Shinners rumbled on austerity message
UK election shows voters in North now view SF as part of the establishment, writes Eilis O'Hanlon
Sinn Fein likes to boast that it is Ireland's only all-island party, but that was never true. The Workers' Party straddles the border.
The Greens, likewise. Last week, another national force made its impact felt in Northern Ireland as People Before Profit's Gerry Carroll put in an impressive performance in the UK election in Gerry Adams' former constituency of West Belfast, pipping the SDLP to second place by picking up 6,798 votes. A repeat will easily see him win a seat for the area in next year's Assembly elections. And he didn't even have to stage a sit-down protest in front of a government minister's car to do it.
Sinn Fein won the seat. That goes without saying. A monkey in a balaclava could win West Belfast, just as his simian neighbour in a sash and a bowler hat would be guaranteed victory in most Orange constituencies. But of all the details of last Thursday's poll, that PBP result is the one which will surely give most cause for concern for Sinn Fein. The working-class people who voted for Gerry Carroll are the ones who stayed loyal to SF through the bad times, and who have now most direct experience of what it's like to live under SF in government.
The Irish Times, bizarrely, dubbed SF's Paul Maskey the "runaway winner" of last week's poll, and even declared that he won in West Belfast by a "landslide"; but the starker truth is that SF's share of the vote in the most iconic republican area in the Six Counties has been slashed from above 70pc when Gerry Adams was Member of Parliament, and still above 70pc when a by-election was held in 2011 to replace the SF President after his move South, to only 54.2pc now.
That is SF's lowest share of the vote in the constituency since 1992, when the SDLP's Joe Hendron took the seat from Gerry Adams and SF petulantly accused him of stealing it by daring to attract a tranche of loyalist tactical voters on the Shankill Road.
It would be reassuring to think that the drop in SF's vote across the North was indicative of disquiet on the doorsteps about SF's handling of sexual abuse cases, such as those involving Mairia Cahill and Paudie McGowan, and that voters were quietly snubbing the party for standing by IRA members accused of abusing children and running kangaroo courts rather than having the decency to apologise to victims and beginning the process of making amends. Careful analysis of the trends in the coming weeks will show what, if any, impact that had.
But there's no mistaking the message behind that People Before Profit result.
It's the austerity, stupid.
SF has been pushing a convenient fiction, which is that it will oppose austerity if it gets into government in the South, just as it opposes it in the North, when, in fact, they're implementing cuts in Belfast, not stopping them.
That split personality manifested itself most obviously in an interview with SF deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald on Friday's Morning Ireland, when she not only managed to sound as if she'd been born and bred in Belfast as she excoriated the "axis of unionism, Toryism (and) the loyal orders" which stopped Michelle Gildernew retaining her seat in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, but also gave the impression that she personally was going to be squaring up to British Prime Minister David Cameron to make sure that he didn't impose any more cuts.
Getting into full flow, she almost turned into Irish republicanism's answer to Churchill, pledging to fight Cameron on the beaches, fight him on the landing grounds, fight him in the hills.
Not content with aspiring to run one country, Mary Lou apparently wants to be in charge of Britain, too.
PBP don't have this dual identity. What they say and do in the North is the same as what they say and do in the South. They might be equally wrong in both parts of the island, but, if so, at least they're wrong in the same, rather than contradictory, ways.
Had PBP run in more constituencies, the damage to SF's overall vote could have been even more marked. North Belfast contains some of the most deprived nationalist areas in the city, including the New Lodge and Ardoyne. This would have been fertile ground for PBP candidates.
It may be unfair to expect SF to take the rap for austerity in the North, because, as Naomi Long of the Alliance Party pointed out consistently throughout the election, Stormont has no revenue-raising powers, it can only divvy up the money it gets from Westminster. Fair enough. But SF doesn't make that case. Instead it peddles a fantasy that it can and will resist, and can hardly complain when reality comes back to bite them.
That's treating those who live in areas of high poverty and unemployment, and who know that SF protects them from nothing, as fools.
The PBP vote in West Belfast, which was nearly four times greater than that achieved by Gerry Carroll in the 2011 by-election, can only be seen in the context of island-wide politics. In the South, voters fed up with austerity may look to SF as an anti-establishment party. In the North, SF is now clearly seen as an establishment party itself, so disillusioned voters have to look elsewhere.
If nationalist voters did see SF as a bulwark against austerity, their vote would have soared, as the Scottish Nationalists' did, because, if there was one lesson of this election, it is that a party with a strong message, facing a serious challenge, can galvanise support on the ground.
That's what Naomi Long managed to do when the two mainstream Unionist parties agreed a pact to push her out of East Belfast. Long added more than 4,000 extra votes to her 2010 tally, increasing her percentage of the vote from 37.2 to 42.8pc. Unfortunately, it wasn't quite enough, but she showed that defeat was not inevitable.
SF had nothing comparable to show in this campaign. The party was making bullish noises about Old Bailey bomber Gerry Kelly's chances of taking North Belfast from the DUP's Nigel Dodds, another candidate who was given a clear run as a result of a Unionist pact.
In the event, Kelly gained only a small number of new votes and ended up with a lower percentage than in 2010.
In Fermanagh and South Tyrone, a profoundly symbolic constituency for SF ever since it was taken by hunger striker Bobby Sands weeks before his death, there was no counter-surge either to resist another Unionist pact. SF's percentage of the vote was actually fractionally lower than five years ago. If SF really is on the up, as they still claim, where was the "Naomi Long effect"?
They also failed to unseat the SDLP's Mark Durkan in John Hume's old seat of Foyle, while in West Tyrone the SF vote was down 5pc.
Elections are notorious for ludicrous soundbites, but the assertion by Paul Maskey that supporting SF is "a vote against austerity" was far and away the most absurd of this one; but it's up to SF's rivals in the Republic to expose these contradictions, because Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald are hoping that partition works in their favour in this instance, and that voters down South won't realise that they're being taken for a ride.