In September, I wrote a post about the rise of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland not being all that it seemed. So, I thought with the party’s Ard Fheis being this weekend I would take a quick scan of the party’s electoral performance in the Irish Republic. (There are no in-depth databases on Irish elections as the main website is currently down so bits of this are patchy)
While I was critical of the party’s rise being based on fundamentally turning people off the political process in Northern Ireland, in the south they have actually achieved real growth with a much more stable voter turnout.
Since 1997, turnout in Irish general elections has averaged around 69%. This is a big difference from Northern Ireland’s average of around 61% and in the last two elections turnout has actually increased in the Irish Republic while ours has steadily fallen.
What about the overall picture?
Since 1997 the party has gained 175,000 votes going from just 45,000 in 1997 to over 220,000 in 2011.
The party has also aside from 2007 enjoyed a steady increase in its number of seats going from one in 1997 to 14 in 2011 making the party the fourth largest in state.
At the last election the party made some solid gains in Connaught/Ulster and Dublin. At the moment 8 of the party’s 14 TDs come from these two places and most likely will be base of their next leader with Pearse Doherty in Donegal and Mary-Lou McDonald in Dublin Central.
In the Ulster counties the party saw a huge surge in their vote as they went from 19.5% in 2007 to 27.8% in 2011. This from my numbers makes the party the most popular in Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan which will be interesting as most pundits are predicting Donegal South West to become the first constituency to elect two Sinn Fein TDs to the Dail at the next election.
Then we have Dublin which is the key to winning any Irish general election as the city holds 47 of the 166 seats in the Dail. Since 2007, Sinn Fein have made steady increases within the capital city going from 7% to 10.7% of the vote in the 2011 gaining 3 seats.
The party at the next election will be seeking to outperform Labour and become the third largest party in the state. To this they will be ultimately looking at make some gains in places like Donegal but the real gains will need to be in Dublin as that is where Labour in particular did well at the last election and those voters angry at austerity measures will be ripe for the picking. At the moment there are 6 Dublin constituencies where Sinn Fein are polling above 10%-these areas are where they will be seeking to make some big moves at the next election at Labour’s expense.
The big problem Sinn Fein has is that due to its past and image it does not do very well in getting transfers from other parties-this means that despite huge vote increases they will make gains in handfuls rather than shovelfuls.
Should the current polls be believed the party could end up holding around 20 seats after the next election which if Labour implodes could see the party playing a role in the next government and establishing itself as the leading left wing party in Ireland.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs