In US politics they call it “the Big Mo” – momentum. The intangible but priceless political quality that if generated at the right point in a campaign can deliver the presidency to a candidate and power to his or her party. Get the Big Mo at the right time and you’re unstoppable. And in the wake of the party’s poll-topping performance in last week’s Stormont elections, Sinn Féin can feel it beginning to rev up.
"What's the value of the win?" asks one Sinn Féin figure, before answering their own question. "It's a Sinn Féin win. It's a Sinn Féin win with Mary Lou and Michelle at the centre of it. That's a whole set of images and ideas about Sinn Féin . . . and we can say, 'this is what we're about in the South'."
The South. It's a long time since the locus of Sinn Féin's political ambitions moved from Belfast to Dublin, the place where most political power on the island resides. First publicly signalled when Gerry Adams moved South to take a Dáil seat in Louth in 2011, the process was continued when Southerner Mary Lou McDonald was first carefully chosen and prepared for power by the Adams generation leadership and then elected by the party grassroots.
Analysis of Sinn Féin's social media ads show that mention of a border poll was almost entirely absent from its campaign messages; by contrast the DUP ads warned constantly about it
The Sinn Féin political project, featuring the twin imperatives of social and economic reform on one hand and the end of partition and a united Ireland on the other, if it is to be achieved by democratic political means – and it's over a quarter of a century since the republican leadership decided that – it requires the party to be in power in Dublin and in power in Belfast.
With the achievement of pre-eminence in the North at the elections last weekend, and the prospect of being the largest party in the Dáil and leading a government in the South, Sinn Féin can see its goals within reach. Success in the North feeds success in the South, it feels.
Reflecting on the victory, it’s clear what’s in the mind of many in the party. “There’s the momentum it gives us,” says a party source. “That’s a big thing.”
So what were the features of the Sinn Féin campaign? And what lessons learned in the North can be applied to the South?
Conversations with people involved in it, with observers and with people who were on the receiving end reveal that the Sinn Féin campaign was based on four main pillars – strong organisation, energetic local campaigning, targeted messaging and ruthless vote management. To these can be added a fifth overarching feature of the overall Sinn Féin campaign - it managed the interplay of all these elements with a high degree of strategic nous.
The party's strong organisation and army of volunteers have long been a characteristic of its organisation in Northern Ireland; in the Republic its strength has tended to be more concentrated without the same countrywide spread. But that is changing, especially among young people.
The strong vote management was evident right across the result. “We vote manage like nobody does,” says one campaigner. “We don’t care if we don’t top the poll, and nobody is more important than the team.”
One much remarked upon aspect of the campaign was the party’s soft-pedalling on a united Ireland in order to stress the “bread and butter” issues it believed voters cared more about. Analysis of Sinn Féin’s social media ads show that mention of a border poll was almost entirely absent from its campaign messages; by contrast the DUP ads warned constantly about it.
Instead Sinn Féin campaigned for “real change”, improved public services, especially healthcare, and – in a highly targeted way to soft nationalist and SDLP voters – for a nationalist First Minister. This was targeted, say party sources, not just using social media tools that enable parties to select people who see their ads, but “street by street”.
“They ran that in an extraordinarily clever, almost masterful way,” says one SDLP candidate who came up against it first-hand. “In the last week we suddenly saw posters, leaflets and facebook ads – ‘Michelle O’Neill, a first minister for all’. And they have more money than anyone else, so they can do a lot of it.”
It is always a trap of electoral postmortems to assume that everything the victors did worked well and nothing the losers attempted was successful. That is rarely true. And let’s not get carried away: Sinn Féin added 1 per cent to its vote share and won no additional seats. But what is true is that if Sinn Féin executes these aspects of electioneering well in the next general election in the Republic it is likely to be successful.
There remain obstacles in its way, of course. For a start the next general election could be nearly three years away; governments in Dublin tend not to fall over mid-term, and many of them go the full five years. There is simply no knowing how dramatically the political context will have reordered itself during that time, or whether the environment will be as propitious for Sinn Féin as it is now.
Even a very successful election for Sinn Féin is very unlikely to return an overall majority and much more likely to return something a long way from that –so the party needs to find a route to a stable and reliable Dáil majority.
Others will also be seeking to do that – simply being the largest party in the Dáil doesn’t, of course, mean that you get to be in government. And the South is a very different polity and society from Northern Ireland – with different ground rules, a different media, and different political opponents.
But for all that inevitable uncertainty there’s no doubt that Sinn Féin has once again proved itself a formidable campaigning machine. The goal of two Sinn Féiners leading two governments on the island seems closer than ever. Its rivals, North and South, are worried – and they’re right to be.