The Irish Times view on Sinn Féin after the elections: a party at the crossroads

Mary Lou McDonald complained Sinn Féin was being blamed for Government failures. She should ask herself why voters now associate her party with the establishment

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald at the local elections count at the RDS. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

As Mary Lou McDonald and her Sinn Féin colleagues begin the process of reflection they have promised to undertake after a bruising series of elections, some difficult conversations await.

A few party representatives have attempted, rather risibly, to argue that the increase in support on its disastrous performance in the 2019 local and European elections represents some sort of success for the party. But the majority of senior figures have been frank about their deep disappointment at the outcome. Sinn Féin has fallen dramatically not just from its 2020 general election result; it has plummeted even further from the well over 30 per cent support it held in most opinion polls over the course of three years.

Polls are not elections, and the party had no doubt braced itself for some softening in support. But it can hardly have expected such a stunning fall from grace.

Sinn Féin will almost certainly perform better in the general election than it did this week. But it is hard to see it returning within a few short months to those dizzying opinion poll heights. It will have to lower its ambitions of seat gains in every constituency and will need to drastically improve its organisational ground game. Ironically, that is exactly what the party did, with spectacular success, in the nine months between the local and European elections of 2019 and the general election of 2020.


That trick looks harder to pull off a second time, especially when, as seems likely, the window is tighter. If the Government calls an election in October, it leaves only four months to prepare.

‘Their opponents painted them as a bunch of flip-floppers’: What next for Mary Lou McDonald and Sinn Féin?Opens in new window ]

What went wrong? For the past four years Sinn Féin has been carefully repositioning itself from a party of protest to a party of government. In doing so, it appears to have alienated some of its base, who believed – not unreasonably, given the party’s rhetoric – that it was offering truly radical change. That was visible in negative reaction to the centrist message the party presented to London financiers recently. It was also true of its support for Government initiatives such as hate speech legislation and the March referendums.

When McDonald complained this week that Sinn Féin was being blamed for Government failures, she should have asked herself why those voters now associate her party with the establishment. Sinn Féin’s vacillation on some of these issues in recent months has also damaged its credibility. That further limits the scope for any dramatic policy shifts in the months ahead, which would only reinforce that impression.

Some might ask whether a party that has had no leadership election – or even a challenge – in four decades might benefit from a little more democracy and transparency in its internal discussions. That, unfortunately, seems unlikely to be up for discussion any time soon.