Wednesday 19 June 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Mary Lou green with envy as SF vote goes backwards'

Protest vote that McDonald relied on now seems to be going elsewhere as disastrous results prove here and in Europe, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Winners and losers: Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan reflect on the European and local elections which saw the Greens up and SF down on votes. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Winners and losers: Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan reflect on the European and local elections which saw the Greens up and SF down on votes. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Eilis O'Hanlon

Irish politics has traditionally been described as a "two and a half party" system. Since the demise of Labour, the contest has been on to fill the role of the half party. For a time, it looked as if Sinn Fein was poised to step up and take the mantle. It even passed a motion at a special ard fheis to pave the way for coalition.

Now it seems that the party has lost the chance to play that role even before it got to the final audition stage, with the Greens overtaking them in both the local and (if the exit poll is to be believed, and there's no reason not to think it accurate) European Parliament elections.

The result is what's shaping up to be a disastrous weekend for Sinn Fein, and for Mary Lou McDonald personally. The Dublin woman is still sometimes referred to as the party's "new" leader, and, when the previous one was in the job for nearly 40 years, she does still feel like a novice; but she's been at the helm for over a year now, more than long enough to make her mark, and there's a definite feeling that the party has yet to get out of the starting blocks under her guidance. Her first set of results as leader couldn't have been worse.

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In Dublin, EU election candidate Lynn Boylan's vote looks to have plummeted, despite topping the poll last time. In the South constituency, Liadh Ni Riada's vote also looks to be on a similar downwards trajectory.

More worryingly for the party in the long term, Sinn Fein has not only failed to make advances in the local elections, but is actually going backwards. Mary Lou says it was always going to be difficult to hold on to the gains the party made in the councils five years ago, when SF won an extra 105 seats, going up 7.8 per cent in the process; and that's undoubtedly true. But the bald truth is that the protest vote on which SF always relied is simply going elsewhere right now, specifically to the Greens, who are also taking votes from the hard left, and winning it back again may not be all that straightforward.

In a way, SF has lost its brand identity. The Greens are more militant on economics, and, at a time when even a Fine Gael Taoiseach is regularly bashing the Brits to popular acclaim, with SF cheerleading from the wings, the party's claim to be the One True Republic's purest defender has been diluted.

It could be that courting FG in the hope of a coalition after the next election has fatally undermined its radical credentials.

They took their eye off the ball, and took supporter's' votes for granted. For that, Mary Lou can be personally blamed, not least for spending so much of her time talking about Northern Irish issues. That may have slowed any chance of changing SF's traditionally transfer-toxic reputation.

It's now more than 20 years since the Belfast Agreement. If the party is still stained by the shadow of that violent conflict, it can only be because it keeps choosing to be so by apologising for the murderous Provisional IRA campaign, rather than seeking a way to move beyond that poisonous legacy.

The party's attempts to distance itself from past Euroscepticism has proved equally inept. SF now tries to pitch itself as a "eurocritical" party, broadly supportive of the EU but keen for reform, which is a crowded space in the political marketplace. The real fight now in Europe is between full-blooded Eurosceptics, of the Brexit Party variety and passionate euro-federalists. Voters here have decisively picked their side. Concurrent fears about the effects of climate change mean that the Greens have been the beneficiaries. Supporting their candidates ticks two boxes at once. It's a protest vote, and simultaneously a vote for the EU establishment. SF lost out on both scores.

There is, of course, an element of virtuous posturing about voting Green. It's unlikely to cost voters anything, because Greens are rarely in a position to implement their anti-growth, anti-business, anti-farming economic policies.

Only in the topsy-turvy world of post-Brexit European politics could the rise of the Greens be seen as a victory against populism. The heady mixture of heightened emotion and simplistic solutions to complex problems that the Greens champion is every bit as populist as the right-wing variety. It just happens to appeal to a different demographic. But the surge by Greens at both local and European level will undoubtedly prompt the larger parties to make more effort to court the young climate change vote in the next general election. By tomorrow morning, the main parties will already be thinking about the next Dail.

Could a FG/Green coalition be on the cards, saving Leo from the moral dilemma of having to get into bed with SF? It definitely looks to be a possibility, and it would tick so many of Leo Varadkar's boxes that he's probably already drawing up a list of giddy initiatives to woo the eco-warriors his way.

The Greens are bound to grimly remember, though, that, the last time they went into coalition, it took the party a decade to recover. The same thing happened to Labour. SF was always wary of falling into the same trap, but may now be ruing that they may have lost the chance to take that risk, meaning they will have taken a hit for "selling out" without first getting the chance to put a price on the sell out.

What do they do now - shift back to the hard left, which now regards the party with even greater suspicion than before? Sit tight and hope that the Greens disappoint their new supporters as much as the party has in the past?

Mary Lou doesn't even have the luxury of hunkering down and rethinking the party strategy's from scratch, in the way that Fianna Fail had to do after 2011, because she's not her own woman. SF has to look, Janus-like, in two directions. What works in the North doesn't necessarily work in the South, but, in any conflict, one side has to win.

If the European election results confirm anything, it's that Irish voters respond to clearly defined messages. Peter Casey chimed with voters in the presidential election because they could see a place for him. But what would be the point of him pottering about in Brussels, making the occasional speech?

The same goes for Clare Daly and Mick Wallace. Transfers may well find one or both Brussels-bound, but they'll probably end up being much more isolated there than they are in the Dail. They'll be free-floating, anchorless, and that didn't do much good in the end for Ming Flanagan, whose previous huge support has evaporated in Midlands-North West.

Name recognition was supposed to be crucial in such geographically wide constituencies, but the bigger lesson here seems to be that it's more important to define one's role. SF has lost that clarity, so it's being punished, and it's being punished more severely than others because it's lost the greatest sense of purpose. It doesn't know any more if it's a party of government, or of protest; an anti-establishment popular movement, or a new Labour Party with some republican knobs on.

Parties can survive bad election results. What they can't survive is not knowing who they are.

Sunday Independent

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