Real issues ignored as election gets underway

Posted By: May 13, 2017

Patrick Murphy. Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, May 13, 2017

The risk of an outbreak of normal politics here in the general election campaign has now thankfully passed.
There were fears that local politicians might use the election to debate Brexit on a non-sectarian basis, but the usual blanket of sectarian fog has now settled on the campaign.
The SDLP’s attempt to form a broad anti-Brexit alliance foundered on the rocks of other parties’ self-interest, with added helpings of indignation.
There was also a slight risk that parties here might be tempted to copy the May-Corbyn debate on the role of the state in society. Thankfully, that temptation also passed by our politicians and we can now look forward to our usual two elections: one between the two sectarian camps and another within them.
Welcome to electoral Groundhog Day.

So how will it all pan out? In Britain, election results are predicted by analyzing policies, opinion polls, and parliamentary performance.
Over here, opinions have changed little since before opinion polls were invented, so we use them sparingly. We have no politics or government to analyze, so we predict election results on the basis of previous election results. Other countries do politics and government. We just do elections.
On that basis, if there is to be any change in party representation, it may mean possible gains for Sinn Féin. At present, there are 8 DUP MPs, 4 SF, 3 SDLP, 2 UUP and Sylvia Hermon as an independent.
Sinn Féin is targeting five extra seats. It hopes to win Fermanagh/South Tyrone and North Belfast from the UUP and DUP and the three SDLP seats in Foyle, South Down and South Belfast. On a really good day, it could gain four. On a bad day (and it has not had many recently) it would gain none and remain on four seats.
Its best chance is in Fermanagh/South Tyrone where, ten weeks ago, it polled 22,000 first preferences, about 400 behind the combined unionist vote. It will win this time if 600 SDLP voters transfer their allegiance to SF in support of its anti-Brexit stance in a border constituency.

 But Sinn Féin’s more liberal stance on abortion may deter some traditional SDLP supporters.
Sinn Féin faces a tougher challenge in North Belfast, despite the broader political appeal of its new candidate, John Finucane. A victory would require a substantial defection from the SDLP and it will come down to how SDLP voters choose between their anti-Brexit sentiments and party loyalty.

Recent electoral trends (and the bookies) suggest that the SDLP could lose its three seats to SF, but the SDLP is fighting a strong rear-guard action on the issue of SF’s abstention from Westminster. For the first time in a long time, the SDLP can point to a significant difference between the two parties.

The SDLP has been helped by Sinn Féin’s confusing explanation for abstentionism. One party representative said it was because they will not take an oath of allegiance to the Queen. (No, you may not ask if they intend to tell her the next time they shake her hand. That would be most insensitive, especially during an election campaign.)

Another representative said it was because attendance at Westminster achieves nothing and in any case, they go into committee rooms, but not the Commons. (It’s a bit like Bill Clinton’s claim that he smoked cannabis, but did not inhale. Maybe they hold their breath as they pass the Commons door.)

Exploiting this mixed message has allowed SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, to find his electoral feet. But his party still needs a huge effort to match SF’s superior resources and organization. As in most countries, money helps win elections.
The DUP needs an extra seat from somewhere to give Arlene Foster some breathing space before future Stormont talks. Her softening attitude on the Irish language may not go down well in East Belfast, but Alliance’s Naomi Long may still find it difficult to unseat the second Robinson.

The DUP might hope to win South Belfast, but it is too close to call.
Of course, all this election analysis is completely divorced from the real world of the crisis in school budgets and the retention of the white elephant known as the Health and Social Care Board, costing £28 million annually.
But when, like the Orange Order, you argue that the election is about The Border, children and sick people just have to wait. Those, on both sides, who are pre-occupied with flags will be grateful that our politicians have once again managed to avoid a descent into debating health or education.
After all, politics should never be allowed to interfere in an election.