After an all-Ireland election, where might Sinn Féin go next?

If any party are glad that the recent elections are over, it is surely Sinn Féin. Being the only major party that contests elections in all 32 counties means it is uniquely challenged when simultaneous local, European and bye-elections are held at the same time. With such an island-wide volume of electoral data, sifting through the various results and assessing their implications presents similar challenges for its strategists. But a couple of themes are pretty clear.

In Wexford, Sinn Féin ran 5 candidates across four electoral districts, all of whom got elected, two on the first count and the others with relative ease. In South Dublin, 9 Sinn Féin candidates stood across six electoral districts, with six being elected on the first count. Both reflect issues that suggest that a reasonal measure of the developmental stage of party infrastructure is the drag between its showing in the European (19.5%) and Local elections (15.2%). Both figures straddle Sinn Féin’s recent opinion poll ratings (interestingly, Pearse Doherty suggested that 15.2% was above Sinn Féin’s internal predictions on Newstalk the other day).

Simply put, Sinn Féin can’t but be pleased at the results of the European elections returning 4 MEPs and, symbolically, representing the whole island. The only fly in the ointment, if it looks for one is really more of a dilemma in whether to review its relationship with the SDLP to try consolidate the broader nationalist vote (but more on that later).

The electoral districts for Wexford County Council are typical large rural constituencies, where voters have long been groomed to strongly identify with candidates based on location rather than policy. Running multiple candidates, like Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil normally do, maximises support by attracting votes to a well-known local figure (rather than a party, per se). Often, the major challenge to the local Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil party machinery is in balancing the competing claims to canvassing rights for areas within the constituency, and, ensuring a smooth flow of transfers. In Wexford, Sinn Féin candidates got an average of 1300 first preference votes while successful Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil candidates received an average of 1100. Clearly, the significant council presence (there were no Sinn Féin County Councillors in Wexford before the election) will lend itself to stronger local organisations, multiple candidates and support further growth.

In South Dublin County Council, a largely urban constituency stretching from Crumlin, just beyond Dublin’s inner-city, out to the sprawling suburbs of the south and west of the city, presents different challenges to Sinn Féin. Having said that, the same fundamental structural issue is recognisable. In some electoral districts, one, and in two cases, two Sinn Féin candidates were elected significantly above quota on the first count. All the Sinn Féin candidates were elected with an average of 2046 first preference votes, while the equivalent figures for elected Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil candidates are 1287 (7 elected) and 1477 (5 elected). All but one Sinn Féin candidate elected on the first count didn’t have a running partner to transfer a quota to (who hadn’t also been elected on the first count). Clearly, Sinn Féin was returned as the largest party on South Dublin County Council, there is still potential for further growth.

In Belfast, there appear to be different issues at play. Sinn Féin’s urban vote in the likes of Cork, Dublin and Derry appears to have been energised and came out and voted. In Belfast, there appears to be a drift in its traditional constituency either, generally, away from nationalist parties, away from Sinn Féin and the SDLP, or, away from electoral politics itself. Proponents of the hugely over-exposed NI21 (no pun intended), created an offering to attract what it claimed was a Catholic unionist (for want of a better label) vote aching for home but that has been pretty much flatly rejected at the polls. Whether the positioning Alliance received from Anna Lo’s views on a united Ireland drew some support across to Alliance from Sinn Féin or the SDLP is a matter Sinn Féin might more seriously consider (although it may be higher up the radar for the SDLP). The fairly poor showing for independents and other republican groups doesn’t seem to suggest that there is pent up demand for more alternative nationalist parties. The main proponent of this theory is Fianna Fáil, but despite its well worn groove of ‘coming north’, there appears to be no appetite for defections to the party, nor, if it is honest, of the party ever standing north of the border. Since it already sits in the European parliament, it has now skipped another opportunity to stand for election in a parliament in which it already sits.

The various campaigns to convince nationalists (or Catholics if you want to put it that way) that voting for nationalist parties is futile and won’t achieve anything may also have had some impact. On the other side of the political spectrum, unionism has continually fulminated existentially against the dying of the light and pleaded with its traditional constituencies to stop staying away from the polls. In that regard, that campaign and the general sense of crisis unionism likes to emanate, seems to be holding up its vote, while actual apathy (or complacency has crept in among nationalists). What Sinn Féin’s public response is will be interesting. and noticeably, rather than focus on successes in the south, Gerry Adams is already in the US meeting with leading Irish-American and White House figures:

One obvious response will likely be strengthening party organisation in electoral areas like Castle and Oldpark. With Tierna Cunningham and John Loughran having narrowly lost out in both, it is not like the party lacks strong candidates (I don’t know why, but I would have stood them in the opposite districts, but hindsight is great). At the same time, fresh blood and strengthening locally party structures is likely to be one obvious response.

A counter-intuitive response, both in Belfast and more widely, would be to try and encourage broader electoral participation even (paradoxically) if that is outside of Sinn Féin. Clearly, independent candidates are enthusing and energising voters in the south and it looks, at this distance, that the next general election will see significant numbers of independent candidates returned. An opportunity is there for a party, like Sinn Féin, to explore an electoral brand with an agreed agenda that independent candidates can subscribe to for an election campaign, without comprising either Sinn Féin or the independents. This might signal to voters a broad sharing of specific values and simplify some of the potential electoral arithmetic of the next Dáil. It may be the only way of creating a significant left-wing block that might either force a Fine Gael – Fianna Fáil coalition, or, form the basis for an alternative government. A similar initiative might work, at a local level, in Belfast, to stop the drift of nationalist voters at election time although it would likely have to actively involve the SDLP and other republican groups since, in unionism, internal competition appears to offer one source of energising voters.

With a Westminister election next year (at the latest) and all best off on the next Dáil election, time may even be in short supply.

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  • fordprefect

    John,
    No matter what the ifs and buts, SF in the north (if they say they are all inclusive and so on) should be calling on Robbo to resign and if he doesn’t, pull the plug on the “Assembly”. Unfortunately, they won’t because they’ve become crazed with (and trying to get) power. I would love to see just one Shinner breaking ranks and saying that they can’t work alongside bigots, but no one will.

  • Politico68

    The election was for sure a defining moment in Sinn Fein’s overall plan, the party has pretty mush tripled its representation across the island and it remains to be seen how they will manage such a bulky load, they also have a problem in terms of membership with new blood banging on the door to get in. Unlike most other parties the Shinners are careful here, they try to avoid purely careerist candidates. To be part of the SF machine means accepting average industrial wage and a commitment to social democratic values of a particularly republican brand.

    The talent coming on board the party is impressive, many with degrees and what not coming out of their ears. They could have got at least another ten of these candidates elected across the state, but the machinery just wasnt there to work the ground on their behalf. The all-Island agenda seems to be paying off and it is quite possible that voters in the north who might have stayed away from the polls on this occasion will be spurred on to come out in next years Westie elections now that they see the Shinners growing into the political establishment in the South.

    I think the apathy in the Nationalist electorate is a little overstated to be honest, even though I was one of the first off the mark to despair at the figures. The nationalist vote did grow by 33,000 but it was dwarfed by a Unionist surge of 88,000 mobilised by the fleg and the arrival of UKIP and to some extent NI21. Will this surge stay around for the Westie election? I think so, Peter Robinson eluded to the demographic shift recently, saying that it can’t be ignored and the Author of the most recent peace monitoring report (can’t remember his name) when talking about Belfast’s Unionist decline spoke of a realisation dawning on Unionism that the tide is turning quickly demographically.

    The Catholic growth in numbers will provide plenty of mobilisation potential for Unionist voters so I would expect we are entering a period where the nationalist vote will be under sustained pressure in percentage terms. However, eventually (as Bangordub points out re FST) the Nationalist vote will eventually break through and displace Unionism. On the figures that could happen by 2023 but it depends really on how the SDLP and SF can mangae their differences in away that encourages their supporters into the polling stations.

    For Sinn Fein at least, it looks like their plan is coming together.

  • gendjinn

    fordprefect,

    the only way to dissolve the assembly is to 72 members to sign a petition and as the DUP have 38 there is no way it’s going to happen.

    Instead they will wrap up the Haass proposals, Irish Language law, bill of rights & maze issue into a big ball and use it to beat the DUP over the head with come the next assembly elections in 2016.

  • Charles_Gould

    SF’s share of councillors in Northern Ireland was down 2.2% , and the Euro vote was down for the second successive election, indicating that the momentum has gone now out of them in NI and they’re now past their peak.

    In the south they have been left behind by FF, but even so they will if this performance is repeated be able to add some TDs, meaning that they can enter government as a junior party next time, if they wish to. However, its really too far off to call the next general election in the south, much will depend on the economy and the performance of the coalition government.

  • gendjinn

    P68,

    The nationalist vote did grow by 33,000 but it was dwarfed by a Unionist surge of 88,000 mobilised by the fleg and the arrival of UKIP and to some extent NI21.

    Where do you get those numbers? Turnout was down 33k from last time, with 27k decrease in N and 2.7k decrease in U.

  • Politico68

    Gend, I think it was the difference between the two euro election 2009/2014, I will have to check.

  • Mick Fealty

    Any chance we could talk about John’s post?

  • Politico68

    Mick, in fairness I think I made a good contribution. By the way, when I log on, this page doesn’t show up on your main page. I have to go into my profile and find it on previous posts. This happens quite a lot, wassup with that? Is the problem up your end or up my end?

  • gendjinn

    Ah, jaysus Mick, can you not let the psephologists enjoy our moment – it’s not like we get that many elections to roll around in.

    John did a pretty impressive blog and I don’t see anything to debate. Next steps are obvious for SF, continue doing what they’ve been doing to build their org in the south. Take their newly minted reps, get them both exposure and experience on the ground delivering for their electorate, then run the best as TDs in the next general. Lather, rinse, repeat.

    SF don’t really need to do anything more in the north, the best way for them to advance re-unification is to increase their power & influence an Dáil so they can dictate a program for government as a minority partner, or (even better) as the dominant coalition partner. Their dominance of the councils on each side of the border will continue to diminish and erase the reality of the border.

    We will see FF, FG start to contest elections in the north this decade as everyone but Zeno now knows that unification is inevitable and ceding that territory to SF is a gigantic error.

  • Raymonds Back

    John’s post is very interesting and informative,and the ‘problems’ he points out for Sinn Féin are good problems to have – ie too many votes but not enough candidates to transfer them to. Does anyone else think that our method of PR is far too complicated (given the counting problems) and is it even the best method of ensuring the party with the biggest amount of votes ends up with the biggest amount of seats? Also, the composition of the new super councils seems to me to be a blatant form of new gerry-madering – ie we will ensure x number of unionist-dominated councils, x number of nationalist-dominated councils and a couple of in-betweeners. I was slightly depressed by the volume of comment on TV regarding nationalist voters not transfering to other nationalists. Commentators seemed to be actually annoyed at nationalists for not voting along strictly sectarian lines. For example, I voted Sinn Féin, then SDLP and then NI21 (won’t do that again!), then Green Party I think (and not because they are ‘green’) – partly for a laugh and partly to confuse commentators who would wonder what a Sinn Féin voter was doing giving a preference for NI21. And the actual reason I gave them a high enough preference was because they had gone to the bother to use the Irish language in some of their material and I felt they deserved some recognition for that. I will continue to vote in an erratic manner like this (I remember previously transferring to the Women’s Coaltion because they were women) altough I have no great faith in the political institutions in NI – the amount of legislation the Assembly passes is pitiful compared to the number of pointless motions and debates nullified in advance by petitions of concern. It will pass the time until the only vote I am really interested in, ie the one to end the Good Friday Agreement and bring about a re-united Ireland. And, after the first failure, I will then vote every seven years until it happens.

  • Politico68

    Charles, SF won 63% of the Nat vote in the recent euros, up from 60% the last time. A bit to go before they peak methinks.

  • BarneyT

    Sinn fein need to work on attracting those who agree with their politics and aims for Ireland but can’t yet bring themselves to tick the SF box due to the support of the IRA campaign. I think there are many that would switch from SDLP but can’t quite go the distance. In the south they just need to do more of the same.

  • OneNI

    There’s no doubt this was a good result for SF they nearly achieved 1% of the popular vote in the UK. That’ll make the Brits sit up and take notice!

  • Mc Slaggart

    “SF they nearly achieved 1% of the popular vote in the UK”

    That is how relevant Irish unionism is for the UK.

  • Roy Walsh

    The way things look tonight John, mayorality in Ireland’s three main cities.

  • John Ó Néill

    Roy, that’s the agreement now, but I’d say Sinn Féin will be curating those relationships to make sure the agreements mature next year. The relationship building is the bit to watch, I’d say.