Sinn Féin’s rise hid party divisions, but its descent may bring them to the fore
Communication is emerging as a main issue for the party as a whole, not just its leaders
Mary Lou McDonald: her leadership is not yet being questioned. But a poor general election could change that.
Those present at the weekly Sinn Féin team meeting in Leinster House on Tuesday traded their initial accounts of what went wrong.
But this was not the forum for a full postmortem of the local and European elections. There will be a review, as there is after every election, but it will be structured and thorough.
It will also be a brutal assessment of how the party got to this point: down from 159 council seats to 81, a loss of probably two MEPs and a drop from 15 per cent to 10 per cent of the local elections vote in five years.
In 2014, Sinn Féin rode a tide of anger over the economic crisis, but some in the party were uncomfortable with a surge that was not typical of its incremental growth and were fearful it was built on sand.
In 2019 low turnout in working class areas – attributed to the lack of a central campaign issue – and boundary changes contributed to the Sinn Féin collapse.
Larger council wards, where Sinn Féin won the seventh and eight seats five years ago, were reduced in size. What propelled the surge worsened the fall.
Yet the conversations taking place across the party, with many still in shock at the size of the losses, are more fundamental in nature.
“If we had realised a problem on the doors we would have taken remedial action,” said a TD. “We are not just dealing with the election result, we are dealing with the fact that we weren’t prepared for it.”
The presidential election, when Liadh ni Ríada polled 6 per cent, led to some self-examination. Local elections, and the lessons from them, are much more important.
“If the country has changed, if the mood has improved, should we not have calibrated sooner to it?” asked one figure. “People are saying we were too angry. Were we solution-based enough?”
There are members who want to be more liberal on social issues and those who think Sinn Féin is preoccupied with same-sex marriage and abortion; people who think it is too keen to share power with Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin, and people who think Sinn Féin isn’t seen as party of government; those who think it should tack further to the left and those who think it should go towards the centre.
Sinn Féin’s rise hid such divisions, but its descent may bring them to the fore.
“It’s a bit like when the tide goes out and you see all the shells, and all the problems, and that is where we are now,” said a source.
Decisions to repeatedly table Dáil motions of no confidence, the treatment of councillors – although the party denies it has a culture of bullying – and Mary Lou McDonald’s missteps, such as posing behind an “England - Get out of Ireland” banner, are all now on the slab.
Messaging is emerging as one of the main issues, and not just the Dáil tone of McDonald or Pearse Doherty, but the way all Sinn Féin TDs communicate. One well placed source said the strength of argument from a Sinn Féin TD on television or radio “might win the point but lose the voter”.
Manner of delivery
The content of the message is unlikely to change, even if the manner of delivery is softened.
“Our position on carbon tax is correct,” said another source, claiming it would mean higher heating bills. “There are still 4,000 kids in emergency accommodation.”
One TD said the Dáil approach was based on principle. “We don’t just go in and say ‘you are all a shower of bastards.’ It is because we would do it differently.”
Sinn Féin is constructive when it needs to be, supporting some Government initiatives and operating on a cross-party basis, the Deputy argued. This needs to be communicated to the public.
The “hypocrisy” of others in calling for Sinn Féin to enter government in Northern Ireland with the DUP while refusing to do business with McDonald in Dublin, also needs to be challenged more than it is now.
Other, internal matters are also exercising some, such as how the press office, TDs’ offices and McDonald’s office operate.
McDonald has had two poor election outings, and is not being pardoned for mistakes as Gerry Adams was.
“Even when he did really cock up, people would say: ‘yeah, but that’s Gerry Adams.’ Gerry was iconic,” said a party veteran. “That day is gone.”
McDonald’s leadership, while being tested, is not yet being questioned. But a poor general election could change that.
“We are the same as any other political party,” said a source. “If we had another meltdown then questions would be asked.”