class) whereas the SDLP is clearly one as you note of the middle class. For SF to retain it’s grip it must of necessity continue tilting at least rhetorically to the left, particularly with armed struggle off the table but not so much as it’ll cause serious alarm. So if we want to be truly cynical we could say that inside Nationalism we have a leftish party and a party that is more centrist, just as in Unionism we have a rightist populist party and weirdly a minority party of the middle class which is more centrist. Fractured liberal democratic politics anyone?

  9. WorldbyStorm said,

    March 13, 2007 at 10:10 pm

    Ohyeh, meant to say, kind of telling no one has commented on the Unionist post by splintered, which is rather fine.

    Although telling in what way I’m not so sure…

  10. splinteredsunrise said,

    March 14, 2007 at 12:38 pm

    I’ll come back to the independent republican vote in my next post, but this is by way of being a bit of a thought experiment. Let’s say the PSF vote in constituency X loses 1% to dissidence and 2% to abstention, but that is more than made up for by winning 5% in new young voters and SDLP defectors. Therefore a deficit of 3% is turned into a gain of 2%. To put it crudely, in somewhere like South Belfast gains in Stranmillis outweigh losses in the Markets. The raw figures of course just record gains and losses, but I’ve a sense something like that is going on underneath. To confirm that though you would need to look at the individual boxes, and we don’t get that detailed a breakdown.

    It’s an interesting process, and has some similarities to the change in the Labour vote in Dublin.

    Generally I think that Gerry can get away with nearly anything in the absence of an alternative. And as you say, the problem with an alternative is that even though there’s a space for at least a smallish trad-republican or left-republican party, the people who might step into the gap don’t inspire much confidence.

    It probably is telling that nobody thinks the shift in unionism is a big story. Just look at the shouting match on Indymedia. Or a couple of years back at the Irish Social Forum, where only a dozen people bothered listening to the IWU. Meanwhile a hundred in the other room were listening to Kieran Allen debate the crusties…;)

  11. ejh said,

    March 14, 2007 at 6:01 pm

    Just look at the shouting match on Indymedia.

    Oh God, do we have to?

  12. Renegade Eye said,

    March 15, 2007 at 8:45 pm

    I returned the favor, and linked back to you.

    The local election scene is hard to comment on from here in Minnesota. We have no party that here that represents the working class.

  13. Renegade Eye said,

    March 15, 2007 at 8:45 pm

    I returned the favor, and linked back to you.

    The local election scene is hard to comment on from here in Minnesota. We have no party that here that represents the working class.


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