Tomorrow’s SDLP conference in Derry, the first in the city for many years, will possibly be regarded as the real opening salvo between both nationalist parties as the countdown begins in earnest to this year’s Northern Ireland Assembly elections.
The keynote speech by the recently installed SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, will be broadcast live on BBC2 Northern Ireland from 8pm onwards.
It is not of course by accident that the one day conference will take place in Mr Eastwood’s native city.
A return to what is chiefly regarded as the SDLP’s citadel is designed to evoke the electoral success of the past carved out largely, but of course not solely, by John Hume.
Regarded by the party faithful in Foyle as the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement in which John Hume of course played a pivotal role, Derry will be pushed to the forefront by the SDLP this weekend as the place where constitutional nationalism in the end once thrived not only against a jaundiced Unionist hegemony but also against the physical force republicanism of the Provisional IRA of the 70s, 80s and 90s.
The situating of this weekend’s conference in Derry is a clearly politically motivated one, but for all that, it is nothing more than any other party would do if they had a similar story to relate.
There is also of course, that come mid-May and the Assembly poll, the SDLP in Derry perhaps face the biggest political dogfight of their 46 year existence.
Since its foundation in 1970, the SDLP has had six leaders. Three of these, including the latest, have hailed from Derry. The perennial internal rivalry between Derry City party personalities and those from other parts of the North have always been there since the beginning.
Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that in terms of holding the line against electoral erosion by Sinn Fein, Derry has been the bulwark for the SDLP.
That was until the local elections of 2014 when for the first time Sinn Fein eclipsed the SDLP electorally. The amalgamation of Derry and Strabane perhaps did not help matters, but, nevertheless Sinn Fein now hold a six seat advantage over the SDLP on Derry City and Strabane District Council.
A major SDLP conference was held in Derry in 1990. Just over 25 years ago, the thought that Sinn Fein would some day outstrip the SDLP electorally, especially in Derry would have been scoffed at by the then main nationalist party.
In 1998, the SDLP was second only to the UUP at Stormont with a total of 24 seats. Jump forward 18 years and their MLA count is 14. If a press report last November is to be believed that an internal SDLP report predicts the loss of five more seats in May, then this will make the party the fifth largest at the Assembly.
However, the contents of the that apparent report also suggested that the SDLP would hold its seats in Foyle. Currently, the lay of the land here in the six seat constituency, is SDLP 3, Sinn Fein 2, DUP 1.
And, if last year’s Westminster poll is an indicator then it saw Mark Durkan increase his share of the vote to 47.9% and taking his majority to 6,046 an increase of +3.2% from his poll in 2010.
The difficulty here though is the difference between First Past the Post and Proportional Representation elections, an increased candidate field and the word that many elected representatives fear most within the English language-’transfers’.
The return of Martin McGuinness to his native home, in electoral terms, was the first indicator that Sinn Fein feel confident that they can wrest control from the SDLP in Foyle. This sets up a straight showdown between three Sinn Fein candidates and the three incumbent SDLP MLAs.
At the 2011 Assembly election Sinn Fein came within less than 500 votes of the SDLP and held their two seats representing a 3.2% increase of their vote. The SDLP retained their three seats but dropped 1.7% of their vote.
The turnout in Foyle in 2011 was 57.8% with a quota of 5,500.
As much as the SDLP may feel pressurised by Sinn Fein electoral success it is also a high risk strategy for Sinn Fein in the backyard of SDLP strength.
What is certain is that the DUP’s Gary Middleton will retain a seat for Unionism in Foyle. But another variable in this race is the entry into the fray of two independent candidates, Dr Ann McCloskey and Kathleen Bradley. Both are unknown entities in terms of elections.
Add to this the entry of journalist and veteran activist, Eamonn McCann for the People Before Profit Alliance and the battle suddenly becomes even more interesting. McCann attracted transfers from all political hues in 2011 totalling over 300. It was not enough however to see him across the winning line.
And, that is perhaps were the key to Foyle lies this May-in the ‘transfer market’ as it were. It will not be perhaps be the importance of who gives votes to the two independents or Eamonn McCann that will count, but more where those transferred votes will end up if those three are eliminated from the race at a relatively early stage.
However, Dr McCloskey and Kathleen Bradley whilst untested in terms of elections may poll very well in their own catchment areas and spheres of influences.
What happens next, is of course the question?
At base level we have the leader of Sinn Fein in the North versus the new leader of the SDLP. It would be a brave sole who would predict that either Martin McGuinness or Colum Eastwood will lose out. This battle is sure to draw out core voters from both parties in a bid to avoid potential embarrassment for either man. However, somebody has to go.
Remember, that the gap between Sinn Fein and the SDLP of 500 votes has narrowed in the last five years then will they feel they can secure three seats at the expense of the SDLP. But, what if the gap hasn’t narrowed and the Westminster vote last year is a real indicator?
A characteristic feature of Sinn Fein elections is dedicated and strict vote management. Although, a caveat to that is perhaps that in the recent Dail election in Donegal running three candidates resulted in them returning just one candidate where they had held two, in the quest for three TDs in a single constituency.
Surely that was a blip and something that couldn’t be replicated in Foyle?
On the other hand, the SDLP line-up is Colum Eastwood, Mark H Durkan and Stormont newcomer Gerard Diver. Colum Eastwood is party leader and high profile, Mark H Durkan has regularly polled well in all elections either at Council or Assembly level and again as Minister for the Environment has a highly visible presence. That leaves Gerard Diver perhaps vulnerable to elimination having replaced long-term MLA Pat Ramsey towards the end of 2015. Conversely, the voters of Foyle may decide to preserve the status quo and a Sinn Fein candidate may lose out.
There again, voters may say that the status quo is no longer for them and send independents to Foyle for the first time, although it would take a seismic change in voting behaviour in this constituency to achieve this.
It’s too early in this race to predict with any degree of accuracy how this will pan out. The only certainty so far is that this may well prove to be the most interesting political race in Foyle for many, many years.
Dr Ann McCloskey-Independent
Mark H Durkan-SDLP
Martin McGuinness-Sinn Fein
Maeve McLaughlin-Sinn Fein
Raymond McCartney-Sinn Fein