SF has failed to get near FF and its strategy is now in tatters
Published 28/02/2016 | 02:30
Sinn Fein, naturally, has already proclaimed its performance in this election as a great achievement for the party. In fact, it is anything but. Privately, they will be sorely disappointed with a result that is at the bottom of the scale of what was achievable this time around.
Don't be surprised if Gerry Adams, whose shortcomings in southern politics were repeatedly exposed in this campaign, is given a 'heroic' send-off into retirement from the leadership at the coming Easter ard fheis - under the threat of finally being challenged by Mary-Lou McDonald and/or Pearse Doherty if he tried to hang on.
It may, on the face of it, seem strange to describe Sinn Fein's campaign as a disappointment for the party - given that it increased its vote share by half and raised its number of seats. But the question of success or failure needs to be judged in the context of its strategic objective on this side of the Border, which is to supplant Fianna Fail as the dominant voice of republicanism.
It is only a few weeks since the objective of overtaking Fianna Fail in what many Sinn Fein activists still sneeringly refer to as the 'Free State' seemed far from fanciful. As recently as early February, Sinn Fein, on 21pc, was just one percentage point behind Fianna Fail in a Sunday Independent/Millward Brown poll. Go back another year, to February 2015, and Sinn Fein was on 26pc in the same newspaper's poll.
Over the course of the election campaign, the Provos slumped to just 13.5pc as their 'soft' support melted away. Fianna Fail, on 25.6pc, pulled in almost double the number of first preferences.
Micheal Martin's party is not only back in town and swaggering, it has decisively beaten off the existential threat from Sinn Fein, putting a massive stretch of clear blue water between the two parties. Sinn Fein's strategic objective of doing to Fianna Fail what it did to the SDLP in the North is off the agenda for the foreseeable future.
This was the election in which Sinn Fein - Gerry Adams in particular - was repeatedly found out and there are lessons here for the party's opponents in terms of what does and does not work when it comes to attacking that party.
For years, from the point at which Sinn Fein became serious players in southern politics, its opponents have concentrated on attacking Sinn Fein by focusing on its symbiotic relationship to the Provisional IRA. By and large, this hasn't worked.
One of the most striking features of opinion polls in recent years has been the 'Teflon' nature of Sinn Fein's support. No matter what was thrown at it - ranging from IRA murders, North and South, including Jean McConville, to the more recent revelations of the cover-up of sex abuse by IRA men - the party's standing in the polls, while occasionally fluctuating, remained essentially solid and on an upwards trajectory.
Almost 20 years on from the IRA's final cessation, an entire generation of voters has no memory of the horrors of the Troubles - which would go a long way to explaining Sinn Fein's higher support among those aged under 35. It would appear, furthermore, that a significant proportion of those older voters who lived through that period are not deterred from voting for Sinn Fein. (Some, of course, may simply have switched off from anything to do with 'the North').
Concentrating on the fallout of the IRA campaign may arguably deprive Sinn Fein of possible transfers from some 'sneaking regarder' voters, but beyond that group, the likelihood is that it merely reinforces the determination of the many people who were never going to support the party anyway, not to vote Sinn Fein.
Something different happened in the course of this campaign - and it was not the 'Slab' Murphy affair, which had been in the news for a long time.
The plummeting in Sinn Fein's support from 21pc in early February to 13.5pc on election day can only be explained by events within the past three weeks.
As well as Gerry Adams's legendary economic illiteracy being laid bare over and over again in a series of excruciatingly embarrassing interviews, Sinn Fein was finally exposed as a Seventies-style 'tax and spend' party.
Arguably, the party was in trouble from the moment that it declined to commit to the abolition of the Universal Social Charge.
Its problems deepened in the final Leaders' Debate, when Miriam O'Callaghan pointed out that its finance spokesman, Pearse Doherty, had previously introduced legislation to abolish the USC, and Micheal Martin outlined just how much Sinn Fein's tax policies would cost middle-income families.
Want to stop Sinn Fein? It's the economy, stupid.
This election was a huge strategic setback for Sinn Fein, who have been put firmly in their place by Micheal Martin's party.
Gerry Adams will never be Taoiseach. Sinn Fein will not be in power on both sides of the Border for the 100th anniversary of the Rising.
Its hopes of hijacking State power in the South as a means of levering 900,000 unwilling unionists into a united Ireland - the real issue that motivates Sinn Fein - have been dashed. The Sinn Fein strategy is in pieces.
Despite the extra votes and seats, Election 2016 was a defeat for them. Not that you will hear any Sinn Feiners going 'off-message' and admitting this, of course. Sinn Fein doesn't do defeats.
This, remember, is the party that marked the failure of the IRA's armed campaign to achieve any of its objectives by staging a triumphalist, Tricolour-waving cavalcade down the Falls Road in 1994.
Expect the Tricolours to be out in force when Adams bows out, sooner rather than later, at the end of a leadership career that leaves the Sinn Fein 'republic' as far from his reach as ever it was.