Alex Kane: Sinn Fein faces huge challenges ... but don’t write them off

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It made sense for Gerry Adams to seek election to the Dáil Éireann in 2011. The DUP and Sinn Fein had settled into the NI Executive reasonably comfortably (albeit not particularly productively) in 2007 and Martin McGuinness seemed happy enough to remain in situ.

Adams, meanwhile, was keen to up SF’s profile in the South and particularly in the Dáil. Only political nerds and media correspondents would have been able to name the party’s leader in the Dáil at the time, while attention-grabbing stories about the party were few and far between. The party needed traction if it was ever to be a serious contender for coalition in the South and Adams was the only person who could provide that traction.

Mary Lou McDonald has overseen three successive poor election results since replacing Gerry Adams as Sinn Fein president

Mary Lou McDonald has overseen three successive poor election results since replacing Gerry Adams as Sinn Fein president

In the 2009 local and Euro elections – two years before he became a TD – SF recorded 7% (53 councillors) and 11% (no MEPs). In 2014 they were up to 15% (159 councillors) and 19% (3 MEPs). That, by anybody’s yardstick, was a tremendous leap forward: the sort of leap which allowed SF and their political opponents to buy into the possibility of SF in government on both sides of the border (the sort of thing which would really have spooked unionists).

In the year that Adams won his seat in Louth (February 2011) SF won 14 seats on an almost 10% share of the vote. Five years later they won 23 seats on almost 14%. And in October 2011 Martin McGuinness won 243,000 votes (13.7%) in the Irish presidential election.

Adams’ mere presence on the political/electoral scene in the South seems to have galvanised the party and attracted the sort of voter who had never come their way before. His ‘uncomfortable’ interviews with the media about his own past and the activities of the IRA generally never seemed to do him any harm; indeed the electoral evidence was suggesting that the interviews were attracting sympathy. His narrative about SF changing and preparing for a ‘new’ Ireland was winning votes, particularly when he was able to point to the ‘constructive role’ that SF was playing with the DUP.

But when Adams stood down as SF leader in February 2018 things began to go wrong. At the presidential election that October SF’s candidate, Liadh Ní Riada dropped 7% and almost 150,000 votes on Martin McGuinness’s performance. In politics the hardest losses to explain are the unexpected ones. The candidate was dull as ditchwater and struggled for coherence on everything. It was clear from the start that Michael D Higgins would win comfortably, but SF was still confident that it would, nonetheless, do well. The response to the result was to view it as a blip, with too many insiders content to blame a duff candidate and assume they’d be back to normal six months later.

But they weren’t. They lost a third of their vote and half of their seats (down from 159 to 81) in the council elections. They also lost a third of their vote at the Euro elections and, depending on what happens in the South constituency (where SF’s Liadh Ní Riada, underperforming again, has called for a recount), look like losing two of the three seats they won in 2014. Again, no-one saw the blows coming; so the party didn’t have time to absorb them and, instead, was left reeling and punch-drunk.

As Matt Carty, who held his Midlands-North-West seat, put it: “It’s been devastating. There’s going to be big questions asked because at this point, there’s not one single thing I can point to, it’s not as if we lost our vote to a single entity. It’s not like we just lost votes to the Greens; we lost votes to independents, we lost votes to Fianna Fail – God help us, we lost votes to the Labour party. We’re going to have to ask big questions of ourselves and it’s going to be an intensive discussion internally.”

Will the post-mortem look at Mary Lou McDonald (who was supposed to reach beyond the base built by Adams)? This is her third election as leader and she has managed to lose half the seats the party held at council and EU level and over a third of the vote. On that trend they’d be lucky to hold the 13 seats and 10% they won in the 2011 Dáil election which saw Gerry Adams elected in Louth.

The post-mortem also needs to look at what happened in Northern Ireland. The slippage wasn’t as catastrophically noticeable, but it was still significant. Deploying the excuse that they ‘loaned’ their votes to Naomi Long was absurd, because within 48 hours some of their supporters were back to pushing the line that Alliance was mostly a softish, pro-Union party.

So, what went wrong? There are all sorts of answers; some obvious, some not. Some to do with internal tensions (nearly 40 of their councillors either resigned or were expelled over the past two years for a variety of reasons) and some to do with much-more-difficult-to-deal-with public perceptions about the party. The surge of the Greens and the partial recovery of Fianna Fail (both of which are beyond SF’s control) will also have hurt them. The ongoing impasse at Stormont has also meant they couldn’t point to the Assembly/Executive as evidence of how good they can be in a coalition.

Also – and this may be more significant than they realise – I sense that southern voters are getting bored with SF’s stance of being opposed to just about everything the Irish government is doing. Put bluntly, on both sides of the border SF just looks like an increasingly passé party of perpetual protest: more 1970s Wolfie Smith rather than a 21st century socialism for a changed and still-changing Ireland.

The party faces huge challenges. But only a fool would write them off. SF has a remarkable capacity for reinvention, somersaulting from previously fixed positions and adapting fairly quickly to uncomfortable political/electoral realities. They will learn from everything that has happened, north and south, since January 2016 and make the necessary changes.