15 February 2007 Edition
Assembly Election: Thirty seven Sinn Féin candidates across the Six Counties
Third time to the polls for Assembly
BY ROBBIE SMYTH
Thirty seven Sinn Féin candidates across the Six Counties handed in their nomination papers this week, as the only all-Ireland political party gears up for the first of two elections in 2007 - to take place within months of each other. The assembly poll will be the eighth election that Sinn Féin, as a national party, has contested in the decade so far. (For the record, there were Six County local elections in 2001 and 2005, an EU poll in 2004, Westminster elections in 2001 and 2005, 26 County local elections in 2004 and a Leinster House election in 2002.)
In each poll, the party support has grown in either vote share or level of political representation, or in some cases both! In fact, the Sinn Féin vote share in the Six Counties has being growing since the 1993 local elections, the result of which was headlined in An Phoblacht as a “Ballot Buster”.
This third Assembly election sets a precedent of sorts as, since the dissolution of Stormont in 1972, there have been many attempts to return to some form of Six County executive and assembly - most of which were ill-thought out and lacked even token support from the parties concerned. The 1975 Constitutional Convention stands out particularly in the “utterly and completely pointless” category; other entrants include the 1974 Sunningdale Assembly, the 1982 Prior Assembly and the 1996 Major Assembly. However, the first fully inclusive power-sharing institutions, set up under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, will mark an important milestone on March 7th in that it will be the third election for this institution which, though still young compared to international examples, is in Six County terms now entering veteran status.
1997 leap forward
Sinn Féin’s current electoral surge took a major leap forward in the 1997 Westminster elections, when party president Gerry Adams won back the West Belfast seat which was lost to the SDLP by the narrowest of margins through unionists’ tactical voting. In the same elections, Martin McGuinness won in Mid Ulster. It was also in 1997 that Sinn Féin won its first Leinster House seat, in Cavan-Monaghan.
In the 1998 Assembly elections, Sinn Féin won 18 of the 108 seats and increased their party vote share to 16.7%. In 2001, the party won four of the 18 Westminster seats, as Michelle Gildernew in Fermanagh-South Tyrone and Pat Doherty in West Tyrone capped a record Sinn Féin performance. This was matched in the local elections a week later, with significant gains for the party in council seats as well.
2001 also saw Sinn Féin exceed the SDLP vote share and this performance was matched a year later in the 26 Counties, when Sinn Féin added four more seats to its Dáil representation - with new TDs from Kerry, Dublin South West, Dublin South Central and Louth joining Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin in Leinster House.
Leading nationalist party
Sinn Féin’s position as the leading nationalist party was reinforced in the 2003 Assembly elections, when the party’s 23.5% of first preferences created a significant gap between themselves and the SDLP, who polled just 17%.
Further electoral growth was registered in 2004 as Sinn Féin voters elected MEPs in the Six Counties and Dublin, demonstrating also Sinn Féin’s position as the third largest party on the island. In the Six Counties, Bairbre de Brún was elected on the first count with 26.31% of the vote. Sinn Féin also registered massive gains in that year’s 26 County local elections.
Then in 2005, after a turbulent period of systematic attacks on Sinn Féin by political opponents - not just in Ireland, but internationally - and the ever-hostile mainstream media, the party recorded its tenth consecutive election of increased representation when Conor Murphy became its fifth MP. Sinn Féin polled 24.32% of the vote in that election.
Now, two years later, Sinn Féin is once again seeking to make gains and consolidate its position as the leading nationalist party in the Six Counties - and the only one offering a radical republican alternative and having the political will to struggle for an equal Ireland.
The recent history of electoral competition among unionist parties has been one of substantial swings, with the Ulster Unionists the biggest losers. The party split, with Jeffrey Donaldson jumping ship, and leader David Trimble lost his Westminster seat in 2005 in an election that returned just one Ulster Unionist MP, Sylvia Hermon. The UUP lost four seats in that election and, with a vote share of 17.76%, were 9% down on their 2001 performance. The DUP were up 11% (to 33.7%) in 2005 and added three new Westminster seats, bringing their total to nine.
In the 2003 Assembly elections, the DUP were for the first time since 1981 the larger unionist party in vote share. Their 25.7% gave them 30 seats, compared to 27 seats for the UUP, who won 22.7% of the poll.
This time around it is the DUP who must cope with defectors, internal disarray, and the added challenge of Robert McCartney’s UK Unionist Party standing against them in key constituencies.
In past elections, when the UUP were top of the unionist pile, the PR system used to level the playing field in favour of the DUP, especially in constituencies where there was less chance of seats being lost to nationalists. This time around it’s the UUP who might benefit from being out of the harsher focus in voters’ eyes - so don’t expect a rerun of the 2005 Westminster rout.
For Sinn Féin activists, getting out the republican vote is all the more important, as small swings in the unionist camp could generate an extra seat for the party. Unseating the DUP in West Belfast is just one possibility.
Three Westminster constituencies are spread across Antrim - East, North and South. In 2003, Sinn Féin’s Philip McGuigan pulled off a stunning performance, as his 6,195 first preferences gave the party its first seat in North Antrim. Sinn Féin’s vote share in this constituency has grown election by election, from 6% in 1997 to 14% in 2003 and 16% in 2005. The party is clearly on the rise in North Antrim and the Assembly candidate this time out is Ballymoney Councillor Daithí McKay who should hold the Sinn Féin seat.
East Antrim was one of the UUP losses in 2005, as the DUP’s Sammy Wilson was elected MP. Oliver McMullan is the Sinn Féin candidate this time. The party vote has hovered in the 2% to 3% category, but Sinn Féin as an organisation are growing throughout Antrim and the decision of Mitchel McLaughlin to stand in South Antrim reflects the serious intentions of the party to increase support here.
McLaughlin, currently the party’s Foyle MLA, is moving into a constituency where Sinn Féin and the SDLP are now neck and neck for support, as the Sinn Féin support has grown massively in recent elections. The SDLP had 18% of the vote in the 1998 Assembly elections. This fell to 12% in 2001 and rose again to 14% in the 2003 poll, while in 2005 there were less than 300 votes between the two parties.
Sinn Féin support across the Belfast constituencies has grown since 1997, and further seat gains are possible this time around.
A lot of the media focus will be on West Belfast, where Gerry Adams leads a Sinn Féin team made up of Fra McCann, Sue Ramsey, Jennifer McCann and Paul Maskey as the party seeks to get a fifth seat here. In the 1998 Assembly election, Sinn Féin took an incredible 59% and have increased their vote share in every election since, hitting 70% in 2005.
Sinn Féin made a breakthrough in 2003, with Alex Maskey moving from West to South Belfast, taking 13% of first preferences in the process. This time around, Sinn Féin will be looking to hold on to the seat lost by the SDLP in 1998.
North Belfast, one of the seats most hotly contested between the four largest parties, has also seen gains for Sinn Féin, who won two out of six seats here in 2003 as Kathy Stanton joined Gerry Kelly in the Assembly. Sinn Féin won 21% of the vote here in 1998, rising to 27% in 2003 and almost 29% in 2005. Caral Ní Chuilín joins Gerry Kelly on the Sinn Féin ticket this time around.
In East Belfast, the Sinn Féin vote has see-sawed from 2% in 1998 to 4% in 2003 and down to 3% in 2005. This time, Niall Ó Donnghaile is the Sinn Féin candidate.
This county has one of the most diverse electorates as you move from the Gold Coast of North Down, with the sole UUP MP and UK Unionist MLA, to the beauty of Carlingford Lough and a growing Sinn Féin vote share in the South.
In North Down, Deaglan Page is the Sinn Féin candidate, while Der Kennedy is running in Strangford and will be seeking to improve on Sinn Féin’s 3% vote share here. South Down, in contrast, has registered some serious gains for Sinn Féin and the party vote share has grown from 10% in 1997 to nearly 26% in 2005. Sinn Féin added a seat here in 2003 and three is a feasible target this time around. The Sinn Féin South Down team is Willie Clarke, Eamon McConvey and Caitríona Ruane.
Armagh, Lagan Valley and Upper Bann
Newry-Armagh was a major gain for Sinn Féin in 2005 as Conor Murphy took the Westminster seat and this time around, the party are looking to capitalise on their growing vote.
The Sinn Féin vote here has nearly doubled - from 21% in 1997 to over 41% in 2005 - and the party will want to hold on to the three seats won here in 2003 which left the SDLP, DUP and UUP with one each. Conor Murphy, Michael Brady and Cathal Boylan are the three Sinn Féin candidates in 2007.
In Lagan Valley, Paul Butler missed out on a seat for Sinn Féin in 2003 despite getting more first preferences than the SDLP’s Patricia Lewsley (Sinn Féin had 7.9% of the vote compared to 7.6% for the SDLP). Paul was even further ahead in 2005 and an Assembly seat this time around would be an important gain for Sinn Féin.
In Upper Bann, the Sinn Féin vote has grown from 12% in 1997 to 21% in 2005 and again, two seats are feasible in this constituency. 2003 MLA John O’Dowd is joined by Dessie Ward on the Sinn Féin ticket this time around.
Foyle and Derry
East Derry has seen significant growth for Sinn Féin, with the party recording 9% of the vote in 1997 and 16% in 2005. In 2003, the party won a seat here with 18% of the vote and this time around, sitting MLA Francie Brolly is joined by Billy Leonard on the party ticket.
In Foyle, Raymond McCartney, Martina Anderson and Lynn Fleming are the Sinn Féin candidates, as the party seeks to turn its 33% vote share into three seats.
Fermanagh, Tyrone and Mid Ulster
Sinn Féin hold two seats in Fermanagh-South Tyrone, a breakthrough constituency for the party in 2001 as Michelle Gildernew won Bobby Sands’s Westminster seat. Vote share has grown from 23% in 1997 to 38% in 2005 and three Sinn Féin seats are possible here. Gerry McHugh and Sean Lynch are the other Sinn Féin candidates.
In West Tyrone, Pat Doherty won a Westminster seat in 2001; Sinn Féin won two Assembly seats in 2003 with 39% of the vote and a third is possible in this tightly-contested constituency. Barry McElduff is joined by Claire McGill on the Sinn Féin ticket.
Mid Ulster was where Martin McGuinness won a Westminster seat in 1997, and the party vote has grown here from 40% in 1997 to nearly 48% in 2005. Sinn Féin has three MLAs and the team this time around is Martin McGuinness, Francie Molloy and Michelle O’Neill.
Paul Butler and Caitríona Ruane
An Phoblacht Magazine
AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:
- The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
- It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
- There will also be an exclusive interview with our new Uachtarán Mary Lou McDonald.