General election 2019 – Sinn Féin up in North Belfast but down in Foyle and elsewhere

Sinn Féin has had a mixed year so far in 2019. The local council election in May saw them gain eleven seats and lose eleven seats, to finish with 105 councillors, as was the case in 2014. And they held their Northern Ireland seat in the European Parliament, topping the poll on first preferences but surprisingly finishing in third place behind the DUP and Alliance. In the south things were much more difficult, they lost nearly half of their council seats and two of their three MEPs. However, an impressive result for Sinn Féin was in the Dublin Mid-West by-election, in which they won a seat in the Dáil at the expense of Fine Gael. And we also saw John O’Dowd unsuccessfully challenge Michelle O’Neill for the position of Sinn Féin’s Vice President.

This election was a disappointing one for Sinn Féin, especially when it comes to their votes. They received 181,853 votes (22.8%), which leaves them as again the second largest party behind the DUP and the largest nationalist party. But their vote was down 6.7% from the 2017 general election, the largest decrease for any Northern Ireland party in this election, nearly a quarter of their vote in 2017 was lost. Despite this significant vote decline, Sinn Féin went into this election with seven MPs, and finished with seven MPs again, gaining North Belfast but losing Foyle.

Of their seven seats, four were very safe, and remain so despite a decrease in each constituency. Paul Maskey won in West Belfast with 20,866 votes and a majority of 14,672 (53.8%), no surprises there, however his vote was down 12.9%, this was the lowest Sinn Féin percentage vote in West Belfast since 1992, when Gerry Adams lost the seat to the SDLP. Francie Molloy won in Mid Ulster with 20,473 votes and a majority of 9,537 (45.9%), a decrease of 8.6% and the lowest percentage vote there since 1997, when Martin McGuinness first won the seat from the DUP. Mickey Brady won in Newry and Armagh with 20,287 votes and a majority of 9,287 (40.0%), a decline of 8.0% and their lowest percentage vote since 2001, they first won this seat in 2005. And Órfhlaith Begley won in West Tyrone with 16,544 votes and a majority of 7,478 (40.2%), down 10.6% and the lowest percentage vote since 2005.

South Down was a constituency that Sinn Féin won in 2017 for the first time. Chris Hazzard was elected for a second time with 16,137 votes (32.4%), his vote was down 7.5%, and his majority was narrower then 2017, the SDLP was 1,620 votes behind this time rather then 2,446 votes in 2017. They were helped by the fact that the SDLP vote was also down 6.0%, any sort of SDLP increase would have allowed them to regain this seat. But an even narrower victory for Sinn Féin was Fermanagh and South Tyrone, as is always the case. Michelle Gildernew won this seat with 21,986 votes (43.3%), her vote decreased by 3.9%. Sinn Féin was just 57 votes ahead of the UUP here, the smallest majority in any constituency across the UK (although Gildernew has won by even closer margins before, such as 2001 – 53 votes, and 2010 – 4 votes). The UUP vote also decreased by 2.3%, so as with South Down Sinn Féin benefitted from their opponent losing votes by a comparable amount to allow them to hold this seat by a narrow margin.

Foyle was the other seat that Sinn Féin was defending, Elisha McCallion had won this seat by 169 votes in 2017, after 34 years in which the SDLP had held this seat. But in this election, Sinn Féin received 9,771 votes (20.7%), their vote was down nearly half by 19.0%, while the SDLP decisively regained this seat by a majority of 17,110. This followed a disappointing local council election for Sinn Féin in Derry and Strabane in which they lost five seats, they are now tied with the SDLP as the biggest party on the council with eleven seats each, in 2014 Sinn Féin was six seats ahead. The scale of the Sinn Féin decline here is nonetheless remarkable, it appears that half of their voters in 2017 have gone primarily to the SDLP, but also some have likely gone to Aontú who contested this seat for the first time and had 4.3%, which would suggest that abortion remains an important issue to some voters. This is also the lowest Sinn Féin general election result in Foyle since 1992, in every previous election from 1997 to 2017 Sinn Féin always had over 10,000 votes in this constituency. A hugely disappointing result for Sinn Féin in Foyle.

There was one positive result for Sinn Féin, in North Belfast John Finucane gained this seat from the DUP’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds. Finucane received 23,078 votes (47.1%), 5.4% more then in 2017 when he ran for the first time. In contrast, the DUP vote was down 3.1% and Alliance’s vote was up 4.4%. Finucane’s majority over Dodds is 1,943 votes, nearly the opposite of 2017 when Dodds had a lead of 2,081 over Finucane. This was a historic victory not just for Sinn Féin, winning this seat for the first time, but it marks the first time ever that North Belfast has not elected a unionist MP. John Finucane’s vote of 23,078 votes was also the largest vote for a candidate in North Belfast since John Carson from the UUP in October 1974. Although it is worth noting that Finucane was helped by the absence of the SDLP, Green Party and Workers Party, all of whom ran in 2017 but not this time, they had a combined vote of 3,062 then.

Sinn Féin’s vote was down across other constituencies. In Upper Bann John O’Dowd came second with 12,291 votes (24.6%), 3.4% less then in 2017, though it was their second best result in Upper Bann after 2017. In East Derry Sinn Féin surprisingly finished in third place with 6,128 votes (15.6%), they saw a 10.9% decrease in their vote while the SDLP finished 30 votes ahead of them with a 9.9% increase, and Alliance was 207 votes behind with a 8.9% increase. Sinn Féin finished in fourth place in North Antrim, down from second in 2017 with the UUP and Alliance polling ahead, with 5,632 votes (12.8%), a 3.5% decrease from 2017. Similarly, Sinn Féin came fourth in South Antrim, compared to third in 2017. They received 4,887 votes (11.4%), down 6.7% while an 11.6% increase for Alliance brought them ahead of Sinn Féin for the first time in a South Antrim general election since 1997. Sinn Féin also finished fourth in East Antrim, receiving 2,120 votes (5.7%) down 3.6%. In Lagan Valley they received 1,098 votes (2.4%), a decrease of 1.1% finishing in fifth place. And in Strangford Sinn Féin finished in seventh place, behind the NI Conservatives and Green Party and ahead of UKIP, with 555 votes (1.5%), down 1.3% from 2017.

Sinn Féin would probably find a snap Assembly election difficult if their vote is down to the same extent as this election. Sinn Féin had 27.9% in the 2017 Assembly election, 5.1% more then the 22.8% they received in this general election. With 22.8% of the vote, Sinn Féin could find it difficult to defend their four seats in West Belfast, as well as their three seats in Newry and Armagh, Mid Ulster, West Tyrone and especially Fermanagh and South Tyrone. They also look potentially vulnerable in North Antrim, and possibly their second seats in Foyle and South Down. North Belfast and South Belfast are difficult to call, because the SDLP didn’t contest the former and Sinn Féin didn’t contest the latter, but last time Sinn Féin nearly lost their second seat in North Belfast, and South Belfast could be interesting as Sinn Féin is losing a prominent MLA there in Máirtin Ó Muilleoir. Their possibilities for gains are Upper Bann, East Derry and East Antrim, however on these results these all look quite unlikely.

The next local council election will also be intriguing for Sinn Féin based on these results. The disappointing results in Foyle make it difficult for them to regain any seats lost in May, though Foyleside will be one to watch considering they lost their second seat to an independent by less then 20 votes. In Fermanagh they will be trying to win back seats in Enniskillen and Erne East, which look unlikely on these figures. Other narrow results in May which look vulnerable includes Armagh, The Mournes, Glengormley Urban and especially Bannside, won by Sinn Féin by just 1.06 votes ahead of Alliance (this was the DEA in which TUV transfers saved Sinn Féin).

Sinn Féin will be delighted at the historic victory of John Finucane in North Belfast from the DUP, the first time ever that a nationalist MP has been elected in that constituency. However, their vote was down in every other constituency, including by some large margins, this cost them a seat in Foyle which went to the SDLP by a huge margin. However, they did defend their other seats, South Down remains marginal and Fermanagh and South Tyrone was extremely close as ever, and a drop in the Sinn Féin vote did not significantly impact on their four safe seats. An Assembly election will be a challenge for them, it will therefore be interesting to see whether they can strike a deal with the DUP to restore the Assembly and Executive, otherwise they could lose more representation.

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