Bruised Sinn Féin looks inward as it takes a dive in the May elections
Some believe SF must not only point to Government's failings but also to solutions
Gerry Adams: he has rejected suggestions he has sent a signal to Belfast that Mary Lou McDonald needs time, free of the demands for an immediate Border poll, to rebuild in the Republic
There are some lessons to be drawn from the Irish electoral experience of the past decade.
The first is that there is a growing wedge of voters with little loyalty to a party, individual or even a philosophy, who change their votes with each election.
The second is that local elections have tended to be the most reliable weathervane for possible outcomes of general elections.
Cork was a disaster zone for the party
Sinn Féin will have to brace itself for this reality. After a decade of being on the rise and growing, it has had three poor elections: the presidential, European and local.
Yet it is the local elections that will give the party its coldest sweats. A 5 per cent fall in support nationally – dropping from 159 council seats to 81 – is bad enough. But when a detailed analysis is done of the constituencies where the party holds Dáil seats, the evidence suggests the falls are into double digits in most of them, and the party will lose most of the new seats it gained in 2016, in addition to losing one or two of the 2011 gains.
Nor can the figures support the party making breakthroughs in its target constituencies – Dublin West, Wexford, Meath East and Galway West.
Based on these results, Sinn Féin will be lucky to hold on to 15 Dáil seats. On a bad day it could be hovering very close to single figures.
In Carlow-Kilkenny, for example, the party has gone from six council seats to just one, with its vote hovering at about 4.5 per cent. On these figures sitting TD Kathleen Funchion has no chance of getting re-elected.
Cork was a disaster zone for the party. Its vote share halved in the city from 24 per cent to 12 per cent, with four councillors returned (compared to eight in 2014). One has to assume Jonathan O’Brien will hold on (the news is even worse for Solidarity’s Mick Barry in that constituency) but Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire will struggle on those numbers.
In Cork county it is worse. The party had 10 councillors but only two remain. With 5 per cent of the vote (down 9 points) in the county, Cork East TD Pat Buckley is in big trouble.
Fingal was another constituency where Sinn Féin made gains in the past. Its TD Louise O’Reilly has a high profile, but the local election results won’t inspire confidence – a 5.5 per cent drop in vote to 9 per cent and a loss of two councillors, bringing its total to just four. However, the departure of Independent TD Clare Daly to the European Parliament will soften the blow.
In south Dublin the party had another precipitous fall. Its vote halved from 24 per cent to 12 per cent, although Tallaght South remained strong. It would be hard to see either Seán Crowe in Dublin South West or Eoin Ó Broin in Dublin Mid West losing their seats, but both may become slightly more marginal.
There are a few constituencies that bucked the trend. Ground was held in Waterford, Kerry, Cavan-Monaghan and Donegal
The halving of support was the same in Dublin City, where the party lost eight of its 16 seats. Support held up relatively well in Dublin South Central, where Aengus O Snodaigh is TD, and in Dublin Central, the constituency of party leader Mary Lou McDonald.
In Dublin Bay North, the party will struggle to hold the new seat won by Denise Mitchell in 2016. And in Dublin North West there could also be a threat to Dessie Ellis. The party did poorly here in the locals, while Noeleen O’Reilly – who left Sinn Féin after a very public row – comfortably won a seat.
Maurice Quinlavin, who won a seat in Limerick City in 2016, is another new TD who might not make a second term. A 7 per cent drop in support to 6 per cent saw it return just two councillors compared to six previously.
Sligo-Leitrim is another constituency where the party is on alert, but maybe yellow rather than orange. The fall-off is slighter, about 2 per cent, and might just make Martin Kenny borderline.
John Brady is another TD first elected in 2016. The party had a very poor local election in Wicklow, seeing its vote share drop almost nine points. It retained only two of its six seats – both in Bray.
The organisation here was beset by internal rows, with three councillors leaving its ranks over the past three years. But its breakthrough in the county, as of now, looks temporary.
Bucked the trend
There are a few constituencies that bucked the trend. Ground was held in Waterford, Kerry, Cavan-Monaghan and Donegal. In the latter there is a strong chance it will make its only gain, with Padraic Mac Lochlainn in with a fair chance of retaking his seat there. However, the departure of Toireasa Ferris as candidate in Kerry might not bode well. The only other biddable candidate is her father Martin, who was due to retire.
There were two seats in Laois and Offaly but with this becoming one constituency its chances of retaining both was never realistic. Besides, Carol Nolan has left the party so that has to be chalked down as a loss.
So does Meath West where its former TD and now leader of Aontú, Peadar Tóibín, has a better chance than any Sinn Féin candidate.
And that brings us to Louth, where the party won two Dáil seats in 2016. At 24 per cent in 2019, it has still the largest vote share. But that is a drop of 7 per cent in three years, and with Gerry Adams retiring TD Imelda Munster will have her work cut out bringing in a running mate.
Using these figures as a base, Sinn Féin could see its representation drop to between 12 to 15 seats. Unless it can turn the ship quickly, it is facing a very poor general election.
But of course it knows this. The test will be what the party does as it looks up from the scorched weeds of the local elections to change its pitch nationally, if it does that at all.
As usual Sinn Féin has initiated a review into its performance in both the local and European elections. Party sources said two teams of three review panels were established by the ard chomhairle, the party’s governing authority, to compile the submissions on both elections.
Submissions, according to a party spokesman, came from members, cumain and cuigí – regional structures based on the European Parliament constituencies – to the ard chomhairle.
“The ard chomhairle will consider these submissions at a meeting in the coming months,” the spokesman said, and TDs expect at least an interim report at the next ard comhairle meeting in early July.
The facts and figures of turnouts and boundary changes are straightforward to interpret and address, but any nebulous thoughts or critiques that arise – such as the tone and approach of the party on certain issues – will be more difficult to deal with.
One TD said a number of themes were evident in the submissions to the review, such as issues about how the organisation itself works, with some on political and policy positioning and many on how the party communicates its polices.
The party’s ideological issue will not be changed, insisted the TD. “There is no appetite to change our ideology. We are progressive left republicans.”
The immediate aftermath of the elections saw some in the party wonder if they were too negative, and even TDs who disagree with this point of view acknowledge it is held by others.
Some observers have detected a softening from Sinn Féin TDs in their messaging in the Dáil, but this is rejected.
“There is a mixed view. I have never, ever had someone tell me on the doors that I was too angry. Did we get a memo saying you have to be nice now? No, we haven’t. But we are having those discussions. Everyone is looking at everything.”
In the month or so since the election a view seems to have formed in the party that anger is not is problem; rather it is the balance between promoting Sinn Féin proposals and solutions and criticising the Government.
“I don’t think we are being too angry,” said a source. “We are an opposition party, we are meant to oppose.”
Earlier this month Gerry Adams wrote on his Leargas blog that the the onus is on the Irish Government to plan and prepare for a Border poll and for Irish unity
The job for Sinn Féin, according to this telling, is not just to point out where the Government has failed but to also “point towards our solutions”.
“Were there some people in the party who felt we were being a bit too negative? Yes, but I wouldn’t hold that view. We need to do a better job of selling our vision.”
It is associated yet different to accusations of being the angry part. It means building an argument to counteract the narrative that Sinn Féin is a destructive presence capable only of protest but not of solutions or working across party lines.
Yet its repeated use of Dáil motions of no confidence is defended. “If we didn’t do it who else would do it? You have to oppose bad politics,” said a senior figure.
Those in the party are also quick to dismiss the sometimes necessary Kremlinology needed to discern its strategic shifts.
Earlier this month Gerry Adams wrote on his Leargas blog that the the onus is on the Irish Government to plan and prepare for a Border poll and for Irish unity. His comments were interpreted by some in Government Buildings as Adams slow-pedalling on a 32-county Ireland; that he was sending a signal to Belfast that Mary Lou McDonald needed time, free of the demands for an immediate Border poll, to rebuild in the Republic.
This was supplemented by chatter about the older cohort of republican figures in Belfast, such as Bobby Storey, taking a less prominent role.
This interpretation of Adams’s comments is firmly rejected by those in Sinn Féin, and by Adams himself – who followed up with another blog contesting such suggestions.
“The raison d’etre for Sinn Féin’s existence is to bring about a united Ireland. No way are we ever going to compromise that for short-term political gain,” said a prominent TD.
After the bruising elections of May 24th, Sinn Féin has looked inwards and, at times, opened itself up in a manner never seen before. TDs chatted to outsiders about what may have gone wrong and what could be done about it.
The initial trauma of the local elections has passed, and the assessment of what to do next awaits completion. The early indications are that a gradual shift towards solution-based politics is under way, but party sources caution against expectations of a sudden change of course.
“We are the third biggest party,” said one TD. “If there was to be some big kind of change it would be very obvious.”