Forget the increases – they weren’t enough

Posted By: March 05, 2016

Patrick Murphy. Irish News (Belfast). Saturday, March 26, 2016

Why has Sinn Féin seriously underachieved in two Dáil elections in the past five years? You might argue that in absolute terms, the party’s increased vote makes its performance creditable. But relative to other groups, it has performed poorly.

Look at the figures. In 2011, in the greatest social and economic crisis since the Famine, the Fianna Fáil (FF) vote collapsed, losing 57 seats. Fine Gael (FG) gained an extra 25 seats. Labour gained 17. In this electoral earthquake, Sinn Féin (SF) gained ten new seats. But Independents gained nine, to put them level with SF on 14 seats each.

Perhaps, you say, SF was not ready for that opportunity. However, in 2016 the new government’s vote also collapsed. Fine Gael and Labour lost 56 seats between them. Sinn Féin gained an extra nine, one less than in 2011. But Fianna Fáil, the near-death party of five years earlier, gained 24 seats. After the 2011 election, SF was six seats behind FF. Today it trails by 21.

(This column went against opinion polls in January to suggest that we should keep an eye on Fianna Fáil. Those who now suggest that party’s rise was inevitable might recognise that predictions are best when they are made before the event.)

Sinn Féin’s performance can be deemed poor, because it is by far the richest party in Ireland and its nine years in government in Stormont has given it a huge media profile. Despite that, Independents and smaller parties have 34 seats, 11 more than SF.

These candidates were largely elected on shoestring budgets, with no expensive election buses or high-cost election broadcasts. They had no common election manifesto and, as far as we know, they did not organise $500 per person fund-raising dinners in New York.

So why is Sinn Féin not doing better in the south?

Its first weakness is that either it does not appear to appreciate the more sophisticated nature of southern politics (compared to northern sectarianism) or it has yet to achieve fluency in the language of southern politics.

There is nothing wrong with arguing for citizen-based rights, or even a new Republic. But while these concepts resonate with northern nationalists, they have less appeal in the non-sectarian pragmatism of the southern electorate. Did SF really think that the Narrow Water Bridge or a Green Paper on Irish unity would win votes in a recession?

This weakness shaped the party’s recent election campaign in which its message lacked the clarity of FF’s “fair recovery”. Sinn Féin said it was anti-establishment. (The Queen will be disappointed). Its claim rang hollow in the light of its establishment role in Stormont, and it earned the left’s distaste and the right’s distrust. The “three amigos” remark got laughs, but it cut off potential transfers.

Whereas FF campaigned from a position of humility (“We have learned from our mistakes”) SF displayed a needless aggressiveness, even asking television interviewers what they earned.

Post-election, SF again lost the advantage to FF, by ruling itself out of government in coalition with a bigger party. Fianna Fáil, meanwhile, called for Dáil reform, a hazy concept at best, but one which immediately gave it the moral and political high ground.

Those who suggest that Gerry Adams is the problem might recognise that he also is the solution to another problem. No one else can hold the party together. Mary Lou McDonald (or anyone else) will not command the same authority and her leadership could raise internal party tensions, both in a north-south context and on an ideological basis within the south.

It will need more than centenary celebrations to hold together a party trailing in republican popularity behind Fianna Fáil and lagging behind independents and others in reflecting disenchantment with government.

Sinn Féin’s second problem is that, for the first time, its role in Stormont’s appalling performance is now an election liability rather than an asset in the south. (Claiming £700,000 of public money for unidentified research and apparently failing to spot a multi-million pound Nama scandal would appear to be appalling by any standards.)

Whereas the party can solve its first problem by changing its southern stance, its second problem can only get worse. There is too much money, power, privilege and patronage flowing from Stormont for anyone to turn the tap off.

You may disagree with those two reasons, which is fine. But why, then, do you think the party did so poorly? You might reply that it did very well. In that case, you have identified Sinn Féin’s third weakness: denial. The most serious mistake which any party can make is to believe its own hype.

There is no cure for that one.