One of the most interesting and welcome developments over the past few weeks has been the formation of a Sinn Féin cumann (branch) in Bangor, County Down.
Frankly SDLP have under-performed in North Down and while the selection of a credible Assembly candidate in Conall Brown (a leading member of SDLP Youth) is welcome, it is far too late for the Party to make an impact. SDLP has been content with token effort.
The reasons are complex. Catholics are very much a minority in North Down and Nationalists even more of a minority. Unlike most other parts of Norn Iron, the connexion between Catholicism and Nationalism is not so deep. (Irish) Nationalism, whether SDLP or Sinn Féin is a left of centre political philosophy but many (but not of course all) Catholics in North Down are politically “conservative”.
At times, North Down seems semi-detached from Norn Iron, almost embarrassed to be part of the squalid sectarian make-up and very much at ease with itself as not very different from seaside towns in west of Scotland and north west England.
It is very much the home of a succession of independently minded Westminster MPs such as Jim Kilfedder, Bob McCartney and Sylvia Hermon (the current MP).
There is a strong Alliance presence but Green Party are now sharing the so called “middle ground”. It is a constituency where for four decades, Catholics have kept their heads down and voted Alliance as a matter of conviction or as the least dogmatic of the unionist choices. It is not just Bangor….it is a familiar pattern in Lisburn, Newtownards and Carrickfergus.
To some extent, the formation of of a Sinn Féin cumann challenges this mind-set of local Catholics. While it is tempting to think that 14% of the population are “Catholic” and can be the springboard for an Assembly quota…the number who identify as “Irish” lags some way behind.
I am on record as saying that ALL political parties have a duty to present themselves to the electorate in ALL constituencies.
So….it is to the credit of Sinn Féin that they are prepared to join SDLP in organising in Bangor to accomodate nationalist voters ..around 700 voters (400 plus SDLP and 300 plus SF).
My long-held belief is that TUV, UUP, DUP should stand in constituencies that are overwhelmingly nationalist as a courtesy to all voters. To their credit SDLP and Alliance do this.
And Sinn Féin? Well no….just like TUV, UUP and DUP….Sinn Féin want squalid sectarian voting pacts to maximise the nationalist vote. Indeed, as Bangor SF members learn how to canvas with their comrades in South Belfast, nobody seems to have noticed that Sinn Féin stood down in South Belfast to “help” SDLP MP Alasdair McDonnell in 2010 in a failed attempt to get SDLP to reciprocate to help Michelle Gildernew MP in Fermanagh-South Tyrone.
So Sinn Féin are either inconsistent or hypocritical. And as South Belfast members mentor their Bangor comrades as they canvas Seahill, Clandeboye and Ballyholme, it might come up on the doorsteps.
Is this the normalisation of Politics, that the DUP-SF one party State love to promote? Well the old unionist regime liked to promote Politics 1922-1972 as normal British Politics. After all everyone was entitled to stand as a Party and get votes…..including Joe Campbell of Sinn Féin in North Down in 1955 and 1959. So this breakthru ….Sinn Féin in Bangor is not quite the breakthru that it is selling.
Of course, it is to be expected that Sinn Féin, Bangor claim Winnie Carney as “one of their own”. The Bangor woman is one of the leading figures in the Easter Rising of 1916 and was part of the garrison in the GPO. WInnie’s story cannot be told without regard to her own later history….and of course Sinn Féin have already embarrassed themselves by claiming the unbroken link from the heroism in the GPO to the version of their Party in 2016.
It is of course a very selective history.
They cant promote Winnie Carney on their 2016 literature and draw a veil over 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. One of the consequences of a very limited republican tradition in North Down is that Bangor (with few exceptions) was relative Troubles-free from 1970 to 1998.
Towns like Belfast, Omagh, Enniskillen, Armagh, Dungannon, Derry and several others were bombed and inevitably the Brigades, Batallions and Companies responsible were local men and local women.
But when Bangor was devastated, it was by Active Service Units acting on plans made outside Bangor. Actually the bombers were from….er South Belfast.
I dont think Sinn Féin plan to mention that on the flyers, proudly using the name of Winnie Carney or on the doorsteps in Seahill, Clandeboye and Ballyholme.