Why rumours of Sinn Fein’s omnipotence may be being greatly exaggerated…

When Tuesday night’s Prime Time feature on Sinn Fein aired on RTE there was nearly a civil war on Twitter. Sinn Fein supporters were punching the air whilst everyone else was grumping that Miriam (of all people) had gone soft on Donegal North East TD Padraig MacLochlainn.

One particular party highlight was the view from Donegal born political analyst Sean Donnelly that in the unlikely event that the very highest current poll ratings were replicated in an election it could give them a quarter of all Dail seats.

Yet the party is still barely known in most of Leinster and Munster, and would struggle to gain a foothold in places like Mayo and East Galway.

In reality Sinn Finn is tracking the voters they believe are most likely to switch to them. At the moment that is those former FF voting, urban dwelling C2 voters most badly affected by the economic collapse of the last few years.

It no doubt helps that there’s a strong consonance with the support Northern Ireland where disadvantaged communities are at the core of their base.

But it is also true that in Northern Ireland that they’ve struggled to make serious in-roads into the Catholic middle class.  In latter years even with the slow collapse of SDLP, Sinn Fein’s advance has been aided as much by the Catholic middle class switching off as from direct transfers.

Talking up a middle class offensiveas noted here on Slugger may partly be a ‘market making’ exercise, but it is also about avoiding the kind of ghettoisation that has eventually captured previous northern invasions.

World by Storm notes on the Cedar Lounge Revolution blog:

…in the second last issue of the Phoenix one will be reminded that the 2007 General Election saw ‘the party’s taxation policy agreed at an Ard Fheis [overruled by the leadership]’ and overruled not in a leftward direction. As the Phoenix continues ‘This was part of a rightward shift that provoked an unprecedented revote against the leadership from southern leftists in a 2007 election post mortem’.

And it was not without some internal consequences. He quotes from the article itself:

“In the middle of that debate a motion at the 2008 Ard Fheis from socialist republican TD Aengus Snodaigh, demanding a reversion to the left wing taxation policy, was strenuously opposed by the Nordies and McDonald, who argued that taxes should be raised only where ‘demonstrably necessary’.”

And it continues;

“Even worse, the paranoia about being seen to be ‘irresponsible’ on the economy led to SF’s catastrophic mistake of trotting meekly behind the FF FG to vote through the banks guarantee in September 2008.”

As WBS also notes, the practical corollaries of all this can be exaggerated for political effect, but it is surely indicative of tensions between the party’s ambitions for power on both sides of the border and the politics of those who will inevitably drive the project locally.

But there’s uncertain dynamic in the development of the party’s southern offering which may put limits on the capacity of the party to achieve its ambitious objectives:

…far from SF shifting to some sort of accommodation with orthodoxy after a period of heterodoxy it would appear that SF had already attempted to make such a move (and let’s be honest, not from a position where it was profoundly anti-capitalist) and then retreated.

This is also problematic – for SF as well, come to think of it, in that it suggests that SF has never been more successful than when articulating a left of Labour and broadly oppositional approach to orthodoxy.[Emphasis added]

It may not be an insurmountable road block on the way to power, but it also suggests that the acquisition of power is far from inevitable at a time when the party is already talking about skinning Fianna Fail, while ‘poor old’ Labour has yet to be given a decent burial.

To some extent this is part of the ‘inevitability of the future’ meme (or ‘futuring‘) that’s become such a feature of the party’s rhetoric in Northern Ireland.

However the political game in the south differs strongly from that in the north in a number of important ways:

  • Historical divisions segment and tighten the political market on tribal rather than policy grounds. Further reforms at St Andrews have entrenched the position of the two incumbent parties. By contrast the Republic remains open, dynamic and competitive.
  • Under the terms of the Peace Process Sinn Fein was able to trade IRA guns for political influence with the British and Irish governments. Despite current appearances, there is no such easy capital to be made in today’s Republic.
  • In a process that increasingly sidelined them, the SDLP seemed either unwilling or unable to offer political resistance (‘as though they’d had a stroke’ said one senior Dublin insider). There’s no sign that either Labour or Fianna Fail are contemplating the same sort of self-sacrifice for ‘the greater good’.
  • Finally, in publicly subsidised Northern Ireland the middle classes have been sidelined as serious brokers of power. The party’s core narrative of ‘equality’ and ‘rights and entitlements’ was shaped competition for public resources; but it’s one with limited appeal to aspirational voters in the south.

In Slugger’s review of how the parties performed in last week’s Referendum, I marked Sinn Fein down from top slot in the Referendum campaign, primarily for two things: that misleading leaflet; and the collapse of law suit intended to support a major plank in the party’s own referendum case. No party that’s serious about courting the Irish middle class can afford such crunching ‘mistakes’.

Progress in the south has been remarkable in one respect. Brian Stanley’s seat in Laois Offaly proves they can have an appeal in places where there was formerly only a two party choice. They also have a record, like Fianna Fail themselves, of not easily letting go of a constituency once they get someone in.

But we may also find that the premature death of their rivals, including the ‘poor old’ SDLP,  have been greatly exaggerated…

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  • justin.moran

    “Yet the party is still barely known in most of Leinster and Munster, and would struggle to gain a foothold in places like Mayo and East Galway.”

    I think your broad point about people getting over-excited about Sinn Féin’s growth is spot on, but think you’re going a little far with this.

    The party has seats in two Leinster counties (Louth and Meath West), lost out on a seat in Wicklow by a handful of votes and is a serious challenger in Carlow/Kilkenny (7th in a five seater in 2011) and Longford/Westmeath (6th in a four seater). Wexford and Kildare are a bit further back.

    In Connacht, two county councillors in Mayo and it would be hard to see them not adding a third in Therese Ruane next time out. Strong in Sligo and Leitrim; councillor in Roscommon, councillor in east Galway.

    Just to stress, I’m not predicting Sinn Féin seats in those constituencies, and there are places like Clare or Limerick county that are very bare, but I think you might be overstretching to make what is a very legitimate point about expectations being too high.

  • lover not a fighter

    Sinn Fein could do with a split in Fianna Fáil. So far the Fianna Fáilers are hanging together. One or two defections from Labour would’nt do any harm either

    Would Sinn Féin be welcoming to such new arrivals. Its not the kind of.situation that Sinn Féin are used to dealing with.

  • Mick Fealty

    Had my eye on Ruane in #GE11, but Think Mayo will remain problematic particularly if it gets squeezed to a four seater… With Collreavy in Sligo NL they can build a robust base. But Roscommon SL has Ming as its dissident choice.

    In my own defence the point about SF’s capacity to engage the middle class is an important consideration. It’s not something they’ve had to consider doing in NI but short of a national cataclysm it is something they will need to set a mind to.

  • SF is not that clever, it is just that the mainstream Parties make them look good too often.

  • RTE is doing some soul searching at the moment.
    Recent events where RTE has been the story…have rocked confidence. The “group think” that related to Sinn Féin (and indeed other issues) is being dealt with.
    To some extent, RTE presenters are in the same position that BBC/UTV presenters were 15 years ago.
    On the other substantive point the last 18 months have to be good for SF in the South….the General Election, the Presidential Election and now the Referendum. The only Party (with lefty support) which said NO.
    Fine Gael might have been 90% in the Yes camp.
    Fianna Fáil maybe 90%.
    But Labour disconnected from significant portions of its voter base.unions and C2 and maybe only at best 70% enthusiastic.
    With 40% saying No..SF can at least make inroads there. And of course (with the caveat that we are in mid-term territory) the balance of probability is that Labour will suffer thru Coalition.
    Its not all good for SF…there is an Adams factor (he may bow out next time…legitimately on “age” considerations), there is a geography factor and possibly there is a north-south double think where SF argues against austerity in Dundalk but imposes it in Newry.
    (although Id say that SDLP would have to disconnect a little from Eamonn Gilmore to not risk being accused of the opposite).
    There is also the “luck” factor. SF has been lucky for a very long time. With signs that they themselves are disconnecting from a nationalist base in the North……Martin McGuinness talks of “Londonderry”, will meet the Queen”, will fall over themselves (like DUP) to talk of reconciliationin the upcoming decade without any sincerity. They will talk about “Wolfe” Tone and wont spell his name right.
    Ironically this means the media being critical.
    The media I think had a “bad Titanic” and it doesnt say well for the upcoming decade.
    If McGuinness and Robinson can talk about reconciliation for the next ten years, there is a choice for the northern media, especially the broadcasters. They can “buy” into the story…….just like Titanic, Royal Jubilee or Olympics. Or they can say “you know something Deputy First Minister….this is all crap”.

  • oops…….FG 99% in favour of Yes. FF maybe 90%.

  • Mick Fealty

    I agree that some of whats happened to RTE in the last few months has proven debilitating. But they suffer from what all generalist media tend to: a lack of specialist knowledge.

    Consider that in axing Hearts and Minds BBCNI is losing a real talent for getting to core of almost any policy issue she gets her teeth into in Julia Paul.

    Exhibit A that recent interview with Nelson, which would have no impact on the viewer had it not been for the ‘set up’.

    Making policy relevant and understandable is the best way forward for both Irish journalism and politics. Apart from operation reconnect this is what FF is consuming itself in, and why it was the most convincing of all parties in the #euref.

    Re SF, They are good at some stuff. Well structured and resourced in Northern Ireland, as Paul Maskey says. In addition anyone in opposition has a hill to climb to convince anyone they have a decent chance of challenging them.

    But that is exactly the problem they have in the Republic. In addition, about banksters and entitlements may play well with te disaffected on the doorsteps, but it also scares the middle class horses.

    With Adams, who knows? SF pride themselves on their inscrutability. My feeling is they will struggle to take power in the south and retain command and control from Belfast (Adams’ real power base) with its singular obsessions over legitimising their paramilitary past.

  • “Ironically this means the media being critical.”

    This task isn’t as straightforward as it would be in the political world, fjh, but the realm of parapolitics is a very different beast. Those with their ear to the grapevine know that threats of dire consequences still not only inhibit business people from seeking justice through the courts; they also stop journalists from publishing the fruits of their researches on such a lack of justice. Which politician will vote ‘the wrong way’ in council when the friends of parapoliticians pop in to the public gallery?

    “just like Titanic, Royal Jubilee or Olympics”

    I’ve been looking at the strange affair of the very short notice announcement of the Carrickarede-Giants Causeway-Dunluce leg of the Olympic torch trail.

    ‎”Sports Minister Carál Ní Chuilín said: ‘The Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, Giant’s Causeway and Dunluce Castle are just some of this island’s jewels. I am delighted the Torch has afforded us the opportunity to show these across the world on a stunning sunny day.’”

    But why was it kept such a secret? I only found out about it when a friend phoned me on the night before; he’d been told that he wasn’t supposed to know. Where was the Minister? Would it have been a bridge too far to publish the words ‘Northern Ireland’? Where were the local elected representatives? Where were the officials from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board?

  • Nevin,
    I think its a matter of Headlines not being matched by the small print.
    The Headlines are all good news stories. The small print less so.
    Given that there are examples of Sinn Féins reconciliation not being matched by its actions..there are also examples. DUP is engaged in “outreach” especially getting children educated together. All very well until you pass (as I did) several state schools with bunting commemorating the Royal Jubilee.
    The hard question is how would that change if Robinson had what is “alleged” to be his way. Would schools become as neutral as the workplace or are Royal events “different”?
    Likewise we have the spectacle (good news) of unionists addressing Leinster House but seemingly unable or unwilling to shake hands with SF members on local councils.
    Sadly the media………as with Titanic seem content to re-state press releases (Titanic) beam down the camera at the Olympic good news for East End (what good news?) or talk up the Jubilee with wall to wall coverage and little room for dissent.
    As has been pointed out Hearts and Minds has been axed and replaced seemingly with light entertainment and a personality host.
    We will have more of this at the Ulster Covenant, the GPO in 2016 and at the Somme in 2016.

  • …or indeed get carried away with “good news” DUP or Sinn Féin outreach when the former cant accept the latter in the Craigavon Mayor office.
    Will the northern media ever accept it is all a total sham or is the “good news story” more important to the process.
    I should probably add that the DUP have finally got round to accepting anationalist SDLP in Mayors office in Ballymena.

  • Zig70


    I liked the line “politics at the national level is more like religion than it is like shopping. It’s more about a moral vision that unifies a nation and calls it to greatness than it is about self-interest or specific policies.” Especially the tag “Call to greatness”.

    I’ve always thought SF’s political left would hinder it but I’m often wrong.

  • The truth is the working classes in the main do not vote conservative, either in Ireland, the UK or the USA. Having said that, just as some middle class people vote for the left, a minority of working class people vote for the right. It’s only upper middle class people who believe such tosh as they see us as a single homogeneous lump of ignorance and prejudice. What the poor dears do is project their own ignorance, greed and prejudice onto us, it makes them feel better about themselves I suppose.

    What working class people do when they are dissatisfied politically is not vote at all. Or even better, and admittedly only on a good day, drown the ruling class in their own blood. Those were the days, mmmm?

  • Zig70


    Not sure if there are stats as neat as this for the south.

    I always thought the working class voting Tory was a dumbass English thing but that’s kinda off my point which was SF’s ability to get a religious feel to their politics (rather than my uni-view which is normally left/right) is the key to breaking the south.

    The thing in my view that got a lot of the middle class catholic support was the hard working councillors & support staff that rarely ignored a request for help but there is still the moral questions and scaling it up to professionalism to be seen as able to run the country.
    From my experience the SDLP can’t claim the rarely ignored tag.
    It will be an interesting watch.

  • FuturePhysicist

    I think the attention we need to devote to Sinn Féin is greatly exaggerated.