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Una Mullally: There’s more to Sinn Féin’s sunny new outlook than meets the eye

The party’s message of hope is a recognition that it must branch out

This summer, I have been waiting for Sinn Féin to change its message. With no one in the Dáil to shout at, I thought the party would turn to the electorate.

“I’m all about the future,” Michelle O’Neill said in a recent Sinn Féin promotional video that had clips of her surrounded by smiling children, teenagers and babies.

“Our country is brimming with talent and potential ... It’s time for a change in direction and a fresh start,” Mary Lou McDonald said in a Sinn Féin Instagram Story. When a friend shared this with me, we joked about how it was almost like something Fine Gael would put out.

Government politicians get very annoyed by Sinn Féin’s in-Dáil messaging. This is an ego-based reaction, and works in Sinn Féin’s favour as it frequently results in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil politicians talking about Sinn Féin. It’s free advertising. But these spats also run out of road, hence a sunny-side-up change of course this summer. Despite its success hammering the Government over the housing crisis, it’s clear that Sinn Féin is now leaning towards a more expansive, hopeful and optimistic message that takes the edge off for those who like their political messaging in pastel.

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Harvey Milk understood the duality — hope and anger — Sinn Féin is now using to connect with people in Ireland and the diaspora

The pinned tweet on Sinn Féin’s official Twitter account is almost a month old. It’s a clip from a speech McDonald made in Australia. In this speech, McDonald demonstrated the emotional duality of Sinn Féin’s message that connects with people: anger and hope. She told the Irish immigrants in the room “we are very proud of you”, a simple statement delivered with impact. She then moved to “the other side” of the Irish immigrant success story, “a story of the frustration, the anger of many young Irish people who feel robbed of a life in Ireland”. She outlined the litany of issues people face in Ireland, and then, back to hope: “Come home and be part of the new Ireland that we must build. We need you.” It’s potent stuff. It also has over a quarter of a million plays on TikTok.

Harvey Milk understood the duality — hope and anger — Sinn Féin is now using to connect with people in Ireland and the diaspora. In the biopic about the gay American politician who was assassinated in 1978, this anger was distilled to an opening line at a rally, “I know you’re angry! I’m angry!” But students of political messaging will know Milk’s most famous speech is known as “the hope speech”, a sentiment also borrowed by the artist Shepard Fairey for his famous Barack Obama “Hope” poster, considering that sentiment was central to Obama’s 2008 campaign.

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Us and them

Milk spoke powerfully of “the Us-es”, appealing to collective solidarity and support. Sinn Féin understands “the us-es”, which is why it can connect with the electorate in an authentic manner, and also because it realises the real problem for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is that somewhere along the line in the evolution of Irish society this century, those parties, once part of “the us-es”, became “the other”. This is the insurmountable existential issue at the heart of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil’s joint crisis.

When Sinn Féin says the time for it to be in power is now, it is not just talking about its own ascent — it is acknowledging the social and cultural shifts that have occurred to create this moment. The political party that reflects and connects with the culture of the time will always be the one to rise to power. People discombobulated by that shift remain confused, and why wouldn’t they? Their moment has passed. When Sinn Féin says this Government is out of touch and out of time, it is not just alluding to a clock running down to the election, it is talking about this era, this context.

Many commentators are parking the never-gonna-happen groupthink around a Sinn Féin government and focusing instead on a decided fantasy of what that will look like

One of the things that steered a lot of journalists wrong before the 2020 general election was a familiarity bias. Because Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are the only two parties to have always been in government — either separately, in coalition with others, or now together — there appeared to be a mood in media to ignore the facts, and focus on the familiar, even if that familiar feeling was divorced from future realities.

As Sinn Féin’s popularity continues to grows post-2020, another familiarity bias is emerging. Upon realising that Sinn Féin’s popularity is not a blip, and that the surge is real, many commentators are parking the never-gonna-happen groupthink around a Sinn Féin government and focusing instead on a decided fantasy of what that will look like. The groupthink is that they may get in, but they won’t be very different from what has come before. I honestly don’t know why anyone would be certain of such a prediction. No one in Sinn Féin is saying it.

Because Sinn Féin primarily uses its own channels to disseminate its message, it’s rarely distorted or diluted. To borrow the title of my favourite film this year, they are doing everything, everywhere, all at once. The message has been softened for those who find it too hard, but remains strident for those who like the Government being hammered. Crucially, all of these messaging strands come across as authentic to many voters. With this summer softening, Sinn Féin is not undercutting its barnstorming rhetoric, it is actually expanding it.