As summer turns to autumn, and politicians dust themselves off in preparation for returning to the Dáil and the Seanad, political messaging in advance of the general election is being honed. For younger voters – those who moved the hands on the Irish political dial to the point where it now reads Sinn Féin O’Clock – the only memorable moment that emerged from the Fianna Fáil think-in was Tánaiste Micheál Martin saying Sinn Féin was “infecting a new generation of young people”.
This hyperbolic charge was quickly countered by Sinn Féin housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin. One of Ó Broin’s remarks was telling: “I don’t think he has anything positive to offer young people.”
The three words that Sinn Féin repeats over and over again are vision, ambition, potential. These are the qualities they foreground. The word people associate with them – change – is the action. This was the tone that Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald adopted as she re-entered the public arena last week before Sinn Féin’s think-in. It was a significant moment because it demonstrated that the party is focusing more on positive campaigning. This tactic renders their opponents’ negativity useless.
“There is so much promise, so much greatness and potential in our people and in our country, and I believe with all my heart that our best days are in advance of us,” said McDonald in a comeback video, with more than half a million views on X/Twitter, and in excess of 150,000 views on TikTok.
Last week, Fianna Fáil also posted a TikTok video aimed at younger people, Mary Butler announcing a youth mental health office in the HSE. At the time of writing, it had barely scraped over 300 views.
In McDonald’s video, she didn’t change the record, she turned it over. Side B features a similar tune to Side A, and the lyrics are all about housing. But there is an additional message. Sinn Féin is clearly observing the new wave of emigration instigated by the cost of rent. Because resentment about the housing crisis is so acute among the Irish diaspora, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that at least some recent emigres will return to the Republic to vote Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil out, mimicking past home-to-vote movements.
It has been, and will be, electorally disastrous for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to focus on negative campaigning and anti-Sinn Féin messaging. But that is likely what they’ll do. In the Dáil, Sinn Féin attacks Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil robustly. But this negative messaging is mostly contained within the walls of Leinster House, providing Sinn Féin with ample social media nuggets that demonstrate their Opposition spirit. When it comes to communicating with the electorate – something they don’t need mainstream media to do, considering how engaged their audience is online – the tone is undeniably more optimistic.
And there’s something else going on. The more the Coalition demonises Sinn Féin, framing them as a spectre to fear, the more personable the party’s politicians present. McDonald didn’t have to go on breakfast television last week to talk about her hysterectomy. I’m sure some might even call it cynical. But how she spoke was authentic. “I don’t think you can have that procedure and not reflect on your sense of yourself as a woman, as a mother, also the fact of getting a bit older ... You’re kind of confronted with the fact that, you know, you’re not superhuman.”
This is not McDonald the politician; it’s McDonald the person. The reason I think it was authentic is because it rings true to many who had that procedure. I had a hysterectomy and my ovaries removed when I was 32 and felt the same way. The weird, gendered existentialism that hits you is profound. For me, the main issue of recovery wasn’t just about pain management or healing time, it was the emotional impact, the jolting psychological handbrake turn that makes you confront your womanhood and mortality.
In leadership, vulnerability is an underrated quality. McDonald’s openness will appeal to women of all ages, but particularly those navigating reproductive health issues and menopause. This matters particularly in a political system where the Government doesn’t appear to understand how bad the optics are of three male Coalition party leaders versus three female Opposition party leaders.
This messaging is also about how the context has changed. The two political campaigns that felt utterly different in recent years weren’t elections. They were the 2015 and 2018 referendums, both characterised on the winning side by positive campaigning.
In messaging terms, Sinn Féin didn’t create the context, but it has learned from it. The recession-era political vacuum allowed Sinn Féin space to begin to grow. The housing crisis gave the party a policy platform. The generational shift in younger people engaging with Irish identity in new ways gave them cultural relevance.
McDonald has not conjured a situation in which the country’s first female taoiseach now seems like a real possibility, or one in which she can go on breakfast television and speak intimately about reproductive health. An evolving society created that context. Sinn Féin is rolling with that change, capitalising on it and benefiting from it.
A while ago, I saw someone say on social media that a lot of politics is really just about “vibes”. How true that is.
The broader vibe shift hasn’t been led by a political party but by a changing society. That is also to say, that Sinn Féin is not changing Ireland. But Ireland is changing Sinn Féin.