Two opinion polls in a row had Sinn Féin down three points. It is too soon to say if that is a deeper trend and too soon to encompass fallout from the past two weeks. But it mirrors the shift in recent months from issues that suit Sinn Féin best to other concerns. Ultimately the most difficult of those is immigration and asylum seekers especially. The party has been principled on the issue and never sought to play the race card. It was, however, the shoutiest party on the stage and replayed its paramilitary past as a radical credential. That attracted people who in a changed context are now veering far right and looking back on Sinn Féin in anger.
When the context changes, so does the contest. The arrival of law, order and immigration at the top of the political pile changes the dynamic. Housing, the cost of living and health are the bread and butter issues that gave Sinn Féin dramatic growth in opinion polls after a stunningly good general election result. It helped that Government formation facilitated it becoming the main Opposition party. The tide carried Sinn Féin far and the fundamentals on the issues favour it. That may have changed.
The shocking stabbing outside a school on Dublin’s Parnell Square and the rioting afterwards was a watershed event. If there is a recurrence the Government will have run out of road on what is now a core issue of public concern. If, however, concern remains heightened but the Government can show progress, even if only as containment, then a new matrix of public concern may not favour Sinn Féin.
The riot on November 23rd was a sudden bombastic event, but related issues have simmered over time. Incidents focused on asylum seekers countrywide are one strand. Another is policing in Dublin’s north inner city which has long been an area of disadvantage and social problems in the capital. In the context of a stunned population, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald stepped out on to Parnell Square the following day to declare no confidence in the Minister for Justice Helen McEntee and Garda Commissioner Drew Harris. The first was a miscalculation; the second was a mistake.
It is a legitimate political tactic for any Opposition party to seek to vote no confidence in a Minister. In this instance, McDonald rescued Helen McEntee from herself. The Dáil debate rallied the Government and Fine Gael specifically. It did Sinn Féin no favours and was a political miscalculation.
The mistake, however, was more serious. Declaring no confidence in the Garda Commissioner politicised the office and would have seen off a third successive incumbent before their term was complete. It would have left An Garda Síochána virtually ungovernable and signalled that replacing Drew Harris is a term and condition of Sinn Féin taking office.
The party rapidly backtracked in October when its housing spokesman demanded the sacking of the Department of Finance’s chief economist — Eoin Ó Broin himself later said he no longer stood over the comments.
In the two weeks since McDonald’s declaration the party has gone remarkably quiet on Harris, but it has not backtracked. There is the added irony for a united Ireland party that the commissioner is a PSNI veteran whose father was murdered by the IRA on his way to a Harvest Thanksgiving Service in 1989. Declaring no confidence in Harris was a fundamental mistake.
Riots in the north inner city, if infrequent, are nothing new. Seán O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars depicts the looting and mayhem during the 1916 Rising brilliantly. A “fashionably dressed, middle-aged, stout woman” came upon Fluther, the Covey and Peter and demanded, “For Gawd’s sake, will one of you kind men show any safe way for me to get to Wrathmines?”. “The mowment I hear a shot, my legs give way from under me — I cawn’t stir, I’m paralysed — isn’t it awful?” Indeed, it is awful and the moment the first pane of glass was broken on Parnell Street, middle Ireland did flee back to “Wrathmines”.
In the Dáil debate, Government TDs made much of the IRA’s murder of gardaí and Sinn Féin’s association with its one-time city councillor and convicted criminal in Dublin Central, Jonathan Dowdall. All fair game, I would say. Except it ignores the point that ever-larger numbers of people stated their intention to vote Sinn Féin in the full knowledge of these facts. What matters is context.
When the context is bread-and-butter issues, the past is another country. But if that context changes to law and order, as it did two weeks ago, solidarity is expected. If the Government and the gardaí fail again to ensure order, people will attack them, with no help from Sinn Féin.
The dilemma for Sinn Féin is how to continue a coalition between the “Wrathmines” contingent — those who benefit from globalisation and want the benefitsprotected, with batons if necessary — and those who haven’t. Those who have not benefited live on less leafy streets and disproportionately care about immigration and migration. It is an issue that fractures the party’s newfound voter base and distracts from the issues that serve it best.
If the Government sees Sinn Féin under pressure, it may well opt to take its electoral chances in the spring. When the context changes so does the contest. “It’s a derogatory way to be, right enough, ma’am,” as Fluther said.