Wednesday 25 April 2018

Eoin O'Malley: What does SF do when its day just won't come?

As Sinn Fein gathers for its ard fheis, the party's alleged revolution has rather run out of steam, writes Eoin O'Malley

CONFERENCE: Deputy Leader Mary Lou McDonald speaking at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis. Photo:
CONFERENCE: Deputy Leader Mary Lou McDonald speaking at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis. Photo:

Eoin O'Malley

Sinn Fein's ard fheis this weekend will no doubt be a triumphant occasion. It has 23 seats in the Dail and could possibly become the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections. Gerry Adams will be re-elected leader unopposed. Add the unreconstructed nationalism evident in its 'celebration' of 1916 and you have all the ingredients for a party that is pleased with itself.

That triumphalism might be great for the activist, but I suspect the more thoughtful in the party will be concerned.

Sinn Fein had a bad election. Okay, Sinn Fein's slow-growth strategy seems to be working. From just four seats in 2007, it could become a formidable force in the Dail, as not all of the new TDs are lobby fodder for the bosses in Belfast. There were a few stars in the election: Pearse Doherty showed himself to be more than competent in debates on the economy.

But the party didn't pick up the support it had expected in 2016. In an election following years of austerity, with the water charges issue and even 1916, it seemed set up for a Sinn Fein breakthrough. But the party got less than 14pc of the vote - well down on its result in the European elections two years ago. It performed much worse than its sister parties in Greece and Spain, Syriza and Podemos.

It would have hoped that it could overtake Fianna Fail, which had hardly shone in Opposition, and relied on the ineptitude of Fine Gael for its recovery. The resurgent Fianna Fail remaining in Opposition makes it harder for Sinn Fein to carve out space for itself. Sinn Fein's non-involvement in government negotiations is designed for the party's long-term goal of becoming one of the top two parties in the State. But it is being accused of 'sitting on its hands'.

Those accusations are a bit unfair because Sinn Fein is persona non grata. None of the parties would do a deal with it. Even the alphabet-soup Left can't agree a transfer pact with it.

This might suit Sinn Fein for now. This is an anti-establishment 'moment'.

Populist parties and candidates are doing well because there is seen to have been a failure of the State to act effectively to deal with real problems people have. In some places, such as Greece and Spain, the populist solution is on the Left; in other places, such as the UK and France, it's on the Right.

Regardless of whether Left or Right, what they have in common is that they offer enticingly simple solutions to complex problems. They blame foreigners, financial markets and political insiders.

Wherever you are, it is broadly the same type of people who support those parties. Its voters are much more likely to be young, male and angry. Sinn Fein picks up the votes that Trump and Le Pen would in their countries.

It is to Sinn Fein's credit that it is not an anti-immigrant party - unless you happen to be the descendent of an immigrant who came to Ireland 400 years ago.

But like those voting for Trump or Farage, its voters are more chauvinistic than other parties. The European Social Survey, released last year, shows that Sinn Fein voters are less welcoming of immigrants: 21pc of its voters would allow no immigration, compared to 10pc of Fine Gael voters. On the other end of the scale, just 8pc would welcome 'many immigrants', compared to 18pc of Fine Gael voters.

On other issues, we see similar patterns. A quarter of Sinn Fein voters disagree with the statement that 'Gays should be free to live as they like.' This compares with less than 10pc of Fine Gael supporters. On other social issues, such as the role of women, we see that Sinn Fein voters are as conservative as those of Fianna Fail, which is more surprising, given the younger age profile of the Sinn Fein voter.

Where Sinn Fein's supporters differ from Fianna Fail's is that they are much less happy, and much less trusting.

That they don't trust the institutions of the State, such as gardai and the courts, might not be surprising, but they also don't trust their fellow citizens. Forty per cent of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail voters agree that 'most people can be trusted', but just 20pc of Sinn Fein's voters do.

The Sinn Fein message suits these people, but it could become a problem if Sinn Fein ever wants to govern.

While Sinn Fein's politics will delight a minority, it repulses many, even those who should be its friends. The radical Left doesn't regard it as genuinely left-wing; it sees it as a populist party using the class struggle for its nationalist ends. The centre Left regards it as too left-wing and find its brand of aggressive nationalism abhorrent.

This hits the party where it matters. Its 'transfer toxicity' might be overplayed, but Sinn Fein still gets fewer transfers than a party of its size should.

This cost it three seats in the February election. Just as many US voters will vote for anyone but Trump, most Irish ones will support anyone other than Sinn Fein.

Gerry Adams, like a Trump or Farage, gets headlines. Teenagers love selfies with him. But it stops the party from being taken seriously as a potential party of government. An interviewer had only to throw a few numbers at Adams and watch as he was left reeling in confusion.

It's hard to see him going unless he wants to go. Politicians have big egos and don't naturally realise they are a liability on their own. Sinn Fein is stuck with him.

The other problem is that the economy is improving. The 2017 or 2018 election will be a good one to win, but in the context of a recovery, Sinn Fein's message might not be as relevant. It's betting on the mainstream parties' failure, which might not happen.

Because it is important to the Northern leadership, the North is a bigger part of the party's campaign than a purely vote-seeking party would have. But it is not an issue that voters in the Republic care much about. This could also limit its growth.

As it gets bigger, expect Sinn Fein to move to the centre and it may even moderate its nationalism; but if Sinn Fein is Fianna Fail for slow learners, it can't succeed with a rising Fianna Fail.

Dr Eoin O'Malley is director of the MSc in Public Policy in the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University

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