Tuesday 13 April 2010

Connor poses a long-term risk for nationalism

The agreement by the DUP and UCUNF to withdraw their candidates in Fermanagh and South Tyrone in favour of a 'unionist unity' candidate poses long-term challenges for nationalists in the constituency.

Unionists in the constituency, despite having proved that David Cameron is a liar, will be ecstatic about the outcome, which is an almost certain win for them. The Tories, despite having to mumble half-excuses about how "Fermanagh and South Tyrone has characteristics that are unique within the UK" will, at the end of the day, probably have another vote to count on in Westminster – and that is all they really care about. The DUP have eaten the most humble pie, though. Despite being the largest unionist party in the constituency in recent elections, they have had to stand aside for a man who will lend his support to their opponents. Whether the 'recapture' of the seat for unionism as a result of their pressure for a pact will adequately compensate them, we may have to wait another year to see.

The 'unionist unity' candidate, Rodney Connor, is himself part of the problem for nationalism. He is apparently a decent man and quite well thought of by nationalists in the area. How strong his unionism is, is open to question – the unionist parties think that he is 'one of theirs', but he has joined neither party, and insists that he will act in the interests of the whole constituency. Given that that constituency is majority nationalist, it will be interesting to see how he does that.

But potentially more damaging for nationalism will be the loss of the constituency. History shows us that when the seat is held by a nationalist – especially a 'nationalist unity' individual like Frank Maguire (MP from 1974-1981) – the nationalist vote is high, but when a unionist wins the seat – usually as a result of a split nationalist vote – it seems that some nationalists withdraw from voting. After Ken Maginnis won the seat in 1983 thanks to the decision by the SDLP to stand again, the number of nationalist votes tumbled. Maginnis retained the seat thanks to his role as 'unionist unity' candidate in 1986, 1987, 1992 and 1997. In all of these elections both Sinn Féin and the SDLP stood, and nationalists knew that they could not win the seat. The nationalist vote dropped as a significant proportion simply didn't bother to turn out.

Although the constituency lost the heavily nationalist Coalisland area to Mid Ulster in the 1995 boundary revision, and FST became a more evenly split constituency, it remained winnable for nationalism. The result in 2001, when Sinn Féin finally took the seat, thanks to a split in unionism – proved that there were more latent nationalist votes in the constituency than unionist votes. They had just failed to turn out between 1986 and 1997.

And therein lies the problem for nationalism. Faced with a 'unionist unity' candidate and a nationalist split, many voters may again fail to turn out. If Connor wins, subsequent Westminster elections may see the effects of nationalist demoralisation in the constituency, and this could last a decade or more. FST contains a significant number of hard-line republicans who are probably less inclined towards 'constitutional politics' than others, and they are more likely to withdraw from active participation if they feel that it is a waste of time, with a 'unionist unity' victory inevitable.

So Connor has the possibility of not just taking the seat in 2010, but retaining it with increasing majorities for years to come. Only when nationalism senses that it has a good chance of winning, either through a 'nationalist unity' candidate, or a unionist split, will it return to the ballot box in force. The lessons that unionism will draw from the Connor experience are that they must never again split their vote in FST, so nationalism has only three possible hopes in the constituency: either a unity candidate in the short term, or the decimation of one of the nationalist parties, or the slow option of waiting for demography to whittle away the unionist numbers.

The first option – a unity candidate, is not likely in 2010, and barely likely even at the next election. The mutual dislike between Sinn Féin and the SDLP is such that neither would happily give way to the other. The best option in this case would be a 'non-political' unity candidate – someone popular through sport or the media, for example. Fearghal McKinney may have been such a man, but he was seduced by the SDLP's pointless lure.

The second option – the decimation of the SDLP – seemed quite likely in recent years, but the SDLP has made efforts to revive itself, and certainly is not out of the race yet. If it fails badly on May 6, either in terms of votes or seats, its days may be numbered – but that will be too late for FST this time.

The last option - demographics - though slow, is more certain. The graph above shows the number of actual votes received by unionism and nationalism in Westminster elections in FST since 1970. The nationalist number is quite volatile, and includes a decade of demoralised underperformance. The unionist number, however, is less volatile and more consistent. And it is consistently declining – the trend is clearly downward, reflecting Protestant demographics in the constituency. In brief, Protestants are a declining proportion of the constituency's population – from over 50% of the population amongst those aged over 60 (in the 2001 Census) (on the right hand side of the graph), to below 40% of those aged 25 and younger (in the 2001 Census) (on the left hand side of the graph):

So it is likely that demographics will return FST to nationalism in the future, if Connor takes it in 2010. But a quicker and better route would be for nationalism to play unionism at their own game – unity – and beat them.


hoboroad said...

Frank Maguire 1974-1981

Horseman said...

Thanks, hoboroad, I was thinking of the elections he contested (and won) rather than his term in office. But I'll amend anyway to avoid confusion.

New times, New approach said...

It's clear that Sinn Féin and SDLP are not close pals, but must an organisation be a true friend of another's, sharing all their values and policies before they can do business with them?
The DUP and UUP agree on very little except that the six counties should remain in the UK. However even they can see past their day to day squabbles and back-stabbing in order to focus on a much more important (to them) objective.

Is maintaining their mutual antipathy of immensely greater importance to the Nationalist parties than moving steadily towards their shared objective of national self-determination?
Or perhaps they feel that an Irish state is only worth the candle provided a particular party is in control or a particular brand of nationalism prevails?
Hasn't Britain employed a tactic of divide and conquer for long enough (since 1798 at least) for us to have at least learned not to employ it on ourselves?
There would be, as you suggest Horseman, an added synergy in Nationalism doing business with Nationalism in the six counties. The electorate would see the point in voting where it would result in a Nationalist victory.
Is handing seats to Unionists really a better outcome than SDLP and Sinn Féin having the maturity to do business with each other?

Anonymous said...

"Although the constituency lost the heavily nationalist Coalisland area to Mid Ulster in the 1995 boundary revision, and FST became a more evenly split constituency"

Is there a whiff of a gerrymander here?

MPG .....

Anonymous said...


came across this! spoof version of last nights sdlp peb.

Dazzler said...


Anonymous said...

Kieron says,

The Westminsters are of decreasing significance and the SF emphasis will increasingly be on the Assembly elections - I'm sure the Nationalist electorate are sharp enough to realise that and continue to turn out in the Assembly elections even if the MP is a Unionist.

hoboroad said...


Anonymous said...

I find the vote-splitting in N.I. bizarre. It is such a small place. It has less then two million people. It can hardly be considered a great center for learning or economics. And given how divided and mutually antagnostic the two principal communities are you would think each group would and could be represented by just one party. In places like Atlanta for example when or if more then one black candidate were or does run for the office of mayor a great shout arises about not splitting 'the black vote', and thus implcitly allowing a White candidate to win. Divide and conquer is the oldest trick in the book. The British have used it on the Irish for centuries. The plantations themselves were just a modification of this very strategy. I am amazed the communitie(s) can't agree to one umbrella-party-organization to hold their respective votes together. N.I. continues to amaze me with its bizarreness.

Colm said...

Ritchie's holier than thou response to Adams will play right into the hands of Sinn Fein. The SDLP are continuing to show how out of touch they are with the nationalist electorate.

The SDLP's decision almost guarantees a unionist win in F/ST against the wishes of the nationalist majority there. Not only that but it jeapordises their own hopes in Sth Belfast. The thoughts of regressing to six nationalist MPs is a gloomy prospect, made even worse by the fact that it is avoidable.

Try as they might to reinvent themselves, the SDLP are increasingly a distraction from Irish unity. The sooner their green camp jumps in with Sinn Fein and the left-overs join Alliance, the better for Irish nationalism.

Anonymous said...

Why can't the nationalist people of the constituency see the way unionism is trying to steal the seat in a majority nationalisr constituency and decide among themselves to vote en masse for Sinn Fein OR SDLP?

Why must the nationalist electorate allow their vote to be split? They have a choice not to do it if they're truly nationalists.

IMO Sein Fein should prove their republicanism and stand down - allowing the SDLP to take it.

hoboroad said...


red said...

This seat has never been in the SDLP's hands while Republicans arguably have held it 6 times.

Frank Maguire, Independent nationalist with Republican leanings took it in 1974 from unionism with near 33,000 votes and held it again in 1979 despite the vote splitting SDLP entering the race and nearly costing Frank the seat by reducing his vote by 10,000.

IRA hungerstriker Bobby Sands then famously took it in April 1981 after the death of Frank Maguire caused a by election, then Owen Carron, Bobby's election agent took it in August 1981 after Bobby Sands passed away on Hungerstrike causing a by election.

After that the vote splitters, the SDLP, handed the seat back to unionism by splitting the vote in every subsequent election until SF won it back the last two Westminster elections in 2001 and 2005.
On that basis, Republicans have had the seat on four occasions and on 6 if you include frank maguire who was very Republican minded,the SDLP have never had this seat.

The only contribution they have made in FST is to hand it to unionism which they risk doing again and they have the gall to call themselves nationalists!!

Get Stuffed Ferghal!!

picador said...

Interesting stats Horseman - but how many new voters are coming onto the register each year?

Turnout is going to be all important in this contest.

hoboroad said...

I had a look on wikipedia at turnout in Fermanagh and South Tyrone it ranges between 72% and 93% in General Elections. So I don't think turnout is going to be a problem.

hoboroad said...


hoboroad said...