Friday 23 August 2019

Martina Devlin: 'Sinn Féin has discovered voter loyalty can't be counted on in the Republic. It is out of step with the public and a change of party strategy needs to begin now'

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald. Photo: PA
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald. Photo: PA
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

A t-shirt can't win or lose someone an election but it takes some beating as a messenger. Doing the radical-chic look in her 'Free Julian Assange' top at the count centre, Clare Daly had the edge over other candidates in promoting her values.

Her election was a reversal for Sinn Féin because she unseated Lynn Boylan - and that was far from being the only setback the party experienced. Currently, it has just one guaranteed voice in Europe, while the best Liadh Ní Riada can hope for is a cold-storage Brexit seat if a recount overturns Grace O'Sullivan's 327-vote lead for the Greens. That's a big 'if'.

From any perspective, it's a lacklustre result for the Sinn Féin MEPs. And in the locals, the party halved its seats, 78 councillors down.

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Some Sinn Féin representatives who left over bullying allegations were re-elected as Independents and that sends another message to the leadership. Sinn Féin erred in losing people valued by the electorate rather than address internal issues. Quality candidates are not so ubiquitous that a party can afford to be profligate with them.

The party has discovered voter loyalty cannot be counted on in the Republic, although its vote largely held in the North. While people behave differently in general elections compared with the Europeans, the locals provide a gauge of what's likely to happen in a general election. On that basis, Sinn Féin ought to be nervous.

However, it has had an alarm call. There is a little time - until early next year possibly - to learn from the results and begin repositioning itself. But the turnaround is too tight to effect all the necessary changes - of policies, tone and differentiation from rivals. The party's strategy is out of step with the public and strategy takes time to develop. Still, a start can be made.

A multiplicity of reasons exists for its disappointment. Among them is public dismay at its non-engagement in Westminster because of the Brexit crisis. The abstentionist policy should be reconsidered, even temporarily.

Those seven MPs in the House of Commons could have made a difference during several narrow votes and would have provided an alternative voice to the DUP's. Just showing some flexibility would signal to the Southern electorate Sinn Féin is in the business of constructive politics.

Such a move may well broaden its support base. The party faithful would dislike any change to this long-standing policy but a case could be argued on the ground: it's an interim measure to deal with an island-wide crisis.

So, why else was Sinn Féin punished by voters? The absence from government at Stormont was unpopular with some, again because of the risks posed by a hard Border. The crowded left-wing field is another issue. Sinn Féin's fiscal policies don't endear it to centre-inclined voters so it needs to occupy the left space, but that vote is competitive and the party didn't differentiate itself sufficiently.

Sinn Féin was voted in on a wave of protest politics but the market for those has diminished. It has overplayed austerity at a time when the economy is returning to health and unemployment is comparatively low at 5.4pc.

Internally, its relatively recent adherence to the liberal agenda has led to tensions within the party - and some losses. Push and pull between long-standing members and newcomers became apparent, and not all were on board with the Repeal the Eighth campaign.

Aontú, which emerged as a result of the party whip being applied on abortion reform, won three council seats in Cavan, Meath and Wexford. When a party modernises, it needs to do so carefully or risk losing some of its base.

No party can be discounted because of one set of election results. Nevertheless, the scale of these latest reversals was unexpected and Sinn Féin must take a clear-eyed look at itself. Some questions to address include why it isn't transfer friendly and why it didn't get its vote out (a failure, too, in the presidential election). Low turnout in some urban constituencies hit home particularly hard.

Sinn Féin needs to reflect on its confrontational style which permeates the party. Passion and feistiness are engaging - Clare Daly is proof - but sometimes they can tip over into something closer to belligerence.

If it wants to position itself as a progressive party, it must stop circling the wagons whenever valid issues are highlighted. It has to be more receptive to criticism, internal and external.

For example, after his re-election to Europe, Matt Carthy was questioned on RTÉ's 'Morning Ireland' about a culture of authoritarianism - and immediately rejected it as media hype. The list of those who have left the party, citing bullying, speaks for itself. A more convincing answer would have been: no party is perfect, the leadership is prepared to listen and learn.

Other factors for Sinn Féin include the calibre of some of its councillors. In recent times, a number of Sinn Féin representatives have failed to impress their electorates. That's why the party lost out on Dublin and Cork city councils. Has the party machine stopped working in some areas? Were some councillors no longer prepared to put their backs into the job?

Several decades ago, Sinn Féin made inroads into working-class Dublin communities, tackling the drugs issue when nobody else was willing to help. But what has it delivered for those areas lately? The drugs issue hasn't gone away.

Sinn Féin under Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill is not aligned as it was under Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. Its vote held up reasonably well in the North in both elections, while in the Republic its message has failed to resonate.

Granted, voting patterns are less volatile in the North. One emerging trend there is increasing Alliance support.

Nationalist votes helped to elect Alliance leader Naomi Long to Europe and this can be interpreted in various ways: that an alternative to Orange and Green binaries is appealing, which will reduce Sinn Féin and DUP vote shares; or as tactical voting to keep out a second unionist MEP. Interesting the vote didn't go the SDLP's way, mind you.

In the Republic, Ms McDonald noted left-wing parties didn't capitalise on anger over the housing crisis. Yet the SocDems, vocal on this matter, won three seats in their first outing as a party at local level. So gains are possible.

My view is she's an able leader but should have taken care of the bullying issue by now rather than let it fester.

Oddly, many believed Gerry Adams was limiting party support - but Sinn Féin was in more robust shape under his leadership. That doesn't mean a job for life. But if Ms McDonald is to move the party forward, perhaps she should start wearing T-shirts, too. 'Message Received' works for me.

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