Sinn Féin’s presidential campaign was a failure
Analysis: If aim was to broaden brand and spread United Ireland message it did not work
The result of the election campaign cannot be easily talked away by Sinn Féin. Six per cent support for Liadh Ní Riada was a failure, no matter which way you tried to gloss the figures. The final result was even lower than the 8 per cent The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI exit poll.
And in the absence of Peter Casey’s remarkable surge the weak Sinn Féin performance would be the story of this campaign.
Ní Riada finished fourth, behind Michael D Higgins, Casey and Seán Gallagher.
Undoubtedly the result is a blow for Sinn Féin and for Mary Lou McDonald’s leadership. If the aim was to broaden the party’s brand and its United Ireland message then it failed. The party got its strategy wrong at several crucial junctures.
Six per cent support amounted to less than half of Sinn Féin’s natural support levels, and represents a big drop from 2011 when Martin McGuinness (himself bruised in the presidential campaign) attracted 13 per cent of the vote.
So did Sinn Féin’s support collapse in this election, and could that drop be carried into the local and general elections?
Or, are other factors at play, peculiar to presidential elections, and this one in particular, that Sinn Féin was not adequately equipped to address?
“I think we have to be honest and say the result was not what we expected,” says the party’s Waterford TD David Cullinane.
“We hoped for a stronger vote for Liadh. The voter turnout did not help and Sinn Féin vote did not come out. It was the same for all candidates in working class areas.”
Analysing the poll, the events of the election, and speaking to several Sinn Féin representatives, a large number of reasons emerge, some within the control of the party, some outside its control.
They included her low profile and lack of name-recognition, the HPV vaccine controversy, her unimpressive efforts to explain her take-home MEP salary, her comments on wearing the poppy, and the decoupling of the Sinn Féin brand from the candidate.
There were also over-arching factors. For one, there was a popular incumbent who remained the overwhelming favourite from the beginning to the end of the campaign.
Secondly, in these types of individual and personality contests, invariably the field is whittled down to two as the campaign nears its end.
It happened with Higgins and Seán Gallagher in 2011. Now, once Peter Casey started gaining traction with his comments on travellers, the others started falling off quickly as he gained support.
It was interesting to see a majority of Sinn Féin supporters who were polled said they voted for either Higgins or Casey.
It was clear they saw it as a contest between those two, and, to that end, excluded their own candidate.
On top of that, a proportion of Sinn Féin voters did not care about this second-tier election and did not bother to vote.
Sinn Féin also made mistakes during the campaign. The first was that Ní Riada was last into the field, only being announced on September 16th, with barely a month to the election.
Rewind back to 1990 and look at the case of Mary Robinson. She had been a human rights champion but her national profile was low.
She began campaigning in March, seven months before polling day, traversing the country.
The party had high hopes for Ní Riada and praised her efforts. She has been an effective MEP and ticked all the boxes as a forward-facing, Sinn Féin candidate. She had no baggage from the ‘Troubles; had a dynamic personality, was a native Irish speaker and from a family that is the closest to Irish music aristocracy.
She also represented the modern liberal and feminist direction of the party under Mary Lou McDonald.
But against that she was unknown. Everybody knew McGuinness in 2011. Outside her own constituency Ní Riada was hardly a household name.
When The Irish Times joined her on a canvass in Dublin, you could see that even those who wished to vote for her could not get their tongues around her name. A month was hardly enough.
It was strange then to see the party’s strategy of going off radar for two weeks, bringing her on a tour of the country, visiting places where she was strongest and the Gaeltachtaí.
She visited all 26 counties and did a huge round of local radio. But she was not as present in the national media as others, and wasn’t getting the same purchase or recognition.
Anin the last two weeks, she performed strongly in the debates, but there was a sense it all came too late for her.
By then Peter Casey had grabbed the momentum as the main challenger.
Sinn Féin Galway West candidate Mairéad Farrell says the strategy to tour the country had merit: “Obviously all these arguments will be thrashed out in the first few days.
“We had her in Galway West and in the Gaeltacht and she was excellent and very good with the issues.
“I personally thought it was very important she went into Gaeltacht areas,” she said.
The strategy was clearly to get out on the road and do a lot of local media. But it did not get her name out sufficiently.
There was also a core message, paving the way for a conversation about a united Ireland. As others have found out, the best-laid plans can come to nothing in an election campaign. That message was lost in the messy debates involving six candidates.
She also ran into headwinds throughout the campaign for comments she made on the HPV vaccine, her refusal to describe any IRA act as “terrorism”, and her claim her take-home pay was the national industrial wage (it was considerably higher).
But what caused most disquiet within Sinn Féin was her saying she would be willing to wear the poppy as President.
Some Sinn Féin representatives publicly challenged her view. But those we spoke to did not think it had any real impact.
Seán Crow, a Sinn Féin TD representing Dublin South West, said: “She
said what she believed. Did it go down badly with some of the members? It did, but we can’t use that as an excuse. She did what she felt was right. I would have a different view but I am prepared to stretch it in the interest of progress.”
Cullinane said the poppy issue had no real bearing. “It might have had on the margins. It had no real impact on the campaign.
“(That said) I would have answered the question differently if asked. I don’t believe Presidents are allowed to wear any symbols other than a Pioneer Pin, so it’s not an issue,” he says.“I can’t take that away from her. She is entitled to her view.”
Sinn Féin brand
Another factor cited was the decoupling of her from the Sinn Féin brand. Farrell believes this was a non sequitur.
“I don’t think that was as as strong as people are making it out to be. To me it was very clear and evident she was a Sinn Féin candidate and said it at every opportunity.”
It was also noticeable that party leaders McDonald and Michelle O’Neill were not as visible around Ní Riada as they would be in other campaigns. Several Sinn Féin people said it was not a case of the leadership leaving her to her own devices, or distancing itself.
“That is missing the point,” said Farrell, “it is a different kind of campaign. Besides, she was travelling around the country in a bus with Mary Lou and Michelle (portraits) on it.
“She she was with all the local representative in the area. She was hand-in-hand working with Sinn Féin throughout the country.”
Others in the party say McDonald was working hard behind the scenes to bring out the vote. There was a case for her to be more visible - after all, the poor performance relects negatively on her leadership.
But Ní Riada and McDonald also had to fight apathy among Sinn Féin members. In Tallaght, Crowe found it hard to drum up enthusiasm among volunteers. “It was very hard to get people knocking on the doors. We did not have huge numbers. We were depending on the debates but they did not really took off for us.
“Michael D was always going to be a candidate who would be difficult to unseat. And then Casey came out with the lowest denominator stuff and that give him a platform. It was hard for us to get our voice heard.”
Farrell points out to Sinn Féin’s big emphasis on issues such as housing and jobs. In an election, where such issues don’t feature (and featuring areas of political discourse that was new to it) it found it harder going to make headway.
Cullinane makes a similar observation: “The party vote does not always translate into a vote in other elections, as we saw in the exit poll.
“We have to be honest as a party. We have to look at all the factors, name recognition, our messages, the type of campaign we ran, what you do in the early stages.
“The bigger issue was Sinn Féin did not come out in the numbers that we had hoped. The turnout was low which meant our core support did not turn out and Michael D was strong. The entire campaign was flat. He was the runaway favourite.
“There was a range of different issues where party made wrong decisions. We have to be open to accept all of that.”
This was a second-tier election and the motivation of voters is very different from local and general elections.
If one looks back at the 2011 election, Fine Gael’s Gay Mitchell ended up with a paltry 6.5 per cent of the vote, at a time when his party was polling in the high 30s.