WHATEVER about Richie McPhillips’s smash and grab, taking a seat from Sinn Fein in extraordinary circumstances, it’s easy to miss what is arguably the most significant story of the 2016 elections.
This time out just over 64 per cent of the electorate here could be exercised enough to cast their vote. Granted that’s high by standards across the North where the average was just 54 per cent – but it still represents a mammoth drop of eight per cent on last year’s Westminster turnout which was itself regarded as a new low.
And given how incredibly tight the margin of defeat in that election – remember, Gildernew lost out to Elliott by just four votes – it’s all the more remarkable that the number of people opting out of politics is growing at such an alarming rate.
The decline of the SDLP and Ulster Unionists is well documented but Sinn Fein will also need to take a good look at themselves after an election in which their share of the vote decreased in all but two constituencies across the North.
Put simply, if Sinn Fein can’t get the vote out in a knife-edge constituency like FST – or indeed north Belfast or Upper Bann – there are problems, and anecdotal evidence would suggest that those problems are most acute among younger, savvy voters many of whom no longer buy into what they regard as the politics of the past.
So how come the DUP are flying high while Sinn Fein’s electoral locomotive seems to be running out of juice? One possibility is that the DUP message is clear and unambiguous, while Sinn Fein’s is looking a bit, well, all over the place.
Sinn Fein have long traded on their anti-establishment credentials, but the trouble is many younger voters now regard SF as very much a part of the establishment. How else do you explain Sinn Fein’s haemorrhaging of votes in west Belfast?
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness ended his pre-election message to voters last week with the words ‘Up the Rebels’. You would have to ask how does this kind of rhetoric stack up with reducing corporation tax, standing over swingeing cuts and selling the Invest NI message abroad; in short, making Northern Ireland work.
For many nationalist voters the pre-election drum beating simply isn’t working the way it used to, and for many there seems a growing disconnect between assurances that a united Ireland is within touching distances and the realpolitik of coalition with the DUP.
Over the coming months Sinn Fein simply aren’t going to be able to have it both ways. Posturing about a united Ireland simply won’t wash when they have to get down to the nitty gritty of running Northern Ireland with the DUP. And with Eamonn McCann in the house it will be very difficult for any of the established parties to engage in pseudo-socialist posturing.
Getting back to Fermanagh, while we don’t have the breakdown, it looks like the falling turnout has been greater on the nationalist side. It also appears that voters are showing a greater awareness and sophistication than they used to with a significant number of unionists transferring to what they would regard as the lesser of two evils, the SDLP rather than Sinn Fein.
While Richie McPhillips really wound the Shinners up with the suggestion that his support was truly republican – Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter – Michelle Gildernew’s caustic remarks about strange bedfellows seemed curious given that the election results seem to confirm reports that Sinn Fein voters across Fermanagh were being urged not to give their transfers to their fellow-nationalist SDLP candidate.
Amid all the drama it is, however, worth reminding ourselves that two out of every five voters here votes Sinn Fein and that one third of those who could be bothered to vote backed the DUP. In many ways Richie McPhillips’ success could be dismissed as an aberration and there is little indication that the SDLP or indeed the Ulster Unionists are going to pose any sort of threat to the status quo any time soon.
What should be of much greater concern is the growing body of evidence that voters, especially younger voters, are walking away from politics the way many of them have walked away from established religion – and, if turnout is the correct measure, the rate of disengagement is greatest in nationalist constituencies.
The DUP and Sinn Fein have a serious job of work to do in the coming months and even allowing for setbacks here and there they have an overwhelming mandate to get down to the business of providing effective government. If they are to make any inroads into their faltering credibility they’d best get on with on it.