The Westminster election results of 2017 could well be remembered as the moment in which the SDLP reached the point of no return.
Chris Donnelly writes.
Nationalist and unionist voters resolved themselves to support the respective parties who they viewed as being best able to reflect, articulate and protect their interests.
For the second successive election, nationalist voters turned out in significant numbers ensuring that the percentage turnout share of the vote for the combined nationalist parties comfortably exceeded 40 per cent.
This led to Sinn Féin recapturing Fermanagh South Tyrone from the Ulster Unionist Party’s Tom Elliott.
The nationalist surge that defined March’s Assembly election also had the effect of galvanising unionist voters to turn out in their droves for the Democratic Unionist Party, ensuring that party received its highest ever vote. But the main story within nationalism was the continued demise of the SDLP as a political and electoral force in Northern Irish politics.
The party would have been worried that South Down was likely to be lost to Sinn Féin’s Chris Hazzard following the March Assembly election, when Sinn Féin outpolled the SDLP by more than 6,000 votes in the constituency.
However, the loss of Foyle to republicans will come as a crushing blow to a party appearing out of ideas, lacking the capacity to change in a manner that could allow the SDLP to once again connect with the broader nationalist electorate.
In North Belfast, Sinn Féin’s decision to run John Finucane, a high profile solicitor and son of murdered human rights solicitor, Pat Finucane, was an inspired choice that captured the mood amongst nationalists of all persuasions in the constituency. His 19,000+ votes was a massive 5,000 above the figure taken by the party in the constituency only two months ago, making North Belfast one of the two key marginal constituencies in the next Westminster election (assuming boundary changes do not come into effect prior to then).
The other key marginal seat that will be the subject of great interest next time around will be South Belfast, where the DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly capitalised on a deeply divided nationalist and middle-ground vote to slip through and take the seat. The fact that Alasdair McDonnell could not attract sufficient tactical votes from Sinn Féin, Green and Alliance supporters further underlines how the SDLP have become increasingly irrelevant and out of touch.
Sinn Féin has never been as dominant a force within northern nationalist politics, and its pre-eminent position looks likely to remain unchallenged unless and until an alternative political force enters the field, capable of mounting an effective challenge.
There has been much speculation about Fianna Fáil entering northern politics for the first time in 2019 to contest local government elections. Many within the SDLP will be seriously contemplating whether or not the party should seek an alliance with the most successful political party across Ireland since partition. If that were to happen, northern nationalists would have the choice of two all-Ireland parties to choose from, which would transform the political and electoral landscape, impacting upon the relationships at Stormont and across these islands in an unprecedented manner.
For now, however, Sinn Féin’s position as the voice of northern nationalism is beyond question, and there is no sign of things changing in the near future.