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Sinn Féin is starting to look like the political establishment

Sinn Féin tried to fight a general election campaign in a local and European election, and it didn’t work

Every election cycle offers a number of takeaways. This one has two broad signals. Firstly, there’s the Sinn Féin stumble. Secondly, there’s the impact of the bar being lowered by both the presence and messaging of candidates who foregrounded division and scapegoated immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, as they called for the kind of fantasy border controls that would thrill Brexiteers.

Other issues mattered much more to many people when they cast their votes. But the fact that assaults and harassment of canvassers and politicians, and explicitly anti-immigration messaging, were part of this campaign is warning enough. Appeasement and normalisation are dangerous; this alarm has been ringing for some time. But we all know what happens when an alarm sounds in Ireland. People barely look up from their meal.

Sinn Féin has underperformed, and heads will be spinning. It’s Government that holds responsibility for the housing crisis; Government that made a mess of resources and accommodation for people seeking international protection. And yet, Government parties didn’t get utterly hammered at the ballot box.

Perhaps Sinn Féin observed a weird anti-establishment movement growing, and sought to divert it to the centre of political power

It is important not to overplay how much the far too broad theme of “immigration” swayed voters. However, Sinn Féin’s approach to this theme speaks to a vagueness around its stance on issues more generally. This is the note under the vote for Sinn Féin. If you want voters to get behind you in all sorts of elections, broadness can allow people to project their interpretation of your brand, but a party cannot survive on vibes alone. And what exactly is their vibe in 2024?


“Anti-migrant sentiment” is about fear and negativity towards “the other” and blaming housing and social infrastructure scarcity on a spectre rather than a system. As this was fanned, Sinn Féin largely kept its counsel, but the party’s lack of clarity did not widen its reach. It is one of the reasons for the contraction it is experiencing.

For example, as anti-immigrant protests mushroomed, Sinn Féin’s messaging was about where to protest, not why to protest. Sinn Féin politicians said people shouldn’t be gathering outside refugee and asylum seeker accommodation, but to bring their grievances directly to Government. Ultimately, these angry, unhinged groups, did go to Kildare Street. One day, they brought a mock-gallows with them.

Perhaps Sinn Féin observed a weird anti-establishment movement growing, and sought to divert it to the centre of political power. But what the party didn’t cop is that it is sometimes viewed as part of the political establishment by people of all political ideologies. Everyone says Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have been in power for too long. But for the Sinn Féin-curious, Opposition-fatigue may also be setting in.

Sinn Féin has a choice to react or respond. Capitulating to anti-immigrant populism, for example, is a tactic, not a strategy. In any case, the hard-core anti-immigrant movement is not a potential Sinn Féin vote. Anti-immigrant protesters are often politically incoherent, but typically resolutely anti-Sinn Féin. Ironically, fear of extremism drove a retreat to familiar, traditional markers, which is partly why Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Greens didn’t collapse in these elections, and also why some leftwing candidates explicitly opposing bigotry were bolstered.

Sinn Féin runs the risk of eroding its 2020 voter base by not stating its values and positions with clarity. The party’s representatives are presenting themselves as “the alternative” to a century of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael rule, a desire so oft-repeated it’s beginning to sound like ChatGPT. But a united Ireland – Sinn Féin’s primary policy – isn’t just about territory. It has to be about a society that cares and includes, not one that scapegoats and divides.

For a decade, Irish electoral politics has been characterised by volatility and flux

As Sinn Féin “regroups” it has obvious failures to address. Too many candidates were run, splitting their own vote. The party’s canvassing infrastructure felt curiously threadbare. Local elections are about proximity, European elections are about distance, general elections form the outline and suggest which national direction can be taken by which party brand. In the days running up to the vote, Sinn Féin’s social media ads foregrounded Mary Lou McDonald and generic messaging about change. Why fight a general election campaign in a local and European election?

The sound from Government parties will be a “phew”. Meanwhile, Sinn Féin needs to decide whether it wants to capitulate to the temptation of division – short-term populism that’s not a pathway, but a cul-de-sac – or whether it actually wants to lead the change it keeps promising. That change must be a positive one that connects and inspires people.

For a decade, Irish electoral politics has been characterised by volatility and flux. A large part of the electorate is less a floating vote and more a murmuration, morphing and taking various shapes with the sort of speed parties struggle to predict and capture. Local and European elections are not necessarily general election Rorschach tests. But this murmuration is in flight, not just because there remains a political vacuum, but also a leadership one, especially in terms of values.

When people don’t know what you stand for, they can struggle to commit.