Durkan (SDLP) 21,119 (46.3%)
McLaughlin (SF) 15,162 (33.2%)
Hay (DUP) 6,557 (14.1%)
McCann (SEA) 1,649 (3.6%)
Storey (UUP) 1,094 (2.4%)
Reel (Dream Ticket) 31 (0.1%)
By special request from Jim, our next constituency profile is Foyle, which is the politically correct name for the constituency covering Derry city. Foyle used to be coterminous with the Derry City Council area, but in the latest boundary revision has lost the Banagher and Claudy wards (much of its rural hinterland) to East Derry. I think that makes Foyle a borough rather than county constituency, if that matters any more.
The constituency is around 75% Catholic (the second highest percentage after West Belfast, and growing as the ageing Protestant population migrates east) and also ranks high on deprivation indices (again, following West Belfast). To a very large extent, it consists of massive working-class housing estates, the sort of estates where you don’t go out after eight at night. And yet, it’s the longtime stronghold of the SDLP, which is a bit incongruous given the sociological profile of the Schoolteachers, Doctors and Lawyers Party. It’s a bit like UKIP electing an MP in Hackney. And yet, perhaps it can be explained.
Firstly, Derry always had a firmer and more secure Catholic bourgeoisie than Belfast, let alone somewhere like Newry or Dungannon. Apart from social factors, and the Catholic majority, there was also the fact of the river acting as a sectarian boundary – so the Troubles were largely a confrontation between West Bank nationalists and the Brits, without the multiple sectarian interfaces of Belfast, and with the Prods out of sight and out of mind. Further, it was the Derry traders, via their intervention in the early civil rights movement, who were able to shape that movement and thus shape what became the SDLP. While the SDLP in Belfast relied largely on the personalities of Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin; and while the SDLP in most rural areas (South Down was a bit different, as we shall see) was very much dependent on personal votes for local notables such as head teachers or GPs, with little in the way of organisation; it was in Derry that it most closely resembled an actual party.
The personal charisma of John Hume played an enormous part in this, of course, and the party in Derry was built in his image. Hence the strange situation of a party which you would expect to be a reflection of Derry’s very confident and prosperous middle class, the sort of people who live in big flashy new houses in the city’s more bourgeois areas, and who strain every sinew to get their kids into Lumen Christi – and this is not entirely untrue, but the party still clings quixotically to its left-of-centre self-image, notably on issues such as academic selection, when a Christian Democratic ideology might more accurately reflect its sociological base. This is the Hume legacy, of course, and perhaps helps explain why the SDLP has still retained quite a bit of working-class support.
Which leads us to the battle within nationalism. Before the ceasefire, the SDLP regularly outpolled Sinn Féin here by three to one, with the two parties duking it out on equal terms even in the heart of the Bogside. In more recent years, the gap has been closing, with the SDLP vote in gentle decline while the SF vote has shot up from under 20% to over 30%. Last time out, the Shinners reckoned they could take down Hume’s successor Mark Durkan and decapitate the SDLP; they fell far short, though, and Mitchel McLaughlin has since been shunted off to South Antrim. Those figures tell a story, though.
As noted, the Shinners were on 33% in the 2005 Westminster election and polled a similar amount in the simultaneous local election. But, while Durkan could poll 46% in the general, his party pulled in a notably lower 41% in the locals. Evidently, and we’ll get to this, there was a certain amount of unionist tactical voting for Durkan. In the 2007 Stormont election, where PR obviated the need for tactical voting, the SDLP advantage was a mere 37% to 31%, but that in itself was virtually unchanged since the 2003 Stormont election. The SF vote seems relatively stable now in the low to mid-thirties, while Durkan outpolls his party, and indeed can lift his party.
While the gap has been narrowing over the last decade, it’s hard not to call this for Durkan. He himself, while he isn’t Hume, is a capable representative in his own right and well liked in Derry. SF, meanwhile, have lost Martin McGuinness to Mid Ulster and Mitchel McLaughlin to South Antrim, and their current candidate is Martina Anderson, who often adds colour to Stormont Live with her day-glo wardrobe. Martina – a former member of the Brighton bombing team, and latterly SF’s rather bizarre pick as director of unionist outreach – is a passable candidate, but not the outstanding candidate who would be needed to overhaul Durko’s starting advantage.
There’s also the tactical vote. If we compare the 2005 Westminster figures with the simultaneous local elections, we can see that the SF vote was very similar between the two, but Durkan outpolled the SDLP by nearly 3000. On the other hand, the Westminster results saw the DUP underperform by around 700 and the UUP by 1000 – that is, half the UUP’s local vote didn’t translate to Westminster. It’s not hard to conclude that these were unionists voting tactically for Durkan to keep McLaughlin out. That’s another built-in advantage for Durkan.
Over on the unionist side, the DUP has long been dominant up here, and can count on at least four-fifths of the unionist vote – that which doesn’t go tactically to Durkan. Although city councillor Maurice Devenney has been drafted in to take Assembly speaker Willie Hay’s place on the ballot paper, that’s unlikely to change. The UUP is virtually extinct in the city, and realistically the main task for David Harding – who hails from far-off Portballintrae – will be to fly the UCUNF flag, and hope to grow the vote a little with the Assembly and supercouncil elections in mind.
Finally, the odds and ends that make Derry more interesting. Foyle saw a rather strong performance at the Stormont election for dissident republican candidate Peggy O’Hara, with a campaign backed by the IRSP and Republican Sinn Féin. Assuming there is no dissident candidate this time, many of her 1800 voters will stay at home; others will go to either Martina Anderson or to the People Before Profit Alliance. This last is represented by popular teevee personality Eamonn McCann, who knows everybody in Derry and has forty-plus years of radical activism behind him. What with the decision of The Workers Party to sit this one out, Eamo will probably be the only explicitly socialist candidate in the north. He’s a very attractive candidate – perhaps the only such personality the left has – but he will once again be looking to build the base rather than be in contention. Eamo’s previous electoral forays have established a ballpark of between 1500 and 2000 votes, which is respectable enough; he may be tactically squeezed in a first-past-the-post contest, although since his STV transfers tend to divide equally between the SDLP and SF, it would be a two-way squeeze that wouldn’t affect the outcome.
Barring an earthquake, then, Durkan should hold on; the SDLP’s real problems will be elsewhere.