There is much talk of dissident republicans challenging Sinn Féin in the forthcoming assembly elections, but with the exception of ex-SF MLA and councillor Davy Hyland and possibly right-wing Catholic fundamentalist Gerry McGeough, it seems unlikely that the rag-tag of anti-provos will score any success in terms of winning seats.
However, possibly a bigger threat to Sinn Féin is the cloud of voter abstention which may envelop their electoral campaign i.e. former Sinn Féin voters who don’t feel any particular affiliation to dissident republicans, but who have become disillusioned with provos and will decide not to bother voting at all this time.
This threat to Sinn Féin’s chances can be described as Voter SHITE (Staying at Home Ignoring The Election).
This is not an unprecedented phenomenon, and is one which the SDLP has suffered since the turn of the century. For instance, by the late-1990s the two main nationalist parties combined were polling well in excess of 300,000 votes between them. However, while Sinn Féin’s number of votes continued to rise, the SDLP’s dropped by an even bigger margin- naturally some switched to Sinn Féin from the SDLP, but a significant number of erstwhile SDLP supporters simply stopped voting altogether. This is reflected in the fact that the total number of voters for the two parties combined dropped well below 300,000 for a couple of elections this millennium, only barely exceeding that number in 2005.
While it remains to be seen if the SDLP can claw back the votes it has lost to disinterest, the challenge for Sinn Féin is to avoid suffering the same problem. Indeed, a lethal combination for the provos would be a mix of votes lost to dissidents, the SDLP regaining some of its lost voters from the ether, and voter apathy from previous Sinn Féin voters- if this eventuality comes to pass, it could turn the tables significantly within nationalism. Of course, there is a lot of ifs and buts involved, but it should make for an interesting election on 7th March.
Will the SHITE hit the fan for Sinn Féin? It remains to be seen.