The North’s assembly elections came and went leaving the parties in – more or less – the same position. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) under Arlene Foster remains the largest party. In the nationalist community, Sinn Féin remains the dominant force, though the party did lose one seat. Their main rival the SDLP lost a further two seats. Now with just 12 elected assembly members, it’s a far cry from the creation of the power-sharing administration in 1998 when the SDLP won 24 seats compared to Sinn Féin’s 18.
But, after the division of seats, the real question for parties who seek to represent the nationalist point of view is why is turnout in Catholic and nationalist areas in steady decline? Overall, the Sinn Féin and SDLP vote was down by 5.1%.
Some of the drop can be the swing to People Before Profit in both West Belfast and Foyle – both nationalist heartlands. But that’s only part of the explanation.
The electorate in 2011 was 1,210,009. This time it increased to 1,281,595. This year, with a higher electorate, Sinn Féin won 166,785 compared to the 178,224 in took in 2011. This time, the SDLP won 83,364, whereas five years ago it took 94,286 votes. In 2011, both parties won 272,510 votes between them, while this time they won 250,149 – a drop of 22,361 votes.
So, why are nationalists staying away? Well, one explanation I hear when I speak to Catholics who are serious about their faith is a disillusionment with both Sinn Féin and the SDLP when it comes to vital social issues. Sinn Féin is enthusiastically pushing for the introduction of abortion in the North, while the SDLP has made the introduction of same-sex marriage a core party principle.
There is simply nowhere for Catholics who are serious about the defence of marriage and the right to life of the vulnerable to go.
The SDLP, in particular, appears to have a unique ability to alienate core voters while failing to attract any new voters. For example, in the recent manifesto, the SDLP opted to support integrated schools above the rights of parents to choose a faith-based education for their children. This is despite the fact that many hitherto loyal SDLP voters were passionate supporters of diversity in education.
Just a year ago, the SDLP’s deputy leader Dolores Kelly (who lost her seat in this election) compared faith-based schools to racial segregation. The offence to Catholic parents could hardly have been more egregious.
The SDLP is desperate to attract a younger demographic. And it appears that many of the party’s current stances are motivated by a desire to appear ‘with it’ when it comes to younger voters. But, the reality is that the party often appears like a less-radical version of Sinn Féin or as one now-alienated SDLP voter recently described his former party to me: “Sinn Féin-lite”.
The decline in Sinn Féin’s vote is probably also an indication that people who identify as nationalists are less-interested in the so-called ‘national question’. But they’re clearly not rushing to the SDLP.
There’s probably a problem of political ideology, too. In truth, both parties are centre-left. It’s simply not conceivable that all nationalists naturally find themselves on the centre-left of the political spectrum.
So, a combination of faith-based Catholic voters and nationalists who feel largely unrepresented by the traditional tribes have turned their backs on their natural homes.
Will the parties note this and change? This seems unlikely: the SDLP is more interested in trying to match Sinn Féin on social policies, and the more it does this, the more it will alienate voters who should find their natural home within the party.