‘Want to commit political hara kiri? Go into Government’

Analysis: A good election for Sinn Féin but the party could struggle to sustain the momentum

Labour Party Leader, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore pictured casting his vote at Scoil Mhuire, Shanganagh Rd, Shankill, Co Dublin. Photograph: Collins Agency

Labour Party Leader, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore pictured casting his vote at Scoil Mhuire, Shanganagh Rd, Shankill, Co Dublin. Photograph: Collins Agency


The Irish writer Frank O’Connor was a great exponent of the type of short story where a life-changing event occurred.

In his amazing Guests of the Nation the change was so profound that it drove the narrator to say: “And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about it again.”

The immediate (emotional) aftermath of elections sometimes evoke the same kind of sentiment.

And none more so than Friday’s set of three elections, the results of which are being excruciatingly ground out over the course of this weekend.

Some pundits and commentators have made some rather grand and profound pronouncements about the significance of the elections, that it has changed life as we know it forever: and things will never be the same again.

Sure, it was great election for Sinn Féin. The party has had a strong performance in all three polls.

The only slight shadow on the horizon is in Midlands North West where Luke Ming Flanagan may steal Matt Carthy’s thunder, and also steal the seat with Sinn Féin’s name on it.

As Mary Lou McDonald pointed out to The Irish Times last night: “One swallow does not a summer make”.

It would be churlish for any party - not least a strategy-obsessed party like Sinn Féin - to assume that these results would hold up in a general election scenario. It certainly shows that party are on a long-term upward trajectory but it doesn’t necessarily mean the rise will be inevitable and inexorable as happened in the North. We will come back to that.

In contrast, Labour has had a weekend that disappointed even its (non-existent) expectations. It’s going to end up with no European seats, a possible halving of its 2009 haul of 138 seats on councils (despite an overall increase in seats numbers from 883 to 949) and will finish a distant also-ran in the two byelections (where its sitting TDs topped the poll in both constituencies in 2011).

It’s also been a very good week for independents and smaller parties. They have garnered almost 30 per cent of the vote and could very well return a brace of MEPs to Europe (with Luke Ming Flanagan being the stand-out winner).

The Greens, People Before Profit, and the Socialist Party have all done well - Ruth Coppinger has won the Dublin West byelection, all have made gains in Dublin councils, and Green leader Eamon Ryan may win a seat in Dublin today. It’s very hard to have a coherent body of independents - it’s a moot point as to whether their growing popularity is a symptom of a volatile and fragmented political landscape.

Fianna Fáil has continued its slow rehabilitation but it’s a little early to start throwing away the crutches yet and proclaiming: “It a miracle, We can walk!”.

It’s done reasonably well in the locals; and solidly if unspectacularly in the byelections. However, it’s the headline grabbing Europeans that might give it pause for thought. It does look if Pat the Cope Gallagher may pull through in MNW but the chances of a Mary Fitzpatrick breakthrough now seem remote. If both of those went against the party, it would remove any gloss.

Fine Gael hasn’t done any great shakes either. Will it win four seats in the Europeans? Is Brian Hayes as vulnerable as the exit polls suggested? We think not, but if you look at the local elections Fine Gael council seat tally will fall precipitously in the councils by perhaps 100 from 335.

It looks like comfortably winning the Longford-Westmeath byelection but Eamon Coghlan finished a disappointing fifth in Dublin West.

All evening yesterday in the RDS, we witnessed successive Sinn Féin candidates being hoisted aloft amid a sea of tricolours. In Dublin City Council, all but one of their candidates got elected and a fair few topped the poll. In fact, like Labour in 1992 if the party had run more candidates they would have got elected in the capital.

The contrasting fortunes of Sinn Féin and Labour were illustrated by two occurrences. While Sinn Féin’s Paul Donnelly didn’t win in Dublin West, his personal vote quadrupled from 5 per cent to 21 per cent since the 2011 election.

And in Dublin City Council, the current Lord Mayor Oisín Quinn looked in real danger last night of losing is seat.

So has the world changed? Of course, it was a great day for Sinn Féin. But it was always going to be a good day. It’s abysmal performance in 2009 gave it such a low base (54 seats) that the only direction was up. That said, it will be interesting to see what its national percentage is - it will certainly be up five or six points since 2011 and its European strategy of running its known unknowns has handsomely paid off.

On Twitter yesterday, party supporters were all reeling out the line that it was part of a long, slow, incremental growth strategy - as if there were war maps and spreadsheets plotting out every moment of the party’s rise.

Politics is a fickle business and as Sinn Féin found out in 2007 and 2009, such strategies can easily come a cropper.

The rule of thumb in Irish politics nowadays is if you want to committed political hara kiri with your party, just go into Government. Sure there are complicating factors involving Labour. As there were with the Greens.

It must be recalled that if Labour had stayed out of Government in 2011, the catch cry of ‘Gilmore for Taoiseach’ might just sound a little less fanciful now.

What does the result tell us? Well, it obviously tells us that, irrespective of what people think of Gerry Adams murky past, they don’t consider it a relevant factor in domestic Irish politics any more. And that is, without doubt, a watershed moment.

Can Sinn Féin sustain the momentum? That’s more difficult to tell.

Its economic policies don’t really belong to the real world no matter how often they’ll tell you that it’s all been costed by the Department of Finance.

If you are going to reverse USC, water charges and the property tax, it’s not all going to be captured by the wealth taxes and Tobin taxes the party is proposing - and the wealth tax, in any instance, no longer forms part of its formal budgetary arithmetic.

Be sure that Sinn Féin policies and governance will be very closely scrutinised over the next 18 month or so. That said, the party will make gains in 2016, maybe slightly more modest in scale than these ones we have witnessed this weekend.

Wherefore Labour? Well Arthur Spring yesterday did raise the question of leadership. There is no doubt that these results will change the complexion of government and have a splintering effect on the relationship between the two parties.

Expect a raft of eye-catching new initiatives, a slew of new faces in Cabinet ministries, and a big row over the €2 billion adjustment in October’s budget.

There’s no silver bullet for either party. They have a year to come up with a formula that will have the effect of limiting damage and sustaining the kind of losses sustained in this weekend’s elections.

The tallies and exit polls for the European elections are subject to health warnings. All of the last seats are in doubt. Look at the last seat in South, in particular, where a dark horse may emerge.

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