After a catastrophe at the ballot box, Vincent Doherty looks at why Sinn Fein did so badly and what's in store if they continue on the same trajectory
Now that the dust has settled on last week's elections, it is possible to appreciate the magnitude of Sinn Fein's electoral collapse. For the usually well-oiled Sinn Fein electoral machine, results in both the local council and European elections across the 26 counties were nothing short of catastrophic. At the Dublin counts in the RDS, seasoned Sinn Fein cadre looked punch drunk, as one after another their council seats vanished from a local authority where they had been the majority party over the past 5 years. Across the 26 counties as a whole, they lost half their council seats. Even more dramatically, two of their three European seats in the 26 counties have been lost (confirmed on Wednesday after the recount was completed, that the SF seat in South Constituency was lost to the Greens).
In Dublin, where they topped the poll in the last Euro elections, their vote this time fell from just under 25% to less than 10%, despite a popular, effective and well-liked candidate in Lynn Boylan. The party also lost control of Dublin City Council, where they lost half of their seats. This decline was repeated in the other urban areas like Cork, Limerick and Waterford. Right across the 26 counties the story was the same, even in their hinterland constituencies along the border. The party's vote was decimated, as they were effectively abandoned by an electorate clearly tired of Sinn Fein's zigzagging on major issues. From the Dublin European election count, it was clear that people looking for a fighting left candidate abandoned Sinn Fein in favour of socialist campaigner Clare Daly, whilst the soft left element of the Sinn Fein vote was hoovered up by the Greens. The fact that climate change has been front and centre in the news of late obviously contributed to the "Green wave", this despite the fact that the Irish Greens are well to the right of many of their European sister parties.
Coalition: a poisoned chalice
Perhaps most damaging of all for Sinn Fein, was the leadership-inspired decision at the last Ard Fheis (Annual Delegate Conference), to support entry into coalition with either of the major right-wing parties, Fianna Fail or Fine Gael. There is no doubt that this issue contributed significantly to the party's demise in working class areas as they reached out with both hands for what has long proved a poisoned chalice for parties of the left. The Irish Labour Party (which is positioned well to the right of Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party in the UK) has not been forgiven by the electorate for their role in propping up the right wing Fine Gael Government during the most savage period of neoliberal austerity, between 2009 and 2014. Yet under Mary-Lou McDonald, the Sinn Fein leadership seems to be content queuing up to enter coalition with anyone who'll have them. As if this wasn't bad enough, Sinn Fein has also been chastised by its traditional republican base for the party's shameful capitulation on issues like wearing the poppy, as well as participation in commemorative events marking the imperialist slaughter of World War 1. Designed to appeal to the Southern middle class, these issues do not sit easily with the party's grassroots activists and supporters. This element of the vote has been with the party through thick and thin. But no longer, as Sinn Fein career all over the road on what were once issues of principle.
The Adams Factor
In the period leading up to the retirement of Gerry Adams, after almost 35 years at the helm as Sinn Fein President, all the talk was of the new possibilities under Mary-Lou McDonald. It was felt by some party strategists that for some time Adams' Northern IRA roots were an obstacle to consolidating the party's new image across the 26 counties, as a centre-left, fully constitutional, parliamentary party, with only a passing resemblance to the radical anti-imperialist politics of bygone days. But the expected bounce under Mary Lou McDonald never materialised. On the contrary, amongst traditional republican voters and former activists, there was suspicion of the new direction under the new leadership. For the republican base, the Adams-McGuinness leadership, despite presiding over the drift to the centre, still had the whiff of cordite, and a close association with "The Army" (the IRA) which the new leadership in Dublin doesn't have. This was especially clear in last year's Presidential election campaign, where the Sinn Fein candidate Liadh Ni Raida came in sixth on 6.7% of the vote, with less than half the votes achieved by the late Martin McGuinness in 2011, when the party came in third on 13.7%.
It was O'Raida who famously committed to wearing the poppy during a Presidential electoral debate, in a statement that caused widespread consternation amongst the party's supporters. Immediately, other senior figures in the party denied that they would wear the poppy in any circumstances. But the damage had been done, and a considerable portion of the electorate saw the whole debacle as evidence of an established Sinn Fein tactic, of speaking out of both sides of their mouth at the same time. Not only has the Mary-Lou "bounce" failed to materialise, under her leadership the whole electoral project has been greatly diminished. The only place where the Sinn Fein vote remained constant was in the 6 Counties, where the SF candidate topped the poll. But there can't be much comfort or solace from such a result, which only serves to illustrate the yawning gap between Sinn Fein voters North and South. In the 6 counties the common experience of suffering and repression, of imprisonment and torture, of hunger strikes, state-sponsored terror and collusion serves to consolidate the nationalist vote. Such experiences are far removed from the current Dublin-based Sinn Fein leadership. Simply put, they are singing off different hymn sheets.
For example, in the aftermath of the successful abortion referendum in the 26 counties, Mary-Lou McDonald and the party's northern leader, Michelle O'Neill, posed with a poster which read "The North is Next". Yet when it came to the Sinn Fein election manifesto in the North in the May local and European elections, the abortion issue wasn't even mentioned. Party strategists were clearly afraid to haemorrhage votes to the new Aontu party, a Catholic anti-abortion grouping led by Peadar Tobin, a former Sinn Fein member of the Dublin Parliament who was expelled for campaigning against the party's position during the abortion referendum.
It's clear that there are differences on the issues amongst senior figures North and South. These are significant fault lines for a party which seems to have become unsure of where to go next. The fact is, without a serious change of direction the party could lose at least half of its record 23 Dail seats achieved under the leadership of Gerry Adams. From interviews in the aftermath of the election, McDonald does not seem to have learnt any lessons or drawn any of the obvious conclusions. Asked what it means for the direction of Sinn Fein, or if it signalled a move away from coalition with the right, McDonald has simply extended the net of potential coalition partners.
"That means the Independents, it means Greens, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael because that is what grown-ups do."
She also stated after criticism from some commentators of her decision to march behind a banner stating "England, get out of Ireland" at the New York St. Patrick's Day Parade in March, that she would be unlikely to be as foolish again. Apparently, it did not play well with the Southern middle class and your average Irish Times reader. That's the leader of the Irish Republican movement, refusing to stand behind a banner celebrating the traditional Irish Republican message from the Fenians onwards of "England, get out of Ireland!" Tumbling towards the centre. How the mighty have fallen.