Ask someone from Sinn Féin about the election, they’ve got just cause to say it was a good night. Retaining Fermanagh and South Tyrone and winning Belfast North. A victory against unionism you could say. However, it was by no means a good night. At the expense of smaller parties they saw 6.7% drop in vote share, the most of any main party and a colossal loss in Foyle.
In the last few years, the spotlight of Brexit has not been in Stormont, the border, Dublin or Brussels. Instead, it has been Westminster, in particular the House of Commons. Endless nights of knife edge votes, where each MP was vital in deciding the pathway to Brexit. Whilst Sinn Féin’s long held policy of abstentionism can be well-justified by any spokesperson questioned on the issue, there has been increased criticism of this policy in the recent election. Critics can point to crucial votes where 7 remain supporting Sinn Féin MPs could have been highly influential in halting the progress of Brexit.
This made Sinn Féin vulnerable in this election. For the SDLP, it was an easy sell. They could be the nationalist spokesperson, offering a voice in Westminster, whilst simultaneously protesting against it as a political institution. Where the seat was a two horse race between SDLP and Sinn Féin this was an easy message to sell on the doorsteps and this proved itself with Colum Eastwood’s resounding win. Despite there only being 169 votes in it in 2017, the SDLP managed 17,110 votes above Sinn Féin in an astounding win.
Here, Sinn Féin lost a hefty 19% of its vote – their worst loss in any seat of the election. Their second worst came in the Sinn Féin stronghold of West Belfast, losing 12.9% of their vote. You may expect this to come mainly from the SDLP. However, they only made small gains of 0.7%. Gerry Carroll of People Before Profit dented Paul Maskey’s majority most heavily, achieving an impressive 16% of the vote. Similarly, Aontú also performed well here with 4.2% - not bad when this is the first general election they have stood in. Alliance also did well, over doubling their vote here, further lowering Paul Maskey’s majority. Whilst this seat remains a safe one, Sinn Féin will be worried: In an assembly election they could lose their fourth seat in this constituency. However, it remains the case that in general elections, these smaller nationalist parties are unlikely to contest the closest orange vs green battleground seats. Their involvement could take the seat away from Sinn Féin, handing it to a unionist candidate.
The other two seats in which Sinn Féin saw the biggest decreases in their vote were East Londonderry and West Tyrone, losing 10.9% and 10.6% of their vote respectively. The SDLP increased their votes here, along with successes for Alliance and Aontú.
Further losses were also seen in South Down with Sinn Féin losing 7.5% of the vote. Given they won this seat off the SDLP in 2017, you may think they were lucky to keep this seat. However, the SDLP vote also faltered here, most likely at the expense of Alliance who made impressive gains. Without their strong performance here of 6,916 votes, Sinn Féin could have also lost this seat.
It was a similar story in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Michelle Gildernew retained her seat here but with a tiny majority of 57 votes against the UUP’s Tom Elliott. This compares to Gildernew’s majority of 875 in 2017. This is no doubt down to further vote share increases for the SDLP and Alliance, along with independent candidate Caroline Wheeler who also stood here.
In this election, Sinn Féin were involved in numerous pacts and agreements. One such one was in Belfast South, supporting Claire Hanna - a candidate far preferential for Sinn Féin than the Alliance party, especially given Paula Bradshaw’s previous UUP credentials. In the end, Sinn Féin support was not required given Hanna’s huge majority of 15,401, well exceeding Sinn Féin’s 7,143 votes in 2017.
Sinn Fein may regret this choice: in any upcoming assembly election, Sinn Fein stalwart Máirtín Ó Muilleoir won’t be standing again as MLA. This general election would have been the perfect opportunity for a new MLA candidate to stand and gain some much needed name recognition. This is especially when Sinn Fein in the current political climate are unlikely to still have most first preferences in this assembly seat.
With a Stormont election on the horizon, the General Election result will be a worry for Sinn Féin. It may have been a good night in some areas but the result showed a clear path away from them to smaller parties. Sinn Fein will have a tough battle ahead. They must please nationalists moving away to People Before Profit and Aontu whilst also satisfying those who wish for a softer approach in the form of the SDLP and a growing Alliance party.
Whilst the issue of their abstentionism will not be at play in an upcoming assembly election, Sinn Fein should still be concerned. Across a range of issues, voters in this election have expressed a clear dissatisfaction with Sinn Fein. They are losing votes from all sides to smaller parties who are growing in their support.
Peter is a 22 year-student doing a Masters in Journalism at Ulster University. Hailing from Yorkshire originally, Peter has an interest in both British and Northern Irish politics. Peter graduated from Queen's University in 2019 from his degree in English.