Sunday 17 February 2019

Liam Weeks: 'How its year of hope all went so horribly wrong for Sinn Fein'

It had all started so well with the arrival of new leader Mary Lou McDonald, but then everything went spinning out of control, says Liam Weeks

Mary Lou McDonald. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Mary Lou McDonald. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

This year should have been the year that Sinn Fein finally broke free of its shadow, one that should have heralded its metamorphosis from a party with a paramilitary past to one with a future in government.

Instead, 2018 was a year Sinn Fein may wish to forget. The party is preparing to enter the new year in limbo in Dublin, Belfast and London, failing to realise its potential in all three parliaments where it has elected representatives.

Perhaps not its annus horribilis, but certainly not an annus mirabilis.

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And yet, the year began so well for Sinn Fein.

For a while now, many within the party and beyond were aware that Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein's northern leadership were a major hang-up for middle Ireland.

Those in this critical category who decide elections could not see themselves voting for Adams, no matter how much Sinn Fein embraced the peace process and normal politics.

Having led the party for over 34 years, a record bettered in recent times only by Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Adams's decision to step down in late 2017 was seen as the removal of the final obstacle to Sinn Fein being accepted as a mainstream party.

His replacement was the party's great white hope. Middle-class, female, and a graduate of English literature from Trinity College to boot, Mary Lou McDonald was the face that would be acceptable to all.

Perhaps most importantly, she was a southerner with no historical baggage from the Troubles. Even her coronation could not have gone more smoothly for Sinn Fein.

While leadership contests in other parties can result in feuds and expose internal divisions, McDonald was elected seemingly unopposed.

On taking up the position at a special ard fheis in February, the party's new leader said: "Our purpose is to win. To win elections, to increase our political strength, to realise our ambition of being in government, north and south."

To many within Sinn Fein it seemed only a matter of when, not if, the party was able to satisfy these ambitions.

They believed McDonald would take the party to places it could never have dreamed of when Sinn Fein first entered the Dail just 21 years previously.

Rather than being a stepping stone, however, McDonald's elevation has proven to be more of a plateau, as both she and her party have struggled to make inroads for much of 2018.

It is sometimes forgotten that Sinn Fein is the primary leader of the Opposition.

With Fianna Fail supporting the Fine Gael-Independent Alliance minority government, Sinn Fein holds half of the remaining seats in the Dail.

This should have been the opportune moment that Sinn Fein craved, one where it could portray itself as an alternative to the civil war parties.

In addition, in any other party system, it would be Sinn Fein deciding who forms a government, not Fianna Fail or Fine Gael.

With both of these parties a long way off a majority, and a coalition between the two off the agenda, Sinn Fein should hold the balance of power.

It should be able to pick off Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, a position that would enable it to extract maximum leverage in cabinet.

It could also be the dominant party on the left.

With Labour in the doldrums, and a fragmented left comprising independents and a number of minor players, Sinn Fein could claim to be the one party that none of them could aspire to be, a left-wing party with the potential to lead, or at least be a major player in, government.

In spite of all these coulds and shoulds, little of this potential has transpired for the party.

Although Sinn Fein has grown in strength in opinion polls since the 2016 Dail election, its support is only back to what it was three years ago, attracting between one in five and one in four voters.

A major obstacle for the party remains transferring poll figures to the ballot box, where voters tend to shy away from Sinn Fein.

In the 12 months before the last election, for example, the party lost almost 10 percentage points in support.

One of the reasons why this could remain a problem is that although McDonald has reversed a previous position of ruling out government with either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, it has not brought the party any closer to power.

Both Micheal Martin and Leo Varadkar have ruled out such a coalition, and with internal rule changes in both parties requiring participation in government to go before a special party conference, an additional obstacle has been created for Sinn Fein to enter cabinet.

In political science, we talk about the importance of parties remaining politically 'relevant' in the process of government formation, and if Sinn Fein lacks this kind of relevance, it could lose support from voters who see little reason to vote for such a party.

All this has only served to make McDonald's reaching out to Fianna Fail and Fine Gael seem more desperate, because in reality it should instead be the two of them seeking to court Sinn Fein support.

The relevance of Sinn Fein also took a battering at the presidential election in October, an opportunity it lost to indicate its position as a genuine alternative.

With Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour all backing Michael D Higgins's candidacy, Sinn Fein was the only party fielding a candidate. Indeed, it was the only reason we had an election at all.

With Sinn Fein hovering around 20pc in the polls at the time, it might have been expected that its candidate could attract more support than this, being a focal point for opposition to President Higgins.

Instead, the election proved an unmitigated disaster for the party. The vote won by Peter Casey distracted some of the attention that should have been on the poor showing by Liadh Ni Riada.

How an independent candidate with no electoral experience managed to win more than three times the support of the candidate of a national organisation beggars belief.

Worryingly for Sinn Fein, barely more than one in three of its supporters gave Ni Riada a first preference.

I wrote last week that the poor showing for presidential candidate Austin Currie cost Alan Dukes the leadership of Fine Gael in 1990. It may only have been her limited time at the helm that allowed Mary Lou McDonald to escape a similar fate in 2018.

Sinn Fein has also failed to profit from Brexit.

As the only party with seats in the Dail, Stormont, and the House of Commons, Brexit should have been an opportunity ripe for the party to exploit.

As Enda Kenny claimed last year, the potential of a united Ireland, although probably still remote, has never seemed closer.

We were all taught in history class the importance of the adage "England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity" to Irish nationalists, but Sinn Fein has not been able to seize this opportunity.

With the party not maximising its relevance in the Dail, and Stormont not sitting, the futility of Sinn Fein's abstentionst policy in the House of Commons has never been more stark.

On top of all this, the party has faced a number of internal problems.

Accusations of bullying led to the resignation of a number of councillors and TDs over the past couple of years.

Sinn Fein also lost representatives over abortion in 2018, with TDs Carol Nolan and Peadar Tobin resigning, and Tobin proposing to form a new splinter party.

The new year can't come fast enough for Mary Lou and Sinn Fein.

They will be hoping 2019 is more mirabilis and less horribilis.

  • Dr Liam Weeks is Director of the MSc Government & Politics at University College Cork

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