Chris Donnelly: SF confident of at least one gain while SDLP are in battle just to hold ground

Sinn Fein candidates for the 2017  general election
Sinn Fein candidates for the 2017 general election

The general election campaign is being contested amongst the main nationalist parties with Brexit as the pre-eminent theme.

Both Sinn Fein and the SDLP are keen to portray themselves as better placed to articulate a position in defiance of the anticipated return of Theresa May and her Conservative Party to government.

Just two months ago, Sinn Fein secured the highest vote ever for a nationalist party in a NI-wide election. They will be confident of returning with at least one additional seat. In contrast, the SDLP are in a battle to simply hold their ground, with the party facing the prospect of possibly losing two of their three seats.

The first past the post system employed for Westminster elections has traditionally brought about an enhanced level of tactical voting in key constituencies. After March’s watershed Assembly election, the SDLP are more dependent upon those tactical votes for survival than any time before.

The scale of the Nationalist Surge in March, and its impact upon the collective psyche of both nationalists and unionists, will have provided a considerable motivating factor incentivising people to vote this time. Unionists, in particular, may feel compelled to vote in order to reassert the primacy of the unionist case.

This should bolster electoral support for unionist candidates. In that event, it could also leave vulnerable those SDLP incumbents reliant upon tactical unionist votes to cling onto seats endangered by advancing Sinn Fein challengers.

Within nationalism, the hope and expectation will be that the forward progress achieved in March is consolidated through a similar turnout for both nationalist parties, with the potential for seat gains from unionism in Fermanagh South Tyrone and, to a lesser extent, North Belfast.

The intra-nationalist contest is restricted to constituencies in which the SDLP currently hold seats, which gives a sense of the minority nationalist party’s precarious position.

The SDLP may have fallen behind Sinn Fein for the first time in Foyle in March, but Mark Durkan should still be able to see off the threat from the republican party this time around.

The most intriguing nationalist contest will take place in South Down, a constituency historically viewed as safe terrain for the SDLP.

All that changed in March, when Sinn Fein’s two candidates comfortably outpolled their SDLP counterparts by in excess of 6,500 votes, establishing a massive lead that will require unprecedented levels of tactical voting from Alliance and unionist voters to keep Margaret Ritchie in her job.

Sinn Fein will retain their four existing seats at a canter. The only source of interest in the core republican constituencies of Newry and Armagh, West Tyrone and Mid Ulster will be the turnout size relative to March’s Assembly election, and whether or not the People Before Profit vote continues on a downward trajectory or holds steady in West Belfast.

Relative turnouts will once again determine the story of this election.

Fermanagh South Tyrone will return to Michelle Gildernew and Sinn Fein if nationalists display the same renewed appetite for electoral politics that was evident just two months ago, regardless of the high unionist turnout expected there.

That victory for nationalism may be counterbalanced by a loss in South Belfast if nationalists fail to weigh in behind a single candidate and thereby allow the DUP’s Emma Lyttle Pengelly to claim the seat.

Alasdair McDonnell’s victory in South Belfast in 2005 counted as the solitary SDLP electoral advance of the past dozen years – prior to March, when the party took an unlikely Assembly seat in Lagan Valley.

The veteran party figure has an impressive record of winning in spite of his own party’s steady decline, but he will require a significant level of tactical votes from Sinn Fein and middle ground voters to see off the threat from the DUP.

March’s Nationalist Surge suggested something afoot within nationalism which the political leaderships of Sinn Fein and the SDLP are still trying to come to terms with.

Nationalist voters handsomely rewarded a leadership decision to close down Stormont, signaling a desire for a sharper, hungrier and harder politics in the face of unionist obduracy.

The primary beneficiaries of this look set to be Sinn Fein, who should break new ground by claiming South Down and making an unprecedented advance in North Belfast with their surprise candidate, John Finucane, who’s candidacy personifies precisely the type of sharp and smart political move being demanded by broader nationalism.

Any electoral advance for Sinn Fein will be interpreted as a grassroots endorsement for a strategy which appears to be increasingly comfortable with sitting out devolution indefinitely until tangible progress is made on contentious issues, including an Irish Language Act.

In March, the SDLP returned with its worst ever vote share, yet improbable seats won via transfers ensured they were able to paper over the cracks.

That may not prove possible this time.

Holding ground will be a spectacular achievement at this point for the party.

Losing South Down would be bad enough, but in the event of South Belfast falling as well, Colum Eastwood will face into an immediate crisis.

•Chris Donnelly is a commentator and former Sinn Fein candidate