So what of the third largest party in the new Dail? In 2011, we noted that the party had finally acquired ‘national currency’. And for most of the last five years, Sinn Fein has looked set to collect handsomely on that major advance.
Their high point came in 2014 in the European Parliamentary elections when they became the second largest party by seats, taking 19.5% of the total vote on 52.44% turnout. On the same day, they achieved 15.2% of the local council vote.
An Ipsos MRBI opinion poll in September 2015 put Sinn Féin at 21%, but looking at the trends Red C director Richard Colwell argued that demographically – between scandals and a declining protest vote – the party’s gains hadn’t been as strong as their losses.
23 TDs in the 32nd Dail Sinn Fein hits their pre-election target. But given where the polling had been it was at the lowest edge of internal expectations. The truth is – with the exception of Donegal – seats lost or missed out on were largely due to external factors.
Picking up so many seats on just 13.8% of the vote (Labour’s pre-Gilmore norm) suggests that the party is no longer as transfer toxic as they once were. Though I suspect we will find that the fluidity is confined to other Right 2 Change parties and independents.
They have eleven new TDs and nine new seats. Putting new TDs into Sligo and Cork East shows the power of the SF machine to retain what they hold. Five of the eleven are young women: a significant upgrade from the party’s aging contingent in the 31st Dail.
Not a bad day at the office when you do the sums. But the truth is any great step forward was predicated on Fianna Fail’s continuing weakness, who sit on the richer seams of voters Sinn Fein needs to take their presence in the Republic to the next level.
Instead, they’ve ended up splitting the Gilmore’s 2011 Labour footprint between themselves and a group of rival parties and independents. If the recovery continues that space is going to come under more intense competition.
With the exception of Louth the rising Fianna Fail vote in the border areas puts a squeeze on the party in the very areas where it has traditionally been at its strongest. The pipping of Senator Kathryn Reilly by Fianna Fail Cllr Niamh Smyth must particularly sting.
So for Sinn Fein, this is a handy result which owes much to the party’s well crafted and honed form of “stay low and keep moving” guerilla politics: ie, the narrative of continuous growth that has served the party well since the early 1980s.
In the wider picture though it is unremarkable. Next month will see negotiations of epic proportions as parties vie over who becomes the next Taoiseach. Fianna Fail’s bid to close the gap between Sinn Fein’s and the left’s position on water charges will feature highly.
For a party of such newly enlarged proportions, that’s not a piece in which Sinn Fein is to going be allowed to sit comfortably on the sidelines.