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

One big task for the party ahead of a general election will be to present a more concrete vision of the change it keeps talking about

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald in the RDS during the elections. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

It was a scene that played out in count centres around the country. A grim-faced tallyman at a ballot box. A tap on the shoulder and a whisper in the ear saying “Go home”, prompting devastated candidates to turn off their phones and go straight to bed.

No party will be as bitterly disappointed at the results of the local elections as Sinn Féin. There were, however, two bright spots for the party this week, with the re-election of Lynn Boylan as an MEP for Dublin and the election of Carlow-Kilkenny TD Kathleen Funchion as an MEP for Ireland South (although sitting MEP Chris MacManus lost his seat in the Midlands-North-West constituency). Their European election success provided a much-needed boost in the immediate aftermath of the local elections. But more than 230 unsuccessful local election party candidates are this weekend picking up the pieces after a morale-shattering number of days.

They, and the party leadership, will now conduct a speedy but frank review to determine how Sinn Féin ended up with a national first preference vote of only 11.8 per cent in the local elections. Once the problems are identified – and this will by no means be any easy process – the question becomes: what next for Sinn Féin? And what next for Mary Lou McDonald?

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald has said she is 'disappointed' with Sinn Fein's performance in the local elections. Video: Enda O'Dowd

Her leadership has, for possibly the first time, become a talking point among grassroots members around the country to such an extent that word is reaching the ears of journalists. While TDs this week circled the wagons after media reported the existence of such discussions, it is undoubtedly an active issue McDonald must now face down.


Growing unease in Sinn Féin over Mary Lou McDonald’s leadership after poor election resultsOpens in new window ]

John Rooney was the Sinn Féin local election candidate in Ballymahon, Co Longford. This week he told the Longford Leader that McDonald’s stewardship of the party came up as an issue when he was out canvassing. “On the doors, I met people who were not happy with our leader [McDonald]. Some people were happy with her. There were mixed reactions to her. Some people indicated that a change of leadership was required.”

Speaking to The Irish Times, he says some voters voiced a preference for a party figure such as Donegal TD and party finance spokesman Pearse Doherty to take the reins. Rooney has given McDonald his backing but says that some voters “felt maybe Mary Lou McDonald’s leadership had run its course”. He says “it’s up to the party” to decide how to process this feedback. Unless she chooses to stand down herself, or a party TD fails to back her publicly, it’s overwhelmingly likely that McDonald will lead Sinn Féin into the next general election.

Her first job will be to rally the troops. One party organiser says privately that unsuccessful candidates are not only crushed, but furious too. Many feel they did not get enough support from party headquarters or perhaps were not given enough resources in the lead-up to polling day. Others feel it became clear weeks ago that the support was not there for so many candidates and that the tickets should have been slimmed down. This, too, will be another big call ahead of the general election – figuring out how many candidates to run, and making sure the resources are available on time.

It’s very difficult to be leading a race for a long time. People, on some level, they wanted change, they voted for change, they didn’t get change. Time has gone on

—  Louth TD Ruairí Ó Murchú

Rooney, who lost out on a seat, faced an uphill battle in that there were a large number of incumbents putting themselves forward across Longford. He says he only “got the go-ahead from the party to run in February”, although he was initially sounded out last October. He received his canvassing materials only in mid-April, and so could only really scale up his campaign from that point onwards, he says.

“I knew I was at a disadvantage from the start, but I welcome a challenge. I didn’t start canvassing until mid-April, which was well behind the others.”

Rooney says the issues that came up on the doors were the cost of living, immigration and local issues, with his own town of Edgeworthstown having a lack of rental properties and witnessing a major decline in local amenities.

The party has faced wider criticism around its canvassing infrastructure, with many voters in different local electoral areas saying they were never visited by a Sinn Féin candidate. The picture varies wildly around the country: in some constituencies, every door was knocked three times over; in others, teams were stretched resource-wise as there were more candidates. An Ireland Thinks exit poll of 2,882 voters across the country also indicated that voters met more candidates from Fianna Fáil (35 per cent) and Fine Gael (34 per cent) than from Sinn Féin (18 per cent).

Aidan Regan, an associate professor at the School of Politics and International Relations in UCD, says this is “clearly something the party will need to work on” as it considers its next steps.

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“I think people expected them to be a lot better at grassroots level and to be aware that they don’t have that incumbency advantage that other parties do, meaning that they have to make even more of an effort than the likes of Fianna Fáil. Their postering was also weak, and they weren’t hitting the doors as much as other parties. It does beg the question of why,” he says.

This could potentially tie into the issue of turnout, which also may have affected the party’s performance and will need to be examined. The national turnout was estimated to be about 49 per cent – the lowest in the history of the State for a local election.

UCC political scientist Theresa Reidy says turnout is a “big issue” for a party such as Sinn Féin. “Sinn Féin needs to diagnose what went wrong. It needs to be a really in-depth review because it’s very unlikely that there is one single root cause. Turnout is a big issue for them in local elections.

“They also need to look at their candidate selection. They don’t have a large amount of incumbents, and that matters so much more than the brand. But they shouldn’t be fighting the last war. The next set of elections will be quite different. The issues will be on a much more comfortable terrain for Sinn Féin: housing, the health system, the cost of living. Migration will be there, sure, but it will be part of a broader suite of issues.”

Mary Lou McDonald at the RDS for the local election count. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Professor of politics in DCU Gary Murphy says the party also needs to address suggestions made by McDonald that she wished to see average house prices in Dublin fall to about €300,000, from a current level of about €420,000 – something political rivals have made hay out of in recent months, as they repeatedly asked how exactly she planned to achieve this.

“In Dublin, the €300,000 average price of a house business has got them in all sorts of bother and I don’t think they were able to counter that,” says Murphy. “I think that must have affected them in Dublin. The message was a bit unclear as to what they stood for and their opponents painted them as a bunch of flip-floppers.”

Besides the U-turns accusations, another issue for the membership seems to be a lack of clarity or credibility on key policies such as immigration, which became a divisive topic during the campaign.

In the weeks and months leading up to the election, the topic of immigration began to catch the attention of more and more voters as tents were erected – and cleared – from different locations in Dublin around the Grand Canal. The Government parties (particularly Fine Gael) sought to address growing concerns about the issue by tightening up immigration rules around applications and processing times. At the same time, Sinn Féin came under attack from a section of its traditional voting base that began to drift towards far-right candidates, who argued the party was not going far enough on the matter. Sinn Féin candidates reported being called “sell-outs” and “traitors” on a small number of doorsteps.

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Murphy says “there will have to be some clarity on immigration which sets out what exactly the party’s stance is, although housing is likely to be the bigger issue in the general election. Perhaps they could appoint a spokesperson for migration, someone who could set forward a key message.” On housing, he says the party needs to be careful not to “promise the sun, moon and the stars” to voters.

It’s a criticism that has been made by others: this week Waterford councillor John Hearne did not hold back, saying “we were trying to be all things to all people.” He also had strong words, too, around the centralised structure of the party.

The central locus of power is on the national officer board, and it’s clear that many politicians in Sinn Féin feel disconnected from what happens in those meetings and the edicts that emerge from them. As Hearne put it, “armchair generals don’t win elections; soldiers do, not some guy in a back room. We need to get out of these back rooms, with officers’ boards meeting behind closed doors.”

Aidan Regan says this is another issue McDonald will need to consider. “They are a top-down party, a centralised party, but maybe it’s not going to be enough to keep it this way. It could put them out of touch with their ordinary members. Maybe they need to get back to basics.”

Mary Lou McDonald and Sinn Féin European Parliament candidate Kathleen Funchion, who was later elected. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

For Sinn Féin, their basic pitch to the electorate was one of change. During the campaign, Louth TD Ruairí Ó Murchú highlighted the difficulty in sustaining a message of change for such a long time. “It’s very difficult to be leading a race for a long time. People, on some level, they wanted change, they voted for change, they didn’t get change. Time has gone on. We need to reinforce the idea that it can be done, that change,” he says.

McDonald will now have to consider whether this is still the right message for the party as a general election approaches. For his part, Gary Murphy says it would not make sense to ditch it at this point.

“I don’t think it’s going over people’s heads that either Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, or both, have been in every Government over the last number of decades. There may be plenty of people happy to keep the status quo with them in charge, but to change the ‘change’ message would make no sense. I would double down on it, and make it a message of: if you want to vote Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, you’re going to get more of the same on health, on housing, and issues like that.”

He says one big task for Sinn Féin, in convincing voters to plump for change, will be outlining exactly what that will look like. “They could lay it out clearly and present a new plan. They could say here’s what we will do in the first 100 days. It would give people a clear outline of what they are voting for.”

The launch of the Sinn Féin Local European and Limerick mayoral elections at Dublin City University in May. Photograph: Tom Honan

This could particularly help the party to stem what appears to be a loss of support among younger voters. The last Irish Times/Ipsos B&A opinion poll showed that support for Sinn Féin had fallen most sharply among younger, urban, working-class voters. “There’s a disconnect around climate change. They are not the most climate-friendly party, although the Green Party didn’t exactly do well either in these elections,” says Reidy. Regan agrees that they have “flip-flopped on climate issues”.

And yet, beyond all the myriad issues Sinn Féin will be forced to confront in the coming months, there is a more pressing event.

In the North, voters face a UK general election on July 4th. In a Westminster election, Northern Ireland chooses 18 MPs, one for each constituency, all chosen by the first-past-the-post system. Sinn Féin has seven MPs and it seems likely the party will retain all seven. This would be viewed as a solid result but, given what has played out over the last number of days, the pressure is on.

Can Sinn Féin pull off its left-right, North-South balancing act?Opens in new window ]

Party sources in the North are very cognisant of what has happened in these local and European elections. One source says, “We need to get it together, quick” but that McDonald’s leadership is not under threat.

“She is the biggest asset we have,” says one senior party member, who emphasises her recognisability as a national figure and her communication skills.

Conversely, if McDonald were to be replaced during a busy election schedule, the feeling is that change at the top “would be used against us” by political opponents as evidence of chaos and a lack of confidence behind the scenes and would do more harm than good.

Sinn Féin under fire from Northern Irish base over shift to ‘middle class’ under failed election strategyOpens in new window ]

When the dust has settled on both sets of elections, the soul-searching will ramp up a notch. And while figures from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were this week engaged in more than a touch of schadenfreude at Sinn Féin’s slide, political experts sound a word of caution around those triumphant celebrations.

“Since 2009, we have seen this extraordinary volatility in Irish politics, and Sinn Féin were the beneficiaries of that in the general election of 2020, and perhaps they were the victim of it this time,” says Gary Murphy. “But that volatility exists, and this is why the Government needs to be very careful about calling a general election.”