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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