With the party facing questions over its finances, middle-class supporters are starting to have their doubts
For the third month in the last four support for Sinn Féin has fallen in our series of opinion polls, with the party now hovering dangerously close to a milestone fall back down to earth — otherwise known as ‘out of the 30s’.
Last month my colleague Kevin Cunningham analysed the recent decline in support for the party. In short, he concluded the middle classes were starting to have their doubts.
In this poll, Sinn Féin (at 31pc) is down one point and — let’s be fair — it could be back up again next month, such are the vagaries of opinion polls.
But to be losing support three months in four? There are those who would call that the start of a trend.
Let’s put it another way that Sinn Féin’s diehard supporters might like to consider: Enoch Burke has around the same level of support as their party.
Now, we are not saying they are the same supporters, just that Burke and Sinn Féin have the same level of backing: 30pc believe the teacher was sacked for his religious beliefs, including his views on transgenderism and the same proportion admire how he has stood up for his beliefs (19pc) or have a grudging respect for his single- mindedness (11pc).
Of course, another 32pc are “sick of the sight” of Burke, and, well, in our poll, as in all polls of public opinion, there is a comfortable two-thirds with similar feelings towards Mary Lou McDonald’s party.
This is, obviously, comparing apples with oranges and therefore not entirely accurate or fair, but there is a point here all the same.
The point is what I have been saying for some time now, that Sinn Féin support has topped out and is now showing signs of being in decline.
Undoubtedly the middle class are having another look. Last month Cunningham referred to the Government’s successful handling of the cost-of-living crisis as effectively blunting Sinn Féin’s edge.
To that I would add concerns over evidence at the party’s association with Jonathan Dowdall, according to evidence elicited at the Special Criminal Court.
In this month’s poll, a massive 69pc say Sinn Féin has further questions to answer over its financial affairs.
And as to that other controversy which made headlines for two weeks: the Paschal Donohoe affair?
The concept of a storm in a teacup is said to have originated in the writings of Cicero. In our poll, 43pc believe the so-called Postergate affair was, indeed, “stirring up waves in a ladle”, to translate the Roman philosopher. A further 23pc are not quite of that view, but felt Donohoe should not resign, while 28pc believed he should.
In general, the Donohoe episode has given the public further pause for thought: 50pc do not believe the level of scrutiny now faced by politicians is a deterrent to getting the best candidates involved in politics, but a chunky 38pc do believe that is the case, and 13pc are unsure.
In any event, back to Sinn Féin, and another reverse for the party to be found in this month’s poll.
Last November, when we offered a ‘forced choice’ — the current Government or a Sinn Féin-led alternative — the poll came out in Sinn Féin’s favour.
This month, 43pc (up two points) say they would prefer the current Government, while the proportion of those opting for an administration led by McDonald’s party, excluding Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, is down two percentage points, to 41pc.
On its own, today’s poll does not represent a crisis for Sinn Féin. The party is still, comfortably, the most popular in the country, ahead of Fine Gael (22pc, down three points) and Fianna Fáil (18pc, up two points).
But it could represent the beginnings of a trend which the party may struggle to reverse. That is the thing about trends: once you notice one it is almost too late to break it.
Sinn Féin needs to return to the bread-and-butter issues which served it so well to date: housing, healthcare, and indeed poverty and inequality which debuts this weekend as a new issue of pressing concern cited by our poll respondents, up there with climate change.
Today’s poll also shows immigration to increasingly be an issue of concern, with Aontú voters particularly exercised on the issue.
For sure, this is a growing issue for many people, not all “far right” as often portrayed in the media: a majority (56pc) say the country has taken in too many refugees.
In my view this poll also tells us that while people have growing concerns, immigration has not yet broken through as a burning issue — as, say, the health system did last month, or as housing always is.
As for Enoch Burke…
Well, here’s the thing, Enoch. A full third of respondents think you selfishly put your own interests above those of your students, which is not a good look in the run-up to exams. And almost as many again (32pc) feel you should be ignored by courts, media, and school management.
Back to the bigger political picture. We would be foolish to read too much into a modest decline in Sinn Féin’s support compared to last month. One swallow never made a summer. But this St Brigid’s weekend, three downward polls is certainly making for an interesting spring.