Sinn Féin is destined for a dramatic Dáil advance when the next election comes

Opinion: Party did not get immediate electoral bounce out of the economic downturn

‘The first election of the recession was the 2009 local elections in which Sinn Féin got almost exactly the same vote as it got in 2004 and Mary Lou McDonald lost her European Parliament seat.’ Above, McDonald canvassing for the 2009 elections with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

‘The first election of the recession was the 2009 local elections in which Sinn Féin got almost exactly the same vote as it got in 2004 and Mary Lou McDonald lost her European Parliament seat.’ Above, McDonald canvassing for the 2009 elections with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Sat, Jun 14, 2014, 00:01

I have been wrong about Sinn Féin in the past. I have tended to be premature in predicting its electoral rise. Just over a decade ago, when Sinn Féin had five TDs and its leaders enjoyed heightened celebrity at the centre of the Northern Ireland peace process, I speculated about an outside possibility that Sinn Féin could win up to 20 seats at the following general election. When that election came in 2007, Sinn Féin’s seats actually fell from five to four, with Seán Crowe in Tallaght losing his seat.

Setbacks in the peace process, delays in decommissioning, the IRA’s association with the Northern Bank robbery and the murder of Robert McCartney, cumulatively served to contain Sinn Féin’s growth in the Republic.

Bertie Ahern’s then popularity, particularly in working-class Dublin, and his subtle but significant incursions into Sinn Féin’s republican turf – for example by re-establishing the national 1916 commemoration for the 90th anniversary in 2006 – also cut off some of Sinn Féin’s room for advancement.

More recently it was surprising that Sinn Féin did not get an immediate electoral bounce out of the economic downturn. One would have presumed that rising unemployment and the collapse of Fianna Fáil from 2008 onwards would have generated rapid growth for Sinn Féin but this did not happen. The first election of the recession was the 2009 local elections in which Sinn Féin got almost exactly the same vote as it got in 2004 and Mary Lou McDonald lost her European Parliament seat.

Mediocre

Even the advance of Sinn Féin in the 2011 Dáil election was mediocre. It won nine extra seats. Of itself that seems impressive, but not when one considers that on the same day Fianna Fáil lost 51 seats, Labour won 17 seats and Fine Gael gained 25.

Sinn Féin fed very little off the Fianna Fáil carcass: Fianna Fáil’s vote fell by 17 per cent and Fine Gael and Labour each grew their vote by 9 per cent, but Sinn Féin’s vote rose by just 3 per cent.

The party’s performance in the 2011 presidential election also failed to live up to expectations. In Martin McGuinness, they selected one of the most high-profile politicians on the island, but in a contest in which Fianna Fáil couldn’t even field a candidate, and the Fine Gael candidate tanked, McGuinness managed only 14 per cent. It seemed there was a “legacy of the Troubles” ceiling on the Sinn Féin potential for growth in the Republic.

That has now all changed. Sinn Féin is clearly on a surge and is destined for a very dramatic Dáil advance whenever the next election comes. I wrote here six months ago that Sinn Féin was set for spectacular gains and would at least double its county and city councillors. It polled 15.2 per cent and trebled its seat numbers.

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