When a bubble bursts it usually does so with a loud noise and a rapid discharge of gas. But sometimes all you get is a gentle hissing sound, so measured it can be hard to detect.
Sinn Fein’s performance in last week’s British general election probably falls in the latter category. With the exception of the dramatic loss of the iconic Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat – first won by Bobby Sands thirty-four years ago – its vote hissed softly outwards, declining overall by a just single percentage point. Not the end of the world but not good either.
With the exception of West Belfast, where the vote slumped by nearly 17 per cent, most of which went to the left-wing People Before Profit candidate, the losses were tiny in most areas. But the bad news was that the losses were across the board, in fifteen of the eighteen seats.
But for the intervention of Mairtin O Muileoir in South Belfast and the 5,000 or so votes he won, the result would have looked even worse.
So the losses were there, they weren’t catastrophic but they must be worrying for the Sinn Fein hierarchy for this reason. An important part of Sinn Fein’s electoral success, which began back in 1992, has been the image created by one victory after another, an image of an ever upward, ever onward almighty juggernaut gobbling up everyone and everything in its path.
The loss of Bobby Sands’ seat and the poor results elsewhere have dented that image, reminding everyone that what goes up, can also go down. Once a sure favourite to destroy the SDLP, Sinn Fein now finds its advantage over its rivals reduced to a single seat out of seven.
Also damaged by last week’s election results is the myth that the peace process heralded in an age of Nationalist assertiveness and Unionist despondency.
The drop in Nationalist voting encompassed both the SDLP and Sinn Fein, and suggested either apathy or insouciance has infected voters in both parties.
Conversely the outcome has produced something of a revival in UUP fortunes and bestowed on Unionists at Westminster leverage they have not enjoyed since the early 1990’s. The new Tory government has only an eight-seat majority (five if SF took its seats), meaning that Cameron and his people will need to nurture the goodwill of the eleven Unionist MP’s at Westminster – and that cannot be good for Sinn Fein.
At the same time there are some signs that the economy in the South is beginning to pick up and that is bad news for the Shinners as well. Sinn Fein’s electoral fortunes South of the Border are intimately tied to economic discontent amongst the electorate; voters angry at austerity policies and suffering from the downturn are much more likely to register a protest by giving their votes to Mr Adams and his colleagues. But the more the economy improves, the less likely that is to happen.
So, things are beginning to look a little gloomy for Sinn Fein. It’s all about timing really. If the Southern election had happened earlier this year or last year things could have been so different. Sinn Fein would still have been cock of the North and the coming power in the South. Now it looks ominously different for them.