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Election 2017: Why Sinn Féin could end up as Northern Ireland's largest party

While enthusiasm for another election is scant, the conditions for a surprise Republican surge are well in place.

Next month’s general election will see Northern Irish voters trudge to their polling stations scarcely three months after March’s assembly elections.

Enthusiasm for another election is scant - both among increasingly disillusioned voters and resource drained parties. Many doubt the general election will produce different results to the recent March vote, with so little having happened since to cause significant swing.

Sinn Féin, however, has reason to be enthusiastic. The conditions for a surprise surge are well in place. A strange mix of factors have aligned which, if the party manages its strategy well, could see it increase its number of MPs from four to seven. This – and expected DUP losses – could see Sinn Féin become Northern Ireland's largest party at Westminster.

This would have major repercussions both in Westminster, as Sinn Féin’s  abstentionim means they refuse to take their seats, and at Stormont, by strengthening the party's hand in power-sharing negotiations. March’s snap assembly election saw Sinn Féin surge, with their best ever performance putting them just one seat short of the DUP’s majority.

There were a number of factors behind the surge. Concerns that Brexit could result in a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have roused Republican sentiment in the North. And the assembly elections were called after Sinn Féin refused to share power with the DUP due to accusations that the party had been responsible for the mishandling of the RHI scandal, which half a billion pounds of public money misspent.

The populist stance played well with the electorate. Sinn Féin positioned themselves as anti-establishment, anti-corruption and unafraid to hit the DUP where it hurt. The party has also rebranded itself slowly over the course of the last decade as Northern Ireland's social justice party. Of all the region's parties, it is the loudest advocate for marriage equality, and opposes benefits cuts and grammar schools. This has helped endear the party to younger voters more interested in social justice than a longer term goal of a united Ireland.

While the death of Martin McGuinness was a major blow to the party, the worldwide tributes to the former IRA man saw the news agenda dominated by reminders of Sinn Féin's major role in the peace process. This may be more compelling propaganda for the party than any of their own election broadcasts. With such tributes still fresh in their minds as they vote in June, some voters may find themselves steered towards supporting the republicans.

McGuinness’s death may also see some soft nationalists, who previously denounced Sinn Féin due to their historic association with the IRA, now feel their objections are no longer warranted. With Michelle O’Neill, who has never been personally involved with the IRA, having succeeded McGuinness, some may switch from supporting the SDLP to the now less toxic Sinn Féin.

These factors may all combine to see Sinn Féin not only replicate but exceed their strong showing from the March elections.

However, the matter is not only one of overall support. The mechanics of the electoral system will amplify the party’s gains.  While the single transferable vote system is used for multi-member assembly constituencies,  first past the post will water down the success of smaller parties such as the soft nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party next month, most likely to Sinn Féin's advantage. 

In addition, conditions in three specific constituencies are in place for Sinn Féin to make Westminster seat gains: most likely in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, South Down and Belfast North.

Fermanagh and South Tyrone is one of the most fiercely contested seats in the UK, with a unionist and nationalist divide in the constituency so close you could hardly drive a knife between it. In 2010, Sinn Fein took the seat by a majority of just four votes, following multiple recounts. They subsequently lost the seat by just 530.

However, Sinn Fein saw their Assembly vote share increase by over a thousand votes in the March local election, which, if replicated on 8 June, will see the seat swing back to the party.

The second seat the party could take is South Down. Currently held by the SDLP’s Margaret Ritchie, the party has seen its vote share dwindle in every election of recent times. The party appeared on the cusp of losing one of their MLAs for the area there but they were saved by transfers. Under FPTP, no such last minute rescue can occur.

The third and final seat – Belfast North, home to DUP grandee Nigel Dodds - is perhaps the most unexpected. Few political commentators would have predicted a Sinn Féin victory here even last year. Dodds held the seat with 47 per cent of the vote in 2015, with his nearest rival – Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly – securing only 34 per cent.

However, the constituency – like the majority of people in Northern Ireland - voted to remain in the EU and there is growing discontent locally at Dodds' pro-Brexit stance.

Most significant, however, is Sinn Féin's candidate for Belfast North this time round. They are fielding John Finucane, whose father Pat Finucane was a human rights lawyer murdered during the Troubles by loyalist paramilitaries supplemented by alleged British intelligence collusion.

Finucane Senior's death is among the most famous Troubles cases, and his family's campaign for justice has attracted sympathy from both sides of the sectarian divide. Finucane Junior is also a well respected lawyer in his own right. Many soft nationalists and soft unionists in the constituency who would normally vote SDLP, Alliance or Green will now rally round Finucane Junior – meaning there is a credible chance Sinn Féin could pick up a seat from the DUP here. They will be boosted by their main rivals, the SDLP, fielding a little-known candidate in the absence of its popular MLA Nichola Mallon.

In a further boon to Sinn Féin's chances, the DUP also look likely to lose Belfast East to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long. The DUP won the seat after the UUP agreed to stand aside during the 2015 election to avoid splitting the unionist vote. But no such pact has been agreed this time, heightening the chances of an Alliance victory.

This scenario would see the DUP go from eight seats to six, and Sinn Fein from four to seven. The consequences are potentially massive. Should they become Northern Ireland’s largest party, their absence from the Commons could delegitimize Westminster’s discussions on Northern Ireland.

A surge is also likely to have major and long lasting consequences locally. Stormont remains suspended after the collapse of the executive in January. Since then, the party has refused to back down and they have not returned to power sharing despite the March snap election designed to reboot relations at Stormont. Success at the Westminster election would strengthen Sinn Féin's hand in negotiations further.

The punishment the British government imposes for parties refusing to share power at Stormont are either direct rule from London - which the British government, distracted by Brexit, has shown it has absolutely no interest in - or yet another assembly poll. If Sinn Féin finds its prospects boosted by the Westminster election, they may well hold out for the latter, leaving Northern Ireland without a government at Stormont for even longer – and the ever unravelling power-sharing process in limbo yet again.


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Barb Jungr’s diary: Apart-hotels, scattered families and bringing the Liver Birds back to Liverpool

My Liver Birds reboot, set in the present day with new music and a new story, is coming to life at the Royal Court Theatre.

For the last three years I’ve been writing a musical. Based on Carla Lane and Myra Taylor’s Liver Birds characters Beryl and Sandra, but set in the present day with new music and a new story, it is coming to life at the Royal Court Theatre – in Liverpool, appropriately. Amazingly, the sun shines as the train ambles into Lime Street, where Ken Dodd’s statue has recently been customised with a feather duster tickling stick and some garlands of orange and lime green. Outside the station, composer Mike Lindup and I buy a Big Issue. We have a scene opening Act Two with a Big Issue seller and we are superstitious. We check into our “apart-hotel”. Apart-hotel is a new word and means a hotel room with a kitchen area you will never, ever use.

At the theatre everyone hugs as though their lives depend on it; we are all aware we are heading into a battle the outcome of which is unknown. There will be no more hugging after this point till opening night as stress levels increase day by day. I buy chocolate on the way back as there’s a fridge in my apart-hotel and I ought to use it for something.

Ships in the night

There’s no point in being in Liverpool without running by the river, so I leap up (in geriatric fashion) and head out into the rain. You’d think, since I grew up in the north-west and cannot ever remember experiencing any period of consecutive sunny days here, that I’d have brought a waterproof jacket with me. I didn’t. It springs from optimism. Misplaced in this case, as it happens. I return soaking but with a coconut latte. Every cloud.

We have been in the theatre for seven hours. Everything has been delayed. The cast are amusing themselves by singing old television themes. They have just made short shrift of Bonanza and have moved on to The Magic Roundabout. We may all be going very slightly mad.

As hours dwindle away with nothing being achieved, Mike and I pop to the theatre next door to enjoy someone else’s musical. In this case, Sting’s. It’s wonderfully palate-cleansing and I finally manage to go to sleep with different ear worms about ships and men, rather than our own, about Liverpool and women.

Wood for the trees

This morning “tech” begins (during which every single move of the cast and set, plus lighting, costume, prop and sound cues must be decided and logged on a computer). Problems loom around every piece of scenery. Our smiles and patience wear thin.

By the end of the 12-hour session we know we have the most patient, professional cast in the known cosmos. I, on the other hand, am a lost cause. I fret and eat, nervously, doubting every decision, every line, every lyric. Wondering how easy it would be to start over, in forestry perhaps? There is a drug deal going on across the road in the street outside the hotel. My apart-hotel kitchen remains as new.

First preview

I slept like a log. (All those years of working with Julian Clary make it impossible not to add, “I woke up in the fireplace”.) At the crack of dawn we’re cutting scenes in the Royal Court café like hairdressers on coke. Today is ladies’ day at Aintree, which feels apropos; tonight we open Liver Birds Flying Home, here.

The spirit of Carla Lane, who died in 2016, always dances around our consciousness when we are writing. She was very good to us when we began this project, and she was incredibly important to my teenage self, gazing out for role models across the cobblestones.

I grew up in Rochdale, a first-generation Brit. My parents had come here after the war, and what family we had was scattered to the four winds, some lost for ever and some found much later on, after the Velvet Revolution. I had a coterie of non-related “aunties” who felt sorry for us. Ladies with blue rinses, wearing mothball-smelling fur coats in cold houses with Our Lady of Fátima statues lit by votive candles in every conceivable alcove. To this day, the smell of incense brings it all back. Yet the northern matriarchy is a tough breed and I’m happy to carry some of that legacy with pride.

Seeing the theatre fill with people is terrifying and exciting in equal measure. We’ve had to accept that the finale isn’t in tonight’s show because of lack of technical time. I’m far from thrilled. The show, however, has a life of its own and the actors surf every change with aplomb. The audience cheers, even without the finale. Nonetheless, I slouch home in despair. Is it too late to change my name?

Matinee day

The fire alarm is going off. I know that because I’m awake and it’s 4am. As I stand in reception among the pyjama-clad flotsam and jetsam of the apart-hotel, I suspect I’m not the only one thinking: if only they’d had alarms this annoyingly loud in Grenfell. I don’t go back to sleep. I rewrite the last scene and discuss remaining changes for the morning production meeting with my co-writer, George.

The Saturday afternoon performance (which now includes the finale) receives a standing ovation in the circle. The ratio of women to men in the audience is roughly five to one. In the evening performance it is 50/50, so I’m curious to see how Beryl and Sandra’s story plays to the chaps who’ve been dragged out on a Saturday night with their wives. In the pub after the show a man tells Lesley, the actress playing present-day Beryl, how moved he had been by what he’d seen and heard.

A few years ago I stood behind Miriam Margolyes as we were about to go on stage at the Royal Festival Hall in a Christmas show. She turned to me, saying, “Why do we do this to ourselves?” We agreed: “Because we can’t do anything else!” I suspect forestry is out of the question at this juncture. 

“Liver Birds Flying Home” is at the Royal Court, Liverpool, until 12 May.

Barb Jungr is an English singer, songwriter, composer and writer.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge