Today's announcement that Sinn Féin Fermanagh councillor Domhnall O Cobhthaigh is resigning from the party to join the Socialist Party draws attention again to Sinn Féin's problems in Fermanagh.
O Cobhthaigh was co-opted in 2007 to replace Erne West councillor Poilín Ui Cathain who quit over Sinn Féin's decision to support the PSNI – itself earlier evidence of the party's problems in Fermanagh.
Later in 2007 Enniskillen Sinn Féin councillor (and MLA) Gerry McHugh also resigned from the party, citing disillusionment with "the undemocratic nature of the party".
Then in July 2008 another Sinn Féin Erne West councillor, Bernice Swift, quit the party, again as a result of her opposition to the party's decision to support the PSNI. At the time of Swift's resignation Domhnall O Cobhthaigh said that: "Bernice was elected on a Sinn Féin mandate and she should now step down from the council and allow the electors who voted for a Sinn Féin candidate based on a Sinn Féin manifesto to have their democratically expressed wishes respected through a co-option". He has shown himself a man of some honour by doing just that himself.
Nonetheless, the loss of four councillors in one small district during a single council term demonstrates considerable problems for the party. Two of them now sit as independents (Swift and McHugh) and O Cobhthaigh follows Poilín Ui Cathain out of the council. That leaves Sinn Féin with only six councillors instead of the nine it saw elected in 2005 (though O Cobhthaigh should be easily replaced by Sinn Féin, either by co-option or by-election).
The future for O Cobhthaigh is uncertain (not to say bleak) – the Socialist Party has some track record in Fermanagh, where the perennial Davy Kettyles (who stood as a socialist in Enniskillen for many years, but not as a member of the Socialist Party) made way in 2005 for Paul Dale who stood for the Socialist Party – and got nowhere. O Cobhthaigh himself has never actually stood for election, so the size of his personal vote is hard to estimate – but in Erne West it would be fair to say that there is little support for socialism.
More important than O Cobhthaigh's political suicide, however, is the impact on the Sinn Féin vote in Fermanagh of the resignations and defections. Sinn Féin appeared to be making good progress in the county in recent years, recovering from the depression that followed Bobby Sands death. Bobby Sands election seemed to have brought out a large number of nationalist non-voters, and Sinn Féin seemed to be encouraging them to keep voting, and to vote for Sinn Féin. But in Fermanagh there is a strong abstentionist republican tradition which owes allegiance to no party. Sinn Féin won it over for a while, but it seems that Sinn Féin's support for the PSNI was a step to far for many traditional Fermanagh republicans, and they are now withdrawing their conditional support.
While the hearts of the traditional republicans may lie closer to 'dissident' republicanism, it is unlikely that any of the parties representing this dissidence is likely to make a serious electoral effort in the county in the near future. So it is quite likely that a portion of Fermanagh republicans will retreat back into electoral abstentionism.
In the Westminster election next year if the traditional republicans stay at home, Sinn Féin may be faced with a serous problem. Although Sinn Féin's Michelle Gildernew beat the DUP's Arlene Foster quite comfortably in 2005, this was partly because of a split unionist vote. If unionism agrees a unity candidate it stands a reasonable chance of beating Sinn Féin. If Sinn Féin continue to haemorrhage support in the area, unionism's chances become good.
The damage may continue into 2011 and the two important elections that will take place then – for the Assembly and for the new larger councils. In the current Assembly Sinn Féin had two MLAs elected in Fermanagh and South Tyrone – but one was Gerry McHugh who has since left the party. For the party to be sure of winning his seat back they have to win back the dissident/traditional republican vote. In the council elections, with smaller district electoral areas, the fight will be intense, and if Sinn Féin's vote erodes it could fail to elect as many councillors as it might currently hope.
Votes lost by Sinn Féin will not be picked up elsewhere by nationalism – if the traditional republicans find Sinn Féin too soft then they will never vote for the SDLP. They will, in all probability, stay at home – thereby giving the appearance of a decrease in support for nationalism. If this coincides with the stealing of the Fermanagh and South Tyrone Westminster seat by unionism, then the damage to nationalist morale in the area will be comparable to the 1980s, and may take as long to repair.
For the sake of the overall position of nationalism in the area Sinn Féin must pay urgent attention to the feelings of the traditional republicans of Fermanagh. If the price of acceptance in the corridors of power in Belfast is the alienation of the grassroots in rural areas, then that price may turn out ultimately to have been too high. Sinn Féin needs urgently to be able to demonstrate that their strategy is bearing some fruit.