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Noel Whelan: Scale of SF’s election collapse not fully appreciated

Loss of 78 council seats dramatically depletes the party’s officer corps on the ground

One of the difficulties with the news prominence given to exit polls is that, over the course of an election count weekend, the most important and enduring outcomes of an election can get lost. When exit polls get it wrong, misimpressions are left, perhaps forever, in the minds of many voters about what actually happened in the election.

Even now three weeks later, the true extent of the party shifts reflected in the local elections are still under-reported.

In particular, the collapse in Sinn Féin’s vote and seat share has not attracted the emphasis it deserves.

It is a very long time since a party losing almost half of its local election seats passed with such limited comment. Even the implosion of Labour in local government in the last local election in 2014 was portrayed as much more dramatic.


The story for the party is almost universally negative

Labour losses in 2014 led immediately to a leadership change when Joan Burton replaced Eamon Gilmore in a futile attempt to redeem Labour’s fortunes in the following election.

One curious line from Sinn Féin strategists over the count weekend was that they didn’t see it coming. Voters, they said, were quiet rather than antagonistic at the doors.

Wily canvassers know the time to most fear the electorate is when they are merely being civil. The fact that Sinn Féin’s leading operatives didn’t foresee this dramatic collapse in their vote suggests that the renowned Sinn Féin ground army has lost its knack for political intelligence-gathering, whatever about voter persuasion or mobilisation.

In all Sinn Féin lost 78 council seats. This dramatically depletes the party’s officer corps on the ground. Councillors are the linchpin of any party’s local organisation.

Even a fleeting perusal of the electoral map illustrates the extent to which the losses in the local elections strips out a chunk of Sinn Féin’s party organisation, renders some of their existing Dáil seats vulnerable and undermines the party’s capacity for growth.

There were two good spots for the party. Sinn Féin held all its seats in Waterford which is good news for TD David Cullinane. In addition, it gained one seat in Donegal, where Senator Pádraig MacLochlainn is hoping to correct a vote management error and regain his Dáil seat some day soon.

After that, however, the story for the party is almost universally negative. Sinn Féin fell from three seats to one seat in Carlow and lost all three seats it held in Kilkenny council, which will make TD Kathleen Funchion and her team nervous about her Dáil seat.

Last seat

Sinn Féin lost eight of their 10 seats on Cork County Council and they lost another four of their seats on Cork City Council. This will be worrying for able new deputies like Jonathan O'Brien, Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire and Pat Buckley seeking re-election to Dáil Éireann for the first time whenever the general election comes.

On Dublin City Council the party fell from 16 seats to eight. They lost all of their three seats on Dún Laoghaire- Rathdown County Council and they lost two seats in Fingal.

They were also reduced from nine seats to six in South Dublin County Council, including in crucial electoral areas in and around Tallaght, home of TD Sean Crowe, who, it should be remembered, previously lost his Dáil seat.

The party also lost three of their seven seats on Louth County Council where Gerry Adams looks set to retire when the next general election is called

Going into the 2016 general election, Wexford was one place where Sinn Féin might have been expected to make a Dáil breakthrough. Their candidate John Mythen came within 52 votes of beating Fine Gael's Paul Kehoe for the last seat.

At that time in 2016, Sinn Féin had five members of Wexford County Council and had polled a combined 12 per cent of the first preference votes in the 2014 local election. There is a by-election due in Wexford to replace Mick Wallace in the autumn. However Sinn Féin after last month's election have only two member of Wexford County Council and the party's vote share in the county is down to just eight per cent.

Rows within the Sinn Féin organisation in Wicklow contributed to the party losing four of the six seats they had on that county council. The breakaway of former TD and Aontú party founder Peadar Tóibín and other former Sinn Féin colleagues contributed to Sinn Féin losing five seats on Meath County Council.

The party also lost three of their seven seats on Louth County Council where Gerry Adams looks set to retire when the next general election is called. Interestingly, Labour gained a seat here which gives key momentum for Gerald Nash to regain a Dáil seat when the election eventually materialises.

In the last four weeks the Sinn Féin collapse in the local elections has merely led to talk of a “detailed review”. This promised detailed review follows on from the detailed review they recently completed into the disastrous sixth-place performance in the last year’s presidential elections.

It will make for interesting reading whenever it eventually appears.