Firstly the threats and weaknesses. Obviously, Sinn Féin are, and are maybe always going to be, dogged by the legacy of the IRA’s role in the conflict. That’s not going to go away.
At the same time the historical impact of Section 31 is probably still the mitigating factor when it comes to attracting transfers and Sinn Féin’s difficulty in converting first preferences into seats. It is often forgotten that Sinn Féin members were banned from the media under Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act 1960 from 1971 to 1993 which was rigorously and aggressively self-policed by the media. Given the minimal profile of Sinn Féin for most of the 1960s, only those in their mid-30s have grown up with Sinn Féin on television. Anyone over 35 years old had no effective exposure to Sinn Féin spokespersons until after they gained the right to vote. Even then, many of those under the age of 40 grew up around adults who had no media exposure to Sinn Féin members due to the ban. The effectiveness of the ban is such that even politically savvy 50 and 60 somethings in the Republic are not conscious today of it having been in place and hence don’t see any reason for introspective criticism of their political attitudes and how they were formed. Arguably, this is a contributing factor in the limited transfers to Sinn Féin and is one that has been as impossible to overcome as the legacy of the IRA’s military campaign.
A major weakness in the Donegal SW constituency is the strength of Fianna Fáil first preference, which was over 50% in the last election. While it may provide a good media angle to suggest the seat is winnable for Sinn Féin, particularly in the light of Pearse Doherty’s role in forcing the holding of the election, we have yet to see the extent to which opinion polls translate to actual votes. Anything less than a Fianna Fáil meltdown could be claimed as a moral victory. Even an apparent Fianna Fáil meltdown to 30% of first preferences in Donegal SW could still translate to a win if disgruntled voters divert their first preference elsewhere as a protest but stay faithful with their second preference.
Strengths? In some ways the obvious strength is the role Pearse Doherty and Sinn Féin played in forcing the by-election in the first place (particularly since he has been the candidate in the past and acted as a proxy constituency representative in the Oireachtas). In a constituency with such traditionally high support for Fianna Fáil, a reluctance to switch to Fine Gael may see those that vote consider giving a first preference to Sinn Féin or Labour as less of an outright betrayal of Fianna Fáil. Starting from a much higher base than Labour, any considerable swing of disaffected or tactical votes to Pearse Doherty could be enough to give him the seat.
And the opportunities? In many ways, Sinn Féin have everything to play for in the run up to the coming general election and the by-election has more value as a test run than the by-election result having intrinsic importance. Past false dawns with regard to electoral success in the Republic have largely occurred where political developments in the North were considered likely to produce political capital that could be cashed in during elections in the Republic. The exchange rate has been poor to date, but the current crisis may be opening out an opportunity for Sinn Féin to present itself as a distinctive, energetic platform as opposed to what increasingly looks like the passive lethargy of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour.
The current interplay between Fine Gael and Labour is providing an interesting sub-plot to all this. Fine Gael actually had the means to force the governing coalition’s hand on the by-elections through ending pairing arrangements. With a minimum amount of political will and leadership, they could have achieved this fairly quickly. Yet, Labour quickly and dismissively pulled the rug from under Fine Gael’s feet on that occasion. The appetite for the by-elections appeared mysteriously absent from both parties. Obviously, the Greens also have had, but haven’t used their ultimate sanction of simply withdrawing support for the government, but you’d have to wonder if the Greens have any immediate future in representative politics after the next election.
Despite a sudden conversion to the litigious route, Fine Gael appear suspiciously averse to a general election. Collectively, both Labour and Fine Gael had access to enough levers of engagement to have effectively brought the government down before now. Presumably, Sinn Féin will emphasise this on the doorsteps – clearly there is broader tactical capital in emphasising the corporate behaviour of the mainstream parties if Sinn Féin is to create a substantive political platform to attract votes, transfers (critically) and an end-product in seats. Given that it was Sinn Féin who managed to force the holding of the by-election via the High Court, it shouldn’t be difficult to highlight the pointed failure of the ‘Opposition’ to effectively oppose the governing coalition. Similarly the indecisive ending of pairing can be dismissed as an exercise in optics by Fine Gael and cynicism by Labour.
The most remarkable oversight, though, appears to be the inability to address the legacy of the Willie O’Dea fiasco. What isn’t in dispute is that Willie O’Dea made a claim against an electoral candidate for another party (in this case, significantly influencing the disinterest of the other parties, a Sinn Féin candidate). Despite having swore an affidavit that he didn’t make the claims to a journalist, a subsequent recording proved that he did. His later claim that this was firstly, an error of memory, then that it was based on Garda intelligence was not substantiated but provides a pretext for exemption from the 1923 Electoral Law by which an Electoral Court would have to remove O’Dea from his seat and ban him from the Oireachtas for five years. Oddly, nor has much attention been given to the context of his disclosure of Garda Intelligence to a journalist (surely a breach of the 1963 Official Secrets Act on the part of both O’Dea and the Garda). The implications of a successful conviction on either charge would see O’Dea forefeit his seat, if indeed he could brazen it out once charges were brought (which he no doubt would). Yet he at least has been re-assured that he has no perjury case to answer. Why have the opposition not fully explored the political implications of all of this? On each count, O’Dea, superficially at least, appears guilty – ignorance is not usually an acceptable defence.
Promoting a legal challenge to O’Dea’s continued presence in the Oireachtas would serve multiple purposes for the party. Firstly, it would further demonstrate that Sinn Féin, unlike the lethargic opposition, are committed to forcing a General Election and a new consensus and mandate to dealing with the current crisis. There is surely significant political value in demonstrating that, even with a low representative base, Sinn Féin is capable of dismantling an unpopular governing coalition that the main opposition parties, despite public protestations to the contrary, have been ineffective in forcing out of power. Secondly, and just as usefully, it would keep the behaviour of O’Dea and Fianna Fáil dirty tricks in the public eye, on the eve of what is likely to be a series of elections.
Lastly (and most speculatively), in terms of the economy, the international attitude towards Ireland may well be informed by the total lack of energy being shown by the body politic. The passive acceptance of the government (and by tacit acceptance, the opposition) of any and all international instructions is perhaps the worst message the markets are getting. Energy, assertiveness, aggression – they are more likely qualities to push the state through the current crisis. A vigorous and effective Sinn Féin challenge may shake some of the lethargy from the political system in the Republic. This time, something has to break.