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Sinn Féin delegates gather in Dublin believing their day has come

Party spokespeople presenting themselves as ministers-in-waiting, ready for power

Sinn Féin's party faithful gather at the Helix on Saturday in Dublin City University, surrounded by banners hanging overhead that will declare that it is "time for change".

If the last general election showed that there was indeed an appetite for change, recent opinion polls have bolstered their view that they are now the government-in-waiting.

Politics is a fickle game and much can change, and quickly – such as a global pandemic – but an analysis of constituencies across the State paints a picture that will be hard for Government parties (and other Opposition parties) to ignore.

The party celebrated a historic result in February 2020 as it won 37 seats in the Dáil, shattering the two-party duopoly that had dominated the political landscape since the foundation of the State.


In the most recent Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll earlier this month, Sinn Féin took a 10-point lead over its nearest rival Fine Gael. The result was the highest ever rating for Sinn Féin in the series.

The party is holding on to strong support from younger voters and working-class communities, but, crucially, it is also making gains among older voters and wealthier voters.

An analysis of how the polling numbers could play out in different constituencies shows that with the right strategy, and if the election was to be held in the coming weeks, Sinn Féin could increase its seats from 37 to 55 at a minimum, and up to 60 on a very good day.

Of course, this number is short of the magic 80 plus one required for a Dáil majority, but with the help of sympathetic independents or other smaller parties, the path may be there.

Major mistake

There are many constituencies where the party is all but guaranteed to make gains, if the figures hold steady.

Clearly not expecting the victory which came about in 2020, the party's decision not to run a second candidate in Dublin Central, the home constituency of leader Mary Lou McDonald, proved to be a major mistake.

In what could be a trend nationally and most likely a part of its electoral strategy, Sinn Féin will be eyeing up seats held by Green Party members, Independents and smaller parties and then, of course, potentially weak seats belonging to Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

Many left-leaning Independents and parties profited off the back of strong Sinn Féin transfers in the last election as Sinn Féin failed to put enough names forward, but in future Sinn Féin will be aiming to mop up those votes for itself.

McDonald topped the poll in Dublin Central with more than 11,000 first-preference votes and a second seat here is seen as a done deal.

It's a similar situation in Dublin Bay North, where Denise Mitchell was the country's biggest first-preference candidate in 2020, crossing the line with more than 21,000 votes, 9,409 over the quota.

The seat belonging to Social Democrats TD Cian O’Callaghan could be vulnerable here.

In Donegal the party took 45 per cent of the first-preference vote, and it would certainly feel optimistic about a third seat here. Even in a world where the third candidate is not well-known, surpluses from Pearse Doherty and Pádraig MacLochlainn should see to that.

The party could also make impressive gains across almost all of Cork.

In Cork North Central Sinn Féin would certainly target a second seat on top of that belonging to Thomas Gould, potentially at the expense of PBP's Mick Barry.

The same is true in Cork East where a second seat also seems to be within grasp. There Pat Buckley TD sailed home with 23 per cent of the first-preference vote.

There is much chatter too about Cork North West where it may try to make an entrance and take one of the two Fianna Fáil seats currently held by Aindreas Moynihan and Michael Moynihan. Former Ireland South MEP and unsuccessful presidential candidate Liadh Ní Riada has been selected to run here.

In Kerry Sinn Féin TD Pa Daly could also bring in a running mate.

Sinn Féin, like all other parties, will have to increase the number of women on its ticket

One of the big questions the party is asking itself internally is around constituencies where a three-candidate strategy might be plausible. The question is whether it is wise.

This holds true in Cavan-Monaghan. In 2020 the party took nearly 37 per cent of the first-preference vote in this constituency. It is understood there is optimism about a third seat based on current polling, on top of the seats held by Matt Carthy and Pauline Tully.

Sinn Féin has high ambitions for counties where it has no TDs at present, such as Limerick County, where it will be targeting Independents like Richard O'Donoghue. Former Sinn Féin councillor Séighin Ó Ceallaigh came close to winning a seat for the party in last year's election but there has been tension recently after members received an "edict" from party headquarters that only a female candidate will be allowed to stand. Sinn Féin, like all other parties, will have to increase the number of women on its ticket.

From 2023 the gender quota, which was set at 30 per cent for last year’s general elections, will rise to 40 per cent, putting pressure on political parties who risk losing funding if they don’t hit that figure.

Meanwhile in Limerick City, where Sinn Féin has Maurice Quinlivan TD, the party could be set to target Green Party TD Brian Leddin's seat to add to its haul.

The same trends are playing out in constituencies around the country from Waterford to Louth.

It is understood Sinn Féin plan to run up to 30 extra candidates in the next election. Getting some 20 of those 30 over the line would cement the seismic change in Irish politics that has been playing out since the financial crash.

All of this is heavily caveated, of course, and much depends on how Sinn Féin handle the next three years (or less) in opposition. The same ascent also depends on how much progress the Government parties make on the big-ticket items like housing.

Party spokespeople, whether it be Eoin Ó Broin on housing, David Cullinane on health, or Louise O'Reilly on workers' rights, are already coming under a more intense kind of scrutiny: policies are being parsed on the basis that these politicians could be the next ministers in their brief.

That is how they are increasingly presenting themselves too: as ministers-in-waiting who are ready for power. However, there are other TDs in the parliamentary party, especially the 2021 intake, who still have much work to do before they could be seen as credible office-holders.

It is understood that there are plenty of civil servants in the Department of Housing who favour the policies of Eoin Ó Broin and who believe a change in direction is needed

Earlier this month Cullinane launched his alternative health budget. He said he wanted to show the public what it would be like “if I was standing here as the minister for health instead of the spokesman on health”.

This is playing out behind the scenes as well, it appears. When asked by this newspaper how he would achieve his promises to create an Irish national health service, Cullinane said he asked the secretary general of the Department of Health, Robert Watt, if it was possible during a meeting.

Cullinane said he asked Watt: “If I was to walk into your office as a minister for health and say I want to do this, can you make it happen? And he said ‘Yes, and the system will have to go and make it happen’. So it is about political will.”

Before he launched his health budget Cullinane met virtually with 100 of the country’s leading healthcare groups. On that call he gained broad support for most of his plans, sources say. Some of the groups were urging him to go further in his pledges for reform of the health sector.

One person with extensive knowledge of all of the various health associations noted wryly: “Groups who would have crossed the street to get away from the Shinners in the past are now seeking them out.”

Cullinane even addressed the annual conference of the Irish Hospital Consultants Association this month, a sign that even the hardest groups to win over are making space for new possibilities.

What’s more, the exchange revealed by Cullinane between him and Watt prompted questions around what civil servants thought of an incoming Sinn Féin government.

It is understood that there are plenty of civil servants in the Department of Housing, to take one example, who favour the policies of Eoin Ó Broin in relation to housing and who believe a change in direction is needed.

Fine Gael says Sinn Féin 'cannot be trusted with the public finances' because it is 'in a rush to be populist'

A bigger question which plagues Sinn Féin, however, is not about how they would interact with civil servants but a more simple one: how would it pay for its promises?

For example, Sinn Féin says it favours a scheme that offers 100 per cent redress for families affected by Mica despite the fact it could cost the taxpayer billions. When asked how Sinn Féin would pay for this, Ó Broin said that industry would be made to pay more and that the threat of a levy should be used.

The Government also favours an industry levy but senior figures say it would be reckless to provide a grant covering 100 per cent of costs, including demolition.

Sinn Féin’s alternative budget this year promised a €127 million package to restore the right to retire on a pension at 65. Fine Gael was quick out of the traps to claim that the actual cost would be €450 million. It also said that Sinn Féin’s promise to deliver 20,000 social homes for a little over €3 billion would actually cost €4.8 billion.

Fine Gael says this is relevant because it shows Sinn Féin “cannot be trusted with the public finances” because it is “in a rush to be populist”.

The accusation that Sinn Féin is a populist party (and not in a good way) has been and will be lobbed out with increasing velocity, and will be a defining feature of how parties like Fine Gael try to win the hearts and minds of floating voters.

Take this exchange in the Dáil between Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Ó Broin two weeks ago when Varadkar spoke of the "left-wing populism which Sinn Féin stands for".

“It is about creating ideas of masses against the elites, simple solutions to complex problems, and demonising opponents.”

There is also the question of business. How would the world of business accommodate a Sinn Féin government? Easily enough, apparently.

Take this nugget from Danny McCoy, the main lobbyist for Irish employers, as the election results poured in last year. He said that Sinn Féin was “not that mad” when it came to business. On the question of whether business would work with it in government? “Absolutely,” he said.

Hefty bonuses

What about the world of banking? Sinn Féin has made it very clear that it does not see a world in which bankers’ pay caps are lifted and hefty bonuses become the norm again.

We got an insight from Brian Hayes, chief executive of the Banking and Payments Federation, when he said: "With Sinn Féin it's all about what a programme for government says. Manifestos are one thing, but programmes for government are a different animal."

One industry figure said that pragmatism would be the order of the day, which is another way of saying money will find a way to live with power.

On climate it is becoming increasingly evident that there will be no simple solutions, something which will be laid bare by the Government’s climate plan next week.

There is a recently observed trend in the Dáil of Green Party members challenging what they say privately is Sinn Féin double-speak on climate action – notably calling for action to tackle the issue while fiercely opposing a carbon tax.

Some of the Greens clearly believe Sinn Féin is soft on climate action and are moving to protect their flank ahead of the next election.

Finally, party policy will take centre stage today, in stark contrast to the constant whispering about leadership that goes on behind the back of Taoiseach Micheál Martin when his party gets together.

When Mary Lou McDonald stands up to make her televised speech on Saturday evening she does so safe in the knowledge that all ranks of the party are united around her.

She has been, however, somewhat less visible in recent times as the party continues to favour a tactic of building the profile of newer TDs like Maireád Farrell and Claire Kerrane. That plan will be all the more important as Sinn Féin seeks to further convince voters that it is its turn to lead the charge and that it has a plausible cabinet in waiting.

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times