Belated thoughts on the Westminster Election

Posted: May 25, 2015 in Sinn Féin

In Scotland there was change. In England there was drama. But here in Ireland there was neither.

The 2015 Westminster election confirmed the broad patterns in the North that have been established since 2001.

Superficially the UUP were the main winners taking seats from Sinn Féin and Alliance.

But behind the seat swaps the numbers reveal that not much has changed since 2010.

Of the Executive parties all but the SDLP saw a small increase in their real vote. Sinn Fein and the DUP consolidated their position as the largest parties. The UUP and Alliance won marginal increases in their vote.

The SDLP continued its slow and steady decline with its worst result in decades.

Of the smaller parties the TUV vote dropped by half while People Before Profit doubled their vote though still remaining marginal.

For Sinn Féin the result was somewhat mixed. With 176,232 votes we secured our highest ever Westminster return in real terms. But loosing Fermanagh South Tyrone was a deep disappointment.

While Michelle Gildernew’s vote was up in real terms the Unionist pact did what it set out to do.

The longer term trend was also confirmed. Alliance have seen the most significant gains, almost doubling their real vote since 2001.

Sinn Féin and the DUP maintained their votes at around 176,000 and 184,000 respectively.

Meanwhile the UUP and SDLP have lost considerable ground over the same period, experiencing a drop of 93,000 and 70,000 votes respectively.

But the real story over this 14 year period is the dramatic decline in turnout from 69% in 2001 to 58% in 2015.

The 2015 turnout in the North is even more striking when compared to Scotland at 71%, and England and Wales both at 66%.

So who are these non-voters and more importantly why are they not voting?

Higher turnouts were seen in the larger rural and predominantly nationalist areas including Fermanagh South Tyrone, Mid Ulster, West Tyrone and Newry Armagh, all breaking the 60% mark.

The lowest turnouts were in constituencies with larger unionist and middle class demographics such as the Antrim’s and Down’s.

While this confirms the widely held view that voter turnout is higher amongst nationalist voters the results in Foyle (54%) and West Belfast (57%) may suggest otherwise.

What is clear however is that there is a growing section of the electorate who do not believe that any of the political parties represent them?

For Sinn Féin this presents both a challenge and an opportunity.

Winning over the disengaged non-voters will be the key to winning more seats in the future.

We must appeal to the electorate, especially the disengaged non-voters, on the grounds of what makes Sinn Féin different.

Our strong equality and anti-austerity message provides the basis of this appeal. The Peoples Pact which lay at the core of our Westminster campaign was clearly the right message

But for many potential voters that message was clouded by a slippage into communitarian politics calling for a ‘progressive’ pact with the SDLP in opposition to the ‘sectarian’ Unionist pact.

Nationalist unity played an important role at an earlier stage in the peace process.

But as we move into the next electoral cycle the only pact that Sinn Féin should be calling for is with those voters who believe that a better fairer Ireland is possible.

The most pressing task for Sinn Féin in the aftermath of the 2015 Westminster election is to really understand, constituency by constituency, who the non-voters are.

From there we can hone our message and focus our party organisation on mobilising those people who to date have opted out of the electoral system.

There are half a million registered non-voters out there. Many of them will never vote for Sinn Féin but a considerable number should. The challenge is for us to give them a reason to vote for us.

The SNP in Scotland have clearly shown that in an era of anti-politics peoples’ trust can be won. There is no reason why we cannot do the same at home.

With Dáil and Assembly elections fast approaching lets set our sights not just on increasing the Sinn Féin share of the vote, but significantly increasing our real vote too and in doing so increase the overall turnout.

  1. roddy says:

    The excitements gone that was there in northern elections a decade ago.The south is where the buzz is now and SF need to bring that buzz North.I really envy the energy of my southern comrades.

  2. Enda says:

    Interesting analysis Eoin. I think you are correct in identifying apathy as a major concern and I do hope SF (and SDLP for that matter) do actually go through constituency by constituency to identify non voters and understand why they do not vote. As regards differential in turnout I have done an analysis which may be indicative of a reversal in turnout rates among the two blocks. Put it simply Nationalists are simply not turning out in the numbers they once we’re whereas Unionist voters have seen a resurgence in voter turnout.

    The problem with this trend is that for any chance at calls for a border poll Nationalists will have to out vote Unionists in an election. If there are more potential Nationalist voters (which there will be in the 2020s) than potential Unionist voters but Unionism has a plurality of votes due to Nationalist apathy it makes a United Ireland much more difficult to achieve.

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