Working towards Irish Unity




Sinn Féin, where now for the Party?

The Local and European elections in the Republic have proved an unwelcome shock for Sinn Féin. The outcome was not expected. Although the party’s high position in opinion polls was slipping, it could never have expected such a shattering result.  It achieved only just under 12% of the popular vote in the Local contests. Not too long ago, Sinn Féin was running at 37% support, its highest position in the polls.

The explanation for the demise of Sinn Féin is not difficult to discern.  The party lost contact with its core support and went chasing after middle class voters, who were never going to switch their traditional party allegiances to them. Meanwhile the core vote, overwhelmingly in working class areas, felt that Sinn Féin was no longer representing their interests.  The more Sinn Féin tried to appear non-threatening to the established order, the more they lost votes in areas which in the past supported them. Voters flocked to Sinn Féin when they were perceived as different from the other parties. They had no desire to vote for a Fianna Fáil lite version.  Sinn Féin became seen as part of the cosy establishment, rather than outsiders.  This was its main mistake.

The party made a number of serious blunders in policy areas which greatly contributed to its fall from grace. Certainly, around the time of the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Féin had a strong and well-resourced backroom team which vetted policies and statements. That careful appraisal of policy seems to have deserted the party as it sought approval from establishment media outlets like the Irish Times, RTÉ, etc. These organisations were never going to be won over by Sinn Féin, having been for generations anti-Republican.  It is now part of their DNA.

The biggest single blunder Sinn Féin made was to become associated in the public mind with open borders in relation to immigration.  The Republic is experiencing large scale legal migration, which has been largely, but not totally, uncontroversial. However, the arrival of over 100,000 Ukrainians to the Republic seeking international protection, attracted by very generous terms offered by the Government, placed huge strains on local services.  The Government alienated local working class populations by placing these refugees overwhelmingly in their areas and providing supports for them which were not available for locals or indeed other refugees. These communities looked to Sinn Féin to articulate their complaints but did not get a proper response. Sinn Féin appeared to be fearful of what the mainstream media might say if they appeared sympathetic to calls for a crackdown on illegal migration. Sinn Féin was slow to catch the public mood and was totally outflanked by the new Taoiseach Simon Harris who spoke about a new firm, but fair, immigration process for refugees.  Harris quickly brought the regime for Ukrainians into line with other groups and rapidly distanced himself from the chaos in the refugee system which operated under his predecessor, Leo Varadkar. He appeared to leave Sinn Féin floundering in his wake as he brought a great deal of energy to tackling the problem.

A well run and efficient immigration system is neither left wing nor right wing, it is simply good governance. Therefore, Independents and new political entities, many to the right of the current political parties, quickly filled the void, left by Sinn Féin’s hesitancy. Unless the party articulates a clear and unambiguous policy on irregular immigration, it would appear to have little chance of regaining trust in many areas.   Polling shows that Sinn Féin supporters overwhelmingly want control to be brought to this issue.

Sinn Féin also made a grievous error in supporting the ill conceived referendum on family issues, where the wording of the proposal was ambiguous and confusing.  The electorate felt they were being bounced into accepting Constitutional changes without those changes being explained and justified.  In fact, it was estimated that Sinn Féin party supporters rejected the changes in larger numbers than any other group. The fact that subsequent freedom of information requests have exposed what was a very cynical exercise by the Government on that occasion has not helped Sinn Féin. It allowed itself to be far too easily associated with that doomed referendum proposal.

Sinn Féin also appeared to soften its eurocritical approach at a time when opinion polling in the Republic is showing increased disillusionment with many EU policies.  While it has opposed the militarization of the European Union, it has appeared to cosy up too much to the EU, although that may be explainable by the Brexit dispute. However, Brexit is now fading from the political consciousness and Sinn Féin needs to demonstrate that it is different from the other parties on the issue of national sovereignty.

The party rather bizarrely supported the controversial Hate Speech legislation, which was clearly an effort to curtail free speech, masquerading as a piece of progressive legislation.  Sinn Féin offered no resistance to it as it passed through the Dáil, which is difficult to understand from a party which was subject to years of State censorship.  It is clear that there was very little inspection of the detail of the proposed legislation. It sailed through with Sinn Féin support but was only stopped in the Seanad by a number of Independents. Since then, even Government backbenchers, who finally read the Bill, have been quoted as being appalled at some of the provisions. Where was the old Sinn Féin backroom team during its passage?

However, the situation is not irretrievable. It should be noted that less than half the electorate voted in the recent elections and in some working class areas, it was only around a third. Also, Sinn Féin had a weak representation on local councils prior to the Local elections where there is a strong advantage in incumbency.  Sinn Féin recovered from a disastrous set of elections in 2019 to achieve its best ever performance in the 2020 general election.

The party has a huge task in regaining the trust and confidence of its former supporters. It needs to return to basics and the policies which made it popular. It is not going to effortlessly sail into power like Keir Stammer in London. Perhaps it misread the situation and thought that the current administration in Dublin would make itself unpopular and that all the party had to do was to avoid mistakes. It that is so, then it misread the situation, especially with the Republic’s economy doing well. It will need to work a lot harder to wrestle power from the current regime.

Sinn Féin needs to actively demonstrate that it is a real alternative to the present Government. It can do so by dropping its aspirations to respectability while concentrating heavily on its core support. It needs to speak more of national sovereignty, reunification of Ireland and that it is the only real all Ireland party. It should state that immigration needs to be managed properly and those who seek to undermine the system should be subject to the law and were necessary, deported. It should start acting as a real Opposition Party, not an adjunct to the political consensus.  Its public representatives probably need to spend less time around Leinster House and more time out in their constituencies, listening to the voters.  The current Government is enjoying a bounce from the new Taoiseach, Simon Harris, and that bounce will eventually subside.  The new energetic approach by his Government to immigration many not have the desired effect and be seen in the future as gimmicky rather than real.

For Sinn Féin the message must be Back to Basics.