After #GE2015… Sinn Fein, former revolutionaries in need of a new narrative?

I would have loved to have heard Sinn Fein’s take on their general election campaign at our joint event with Ulster University. It seemed to me to have involved a huge amount of effort and energy for not a lot of return.

Clearly there was disappointment at losing Fermanagh South Tyrone (the whole leadership team was shipped to Enniskillen for the results announcement), but a few decent night’s sleep will likely fix that. A slight dip in the percentage vote -0.1% was always going to be enough to wipe out the four vote lead.

There were decent performances in most in East and North Antrim and East Londonderry. And a safe swap of big hitter Conor Murphy for Mickey Brady. Although with the loss of Gildnernew the party’s Westminster team now has more than a passing resemblance to Dad’s Army.

There’s no point in overdoing there analysis here. One because I’ve already written a piece for the Irish Indpendent, and two the Westminsters are largely just a series of two horse races.

The data and the implications you can safely extrapolate are tiny in Northern Ireland compared with the huge changes seen on the other side of the North Channel.

So for brevity’s sake, let’s clip straight to Belfast for lessons to be drawn. The rising vote in West, I’ve already touched on in the Indo piece, North and South are far more telling.

In Kelly and O’Muilleoir we saw for the first time two completely compartmentalised locally focused and personal campaigns, which you could roughly cut as One Belfast and Two Belfasts played out less than a mile from each other.

One or the other might have worked, if it had been given focus, budget and thought.

But, and just to push the point home, Gerry Kelly’s Star Wars video indicates a huge lapse for what has become the outstandingly high level norm in SF’s YouTube output (and I’m not even going near the whole Stormtroopers v the Rebel Alliance thing)…

Every year Sinn Fein have been able to rely on the incoherence of the SDLP, such that they have been able to move almost everyone  of talent in the party into Leinster House, or in other parts of the south in order to build up new Cummain there.

For the first time the effects of that talent drain became publicly apparent. Pushing two stories, each of which undermined the other, was one aspect of it. The other was the sheer paucity of a story to tell on Westminster or Stormont.

That lack of a new story saw talent like Chris Hassard pushed into the public limelight with nothing much to say for party policy beyond vague promises of helping people in distress and need.

It’s been said that ‘the populist is clueless when he cannot hijack someone else’s ideas’. The SDLP’s long term competitive absence from the electoral stage has been a banker for Sinn Fein.

But as Pat Doherty told RTE on election night it has also given rise to rising complacency within the party. And, I would add, a reliance on old or new nostrums of division and/or unity of the people* arguments which are getting harder to reconcile in the voter’s mind.

Whether anyone likes it or not, Northern Ireland is moving from a contested spaces to slightly more shared space model. And that’s where the new lines of political argument are moving.

That requires new stories and new narratives capable of bridging gaps, not just muscling whole communities up for more ground action over tribal spaces.

Dumping loads of oil soaked pallets on a bonfire of Unionist outrage is no longer the one way street it once seemed to be.

That said, beyond puncturing the inevitability myth, I don’t see much lasting damage here. And whilst the SDLP remain a basket case, it’s hard to see where the incentive to change is going to come from.

*Delete as appropriate.

You can find all Mick’s election profiles here.

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  • kensei

    “You could roughly cut as One Belfast andTwo Belfasts played out less than a mile from each other.”

    An apt description of the difference between South and North Belfast. Are different local circumstances leading to contradictory strategies? Is the direction from the top missing, rather than the local talent drain being the main problem?

    Plus it should also be remembered all parties are coalitions and SF would look more prone than most to tensions if there is a “South Belfast” wing developing.

  • mickfealty

    Leaving out all other consideration of local politics, coalition management is getting very very difficult just now. One of the problems UK Labour is having to deal with after a long passivity under big centralist controllers. Whoops, there goes Scotland, etc..

  • Kevin Breslin

    You’re in need of a new narrative? Seriously I’ll never get this narrative stuff. Are politicians supposed to mimic Jeffrey Archer and write books to entertain people or are they suppose to actually do the boring mundane work of canvassing, creating legislation, sitting on committee, making private member bills, voting on legislation doing constituency and party work, going on TV to argue with political opponents, correcting the radio personalities, campaigning, fundraising, networking, making business contacts, community and voluntary work, putting up posters and handing out leaflets, sitting in the constituency office telling young unemployed people how to claim JLA before the welfare cuts kick in, claiming expenses, defending the stupid expenses claim you meet, meeting lobby groups, talking to people from other countries, going to other countries on business trips when the media is criticizing you too much or you just cant work with your political partners, getting civil servants to investigate how feasible things are, getting special advisors to get civil servants to investigate how feasible things are, selfie-ing, twitter-bombing; sending mail, faxing when no one else is doing that; putting up everything you think up on Facebook, going to party conferences, trying to get young recruits into your party, trying to get women into your party, doing some community work so the public knows you exist, doing some parading and protest so the public knows you exist, getting thrown out of a chamber so the public knows you exist, going to jail so the public know you exist, deflecting attention away from attacks of party colleagues by playing the man, having personal vendettas against the type of politics that exist and using your minority position to claim you are the voice of the silent majority, kissing babies, tea-parties, being in the Tea Party, ask Rob Ford?, Causing diplomatic incidents, looking after the family, helping the family look after your constituency office and travel, cronyism, nepotism, filibustering, using long winded words like filibustering to waste time and take up space, making newspaper opinion columns, asking for newspaper rebuttals, social engineering, political engineering, electioneering, carrying out civil engineering as a second job simply because you have nothing better to do as a politician, stopping at nothing to say the right things when electioneering so you can trust you can rely on their vote, going forwards as they go backwards and somewhere you will meet, dealing with the cynics, dealing with the optimists, dealing with yourself, You gotta go for what you know, make everybody see, in order to fight the powers that be, Talking about a revolution (maybe in a whisper like), standing in the welfare lines, crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation, wasting time in the unemployment lines, sitting around waiting for a promotion, Don’t you know? Covering up nothing to see here there’s a reason why this is bang in the middle of this wall of text so that can be completely ignored. Absent voting, administrative law, affirmative action, agitprop, agrarian socialism, altruism, anarchism, androcracy, anti-clericalism, apparatchik, approval voting, autocracy, autonomy, backbenching, Being a dark horse, bellwethering, Beltway, bigotry, block voting, boondoggling, bourgeoising, Cabinet meetings, Capitalism, carpetbagging, Chartism, command economics, communitarianism, comparative advantage, confederalism, conservativism, coup d’ėtats, crossing the floor, cumulative voting, deficit spending, delegating legislation, demagoguing, deontology, direct democracy, disinformation, donkey voting, doublespeak, Duumviratism, triumviratism quadrumviratism, dynasty, dystopism, fascism, federalism, fellow traveller, fence mending, free riding, free voting , Georgism, glasnost, going negative, grievance debating, groupthink, hegemony, hustings, impeachment, isolationism, jingoism, judicial activism, juntism, Keynesianism, kleptocracy, liberalism, libertarianism, logrolling, Luddism, lumpen proletariat, Machiavellianism, maiden speeching, mercantilism, monetarism, Monocracism, monopolyism, monopsony, moral relativism, muckraking, Nimbyism, nomenklatura, Nominating, oligarchy, pairing, palm tree justice, parachute in, using parliamentary privilege, participation rate, party line voting, party list voting, perestroika, photo oping, Platforming, Plebisciting, plutocracy, polling, populism, populist politician, pork barrell spending, pragmatism, preferential voting, pre-poll votes, primary vote, private member’s bill, proletariatism, property right, psephology, punditry, quangoism, Question Time, quota, quota preferential, rapprochement, realpolitik, redistribution, referendums, rent seeking, repatriation, representative democracy, republicism, Scrutinising, socialism, sortition, speaking, spin, state of nature, Making straw man arguments, syndicalism, theocracy, think tank, totalitarianism, being a useful idiot, utilitarianism, party whipping, wonk, writ, zeitgeistism and finding out how the actual voting system works:

    Or you can be small state, laissier faire types and I guess and do nothing.

  • kensei

    That didn’t happen overnight though. Labour had about a billion warnings on Scotland from about 2005 before their meltdown and they are in an impossible situation because they didn’t manage it when it was simply hard. Blair stated they’d nowhere else to go which was right until it wasn’t. the incredible thing is Scotland cost them the entire election. If they’d looked like holding their Scottish seats (or indeed ripping a few more off the Lib Dems) they’d have been slightly up on 2010. It also would have blunted the Tories killer attack line substantially and in a tight election that was probably enough to have swung the 5-15 seats needed to push into a hung Parliament. Between that and the job on the Lib Dems, the Tories electoral jujitsu was elegant, even if the cost to the Union is unknown.

    SF need to be wary of getting into the same state. Blair at least had a clear sense of who he was prepared to let go. That’s key I think, and he would have won without Scotland regardless. The SDLP have been trying to straddle nationalist and labour wings of the party and ballsing it up for an entire generation now. I think they have to go (modern) Labour whatever the challenges because if FF do move up North the non labour side is toast. Plus it gives them some flexibility to join Irish Labour but take UK Labour whip in Westminster, which might help them get through their Nationalist Gordian Knot. SF have a bit tricker challenge – the conditions for a broad based single party straddling class and geography a la SNP isn’t there at the moment. So who do they drop? I know what I’d pick but the risk of a collapse in the heartlands must scare the crap out of them.

  • Robin Keogh

    The problem for me is purely physical at this point. How do
    I get my face to both smile and frown at the same time? I smile because the
    national picture for SF is phenomenal. In the 2009 Euro elections we got 331
    thousand votes but only one seat (Bairbre De Brun). In 2014 we got 483 thousand
    votes and four seats. A representative in every Irish constituency. A monster leap of 152 thousand thanks to the concrete
    leadership of Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Mary Lou; backed up by the considerable
    talent of the party’s rising stars such as Pearse Doherty, Martin O Muilleoir
    and Peader Toibin et al. A veritable chocolate box of skilled and highly
    intelligent individuals. With such a solid top slice of talent pulling behind
    it a huge cabal of younger stellar over-achievers, it’s no wonder that the
    national picture has looked so bright for such a long time.

    But the North Belfast leaflet debacle has raised the
    temperature of debate within SF as to how the party presents itself publicly.
    And as of norm, these debates are carried out in private, away from the glaring
    eyes of the media but the issue has brought into sharp focus the differences
    between the older section of the party that lived through the conflict and the
    younger part of the organisation that is solely fixed on the future and wants
    to see better delivery on ‘outreach’ and a mature reaction to Unionist Unity. I honestly am not too concerned about FST, it was always going to be a battle to hold the seat and hats off to Elliot who clearly fought hard and won. Belfast is a demographic Battle field, when u put the four constituencies together ; the breakdown despite the pact in two of the constituencis is, Unionist 38%, Nationalist 43% and Other 20%. How those figures shake out in next years Ass elections is anybodys guess. But its clear that nationalism has a good lead now which will only accelerate going forward. Which in itself can rise tensions at elections if not hanled adequetely.

    As well as smile, I also have to frown because the picture for SF
    in some regional areas of the country needs to be brightened up. While there
    exists a huge party machine in the North , places like County Clare, west Connemara,
    the midlands and the South West have had no real party organisation since the
    1920s. Election after election the party have had to put up paper candidates
    with little chance of success. Despite the absence of a party machine the SF
    vote has grown albeit at a smaller rate. SF have had to pretty much manufacture
    a party presence in these areas and we have yet to see if the new fledgling
    cumans will deliver any goods. A case in point is Carlow-Kilkenny. There was no
    SF rep of any grade in this constituency for almost 90 years until Kathleen
    Function led herself and three others to victory in the recent council
    elections on a paltry 9% of the vote in last year’s locals. All eyes will be
    fixed on next Fridays By Election, SF cannot win it but they need to score
    about 15% to have a chance of taking a seat in
    next year’s Dail election. Two things will be crucial to assess if the
    SF march is still underway. Firstly, the percentage of first preference votes
    and secondly the percentage of transfers. The performance of SF in Carlow
    Kilkenny will be an indicator of how much work SF still need to do to fill the
    gaps across the country.

    As I said earlier, the North has a monster party machine and
    the rise in support for SF over the last twenty years has been incredible,
    particularly in Donegal, Belfast, Derry and Cavan. But when focusing on the six
    north eastern counties, we could have a serious problem. First the figures.
    2010 Westie election – 172 thousand votes. 2011 Ass election – 178 thousand (An
    Increase of 6k). 2014 Euro election – 160 thousand votes (A staggering drop of
    18k). 2015 Westie election – 176 thousand votes (A leap of 16k) bringing them
    slightly up on the 2010 Westie election. However, that leap of 16k to a large
    extent, was most likely a reaction to the Unionist Pact. If that’s the case
    there is a strong possibility that the SF vote could fall back to the 160k
    total it received last year. If this happens, we will lose a bag full of seats
    in next year’s Ass elections.

    Unlike the rest of the country where SF might hope to entice
    voters from across the political spectrum with a strong campaign and a solid
    anti austerity message; in the North East it has no hope of attracting Unionist
    votes. It has to depend on the Nationalist pool to increase its overall vote
    share, and while accepting that apathy amongst this cohort is part of the
    problem, it would be lazy to simply sit back and hope that it sorts itself out.
    So what to do?

    Firstly, Sort out welfare reform and publicly admit that it
    has messed up on the numbers, if it is going to dig in its heels then the
    public at least need to know that it acknowledges its mistakes. Secondly, refrain from activities that can be
    perceived as sectarian such as the flyer campaign in North Belfast, apeing the
    behaviour of Unionist parties will not win it any medals from a placid
    Nationalist electorate. Thirdly, try to
    work with the SDLP in toning down the antagonistic rhetoric between them. Fourthly,
    spend some time over the next year in each of the constituencies where it is
    most likely to gain support. Similar to its community work in the rest of the
    country, SF need to up their level of participation at local level. Fifthly,
    organise workshops across the constituencies to discuss areas of concern that
    are mutually problematic across the community divide. While many shinners
    engage in cross community work, and while all members are aware that a shared
    future is not simply a mantra but a genuine commitment to fairness and equality,
    the party has to work harder to get that message across. Sixthly, despite its
    euro-critical stance, the party needs to launch a campaign as soon as possible
    pointing out the dangers inherent in rejecting the European Union. With Cameron
    already off the starting blocks in terms of discussions with European
    colleagues, this is one area where both SF and the SDLP could unite and benefit
    mutually. Finally, SF and the SDLP need to do some ground testing to find out
    exactly why Nationalist turnout is flat, and work together from an educational
    perspective to encourage younger nationalists to the ballot box.

    The arrival of People Before Profit will do no harm to the
    overall nationalist vote, even if it gives SF and the SDLP a headache. If it
    encourages more voters to the polls, transfers can protect the bulk of
    nationalist seats in the assembly. Moreover, if Fianna Fail keep to their
    promise of contesting Ass elections from 2019 the shake up amongst the
    nationalist electorate could deliver prizes from the changing demographics. Efforts
    to try and capitalise from the panic within Unionism could backfire badly if it
    is perceived to be teasing or juvenile. It would be foolish for Shinners to
    assume that all will be ok off the back of recent gains. The party has to make
    the changes necessary to get the voters out which includes simple things like
    getting people such as Gerry Kelly and Francie Molloy to at least attempt a
    smile for the cameras. It would also be foolish for those who hope for a SF
    demise to believe they cannot turn things around. They have done it before,
    they will do it again.

  • mjh

    What fatally damaged Sinn Fein’s election campaign were grossly incompetent management and arrogant complacency – not two separate narratives.

    Narrative should derive from strategy. If the people running the campaign had stuck with the strategy which has served them so well in the past there is no reason why it may not have served them just as well again. That was their first and biggest mistake.

    Since they dropped the “armalite and the ballot box” their northern strategy has been:
    1) Become as respectable as the SDLP.
    2) Grow their share of the nationalist vote from a declining SDLP.
    3) Offer northern nationalists a potential route to unity via prospect of presence in government north and south.
    4) Position themselves as the principal guarantor of the wider CRN community both by strength of determination and by size.

    Instead their election team appears to have embarked on the “SS Demographics” – complacently assuming that population trends would do most of their work for them safeguarding FST and dropping North Belfast like a ripe apple into their open arms. No need to do the difficult work of winning over SDLP inclined voters in these constituencies; work which would have had to be sustained over a long period and would have required public postures which would risk disenchanting the more die-hard sections of SF’s support.

    And when the North Belfast campaign started to get canvassing feedback which woke them from their complacency they panicked, rushing out that notorious leaflet which was quite simply incompetent on so many levels. It contradicted the party strategy; it was issued without any planning on who and how to deal with the inevitable criticism; the text was not even proof read properly; and no one co-ordinated damage limitation once they eventually realised they had a public relations disaster on their hands.

    The North Belfast leaflet is not evidence of a different narrative in that constituency since it was evidently not planned ahead. It is evidence of a constituency campaign leadership which lacked quality and competence and a central party HQ which was dangerously disengaged.

    In South Belfast they stuck to the strategy and the narrative, and it nearly worked. They knew they could not win themselves, but hoped to take sufficient votes to allow the DUP, the UUP or Alliance to topple McDonnell. Realistically they did as well as could have been expected.

    The lessons for SF appear to be – get back to the strategy that works. Make sure that all who have the responsibility to deliver it really understand it. Radically overhaul your electoral organisation at HQ level and in North Belfast and FST. Retire the old guard once 2016 is out of the way. And get a new face in North Belfast for 2020 as soon as possible.

  • mickfealty

    This might be clearer Kevin:

  • Zeno

    I believe they are in decline in the North and that will be followed by a similar decline in the South. An anti austerity party isn’t going play out well when the government have turned the economy around. The choice is going to be let the government continue with the recovery or take a risk and maybe Sinn Fein will pay off all your credit cards.

  • Robin Keogh

    So it remains to be seen if that will be the case but as Mick suggests above, its a bit early to be suggesting a SF decline in the North. If you are crorrect re the south it will be up to sinn fein to adapt adequetely and quickly enough. We will get a good idea on Friday on how it is going.

  • james

    Hmm…new narrative for Sinn Fein? Animal Farm?

  • Glenn Clare

    A new narrative for the cult??? I wasn’t me it was the Royal Mails fault.

  • Gopher

    Again the salient point here is the electorate increased massively and SF was not able to add to their total. Why? Me, I dont think it was anything really political outside of nationalism that damaged SF they have been around the 175,000 mark for quite sometime which suggests that is the case.

  • Zeno

    I’m predicting a Sinn Fein decline. The vote in the North has plateaued. I’ve no expertise on politics in the South, but when the country is doing so well the electorate are not going to jump ship.

  • Zeno

    OK …Robin

  • Robin Keogh

    Be nice Zeno

  • Robin Keogh

    You could be right, its a reasonable assertion. In the North it certainly looks like we have flatlined unless somebody pulls a rabbit out of a hat before the next Ass elections, i doubt it. In the South we only got 10% in the last Dail elections so anything above that will be seen as a prize. Polls have us between 18 and 24 percent but i reckon the real number is about twenty. We will have a better idea on Friday, I am hoping….no, praying that we hit 15% in Carlow Kilkenny, its not Shinner land but to be in with a shot next may we have to be at 15% or above.

  • kensei

    What’s the bottom of polling? That’s what SF always get.

  • Antain Mac Lochlainn

    I think you can afford to be optimistic about SF hitting 15% in Carlow/Kilkenny, Robin. Even people quite hostile to SF admit that Funchion is a good candidate. By the way, can I just say that your contraction of ‘Assembly Elections’ is a bit unfortunate?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    a good example of why people need a narrative. In a mess of detail, people need a summary.

  • Robin Keogh

    You are correct, polls always overstate our support, the lowest recent poll was 17%

  • Robin Keogh

    Ya, the register apparently was wiped clean a couple of years ago and folk had to reregister i an wondering if a lot didnt bother

  • ted hagan

    Some day the electorate will suss how much they have been conned by sectarianism of Sinn Fein and the unioniist parties and, like Scotland, will find a fresh, new party that people, especially the young, can get behind. Maybe it’s not so far off. After all, where was the SNP 20 years ago? Once we’ve something new, we will find healthy new opposition party (parties) too hopefully.

  • Kevin Breslin

    If I wanted a narrative with detail, I’d write a book not a short story, poem or comedy sketch.

  • Gopher

    Im not sure everyone wants to be on the electoral register. But what I think we have seen is massive migration out and the take up of British citizenship. It is truly incomprehensible that F&ST electorate only rose 2200 and South Belfast rose 5400 that is a biological, social and demographic impossibility without outside factors. You would have thought someone would have noticed a new housing estate in South Belfast.

  • hugh mccloy

    that was just an old wives tale, yes there was some adjustments but I never re reg’ed and my details never changed like 1000’s of others. The list was being redone and formatted to sell to private agencies and inland revenue and they needed more names on the list to get more £

  • barnshee

    SF political theology has limited value because, so many of their members appear to not really believe in the substance of their system. Would they have signed up to a partitionist assembly if they stuck to their principles? Did thousands die to provide British salaries and pensions for a chosen few? Not to mention genuflecting to British royalty.

    A belief which was used to justify hundreds of millions of wasted expenditure, and thousands of deaths, deaths which exacerbated enmity, deaths which stoked aggression now manifests itself almost entirely as celebrations of dead PIRA members. and opposition to Protestant Parades ( a situation aided and abetted by the stupid Protestants)

    Carefully shafted by the British into a deadlock with their polar
    opposite -extreme protestants, keeping the pot boiling is all that is now
    available. The pot however has the nasty habit of boiling over and putting all those sinecures associated with Stormont at risk. Worse still if/when the
    dissidents come “good” it might put at risk the whole SF machine.

    It was safer on the touchline – they are now on the pitch with the “ball” in the form of welfare reform thrown in and SF are limited to crying foul and blaming the “referee”.

  • aor26

    Is there something fundamental missing here though? Something that is probably so obvious that people just forget to mention it? 18 constituencies out of 650 across the U.K? Some people don’t go out and vote because they know our 18 MP’s are an irrelevance at Westminster. It doesn’t matter what our wee 18 think or do or whether they attend every vote or abstain entirely 99.9% of the time the Government steam rolls it’s agenda through the Commons regardless of what the main opposition thinks never mind small parties from N.I most people in the U.K have never heard of.