Sinn Fein members discuss election rout
4 July 2007
Prior to the recent Dail election, the one constant prediction had been of very large gains for Sinn Fein. In the event, the party made a modest gain in its vote share, from 6.5% to 6.9%, a credible gain in absolute votes from 120,000 to 140,000, but failed to win any new seats and suffered the high-profile loss of Sean Crowe in Dublin South-West. From a perspective where SF had scored spectacular gains in 2004, winning 8% in the local elections and 11% in the European contest, the party had been widely expected to double its seats and votes, so a performance that was not bad in absolute terms looked like a stunning defeat. This is especially so since Sinn Fein members had had as high expectations as anybody, and even Gerry Adams has been saying, with the benefit of hindsight, that they were overconfident.
A closer analysis of the results shows that, of the forty constituencies contested, the SF share of the vote rose in 23 and fell in 17. Five of the rises and six of the falls are of less than 1%, and so can be disregarded for statistical purposes, as can the five notional “rises” in constituencies SF didn’t contest last time. A further complication in directly comparing previous results is that of boundary changes in two of SF’s stronger areas, Meath and Sligo-Leitrim, as well as several Dublin constituencies. At first glance, SF’s performance therefore looks like a confused picture, with local factors playing a strong role.
However, there are some obvious conclusions that can be drawn. The very strong performances in Donegal can be put down to a substantial organisation, popular local candidates and plenty of work on the ground, as well as Donegal’s proximity to the North and its republican tradition. It is also noticeable that the SF share dropped in ten out of twelve Dublin constituencies, and particularly sharply in those working-class areas of North and West Dublin where SF had performed most strongly in recent years, and where gains were confidently predicted. These areas too had strong SF organisation, strong candidates – those who weren’t TDs were mostly councillors – and a solid record of local activism. In working-class Dublin, SF had everything going for it. So what went wrong?
This has been the point of contention within Sinn Fein since the election, and a number of explanations have been put forward, on various online forums and in An Phoblacht. One reason for Sean Crowe’s defeat, and this may also hold true of Joe Higgins, is the combination in the western suburbs of boundary changes and substantial demographic changes. Much attention has also focused on the candidacy of MEP Mary Lou McDonald in the very working-class constituency of Dublin Central, where the middle-class McDonald, who was spending most of her time in Strasbourg until shortly before the election, proved a poor candidate for a constituency where an SF gain was thought to be certain. There has also been some very muted criticism of the Northern leadership, especially in light of Adams’ performance in the televised leaders’ debate where he appeared unsure of the detail of Southern politics.
But there is a strong argument that policy was the problem. In particular, SF had at its last Ard Fheis, only a few months before the election, passed a mildly social democratic economic programme, which would have seen a redistributive shift in taxation – corporation tax rising 5% to a still extremely low 17.5%, and rises in capital gains tax and PAYE for the super-rich – to pay for improvements in public services. This was the major point in making SF politically distinctive. This policy was then summarily dumped by the leadership at the very start of the campaign, in the interest of proving that SF was fit for government. This did not mute the hostility to SF of the right-wing parties and media, but it did demoralise a large section of the party’s activists, especially those in Dublin who identify themselves as socialists. With the SF leadership also raising the prospect of coalition with Fianna Fail, without however raising radical policies that they could use to pressurise FF, this also meant that SF’s working-class voters, mostly traditional FF supporters, had little reason not to vote FF in the first place. These were people who had been won over in big numbers in 2004, when FF did very badly, and this vote could easily be squeezed by the FF surge without SF offering some distinctive politics of its own.
An analysis similar to this has been put forward by some SF members, particularly in Dublin, and a sanitised version of it appears in the An Phoblacht discussion, which has centred on a debate between two of the Dublin candidates, Eoin O’Broin (Dun Laoghaire) and Joanne Spain (Dublin Mid-West). O’Broin has convincingly argued that SF remains a niche party in the South, with a mainly working-class constituency open to radical politics. The party remains anathema to the right wing, and evidence of that is the continued lack of transfers from mainstream parties. O’Broin further argues that there are already lots of respectable, “centrist” (right-wing) parties to choose from; and also that, in failing to present itself as a radical party, SF fell between two stools. Not only did it not successfully woo the middle-ground voter, but its own supporters could be drawn towards left candidacies such as those of Joan Collins and Brid Smith in Dublin South-Central. O’Broin isn’t arguing for major changes in policy, but he is saying that SF would be best served by trying to mobilise the kind of people who are likely to vote Sinn Fein, and the best way of doing that is to present a radical profile.
Spain’s argument is a proxy for that of the Northern Adams leadership. The striking thing about her contribution is the lack of politics, in fact hostility to even mildly radical politics. “Ideology”, which is code in this discussion for left-wing positions, is represented as a bad thing limiting the SF base. Spain goes so far as to suggest that, if voters in Ballyfermot went for the SWP’s Brid Smiths ‘People before Profit’ campaign rather than Aengus O’Snodaigh, all that proves is that the voters need education. Her perspective, and that of the Northern leadership, for building in the future is a technocratic one: more resources, stronger candidates, work on media presentation. This dovetails with Adams’ remarks about shifting the party’s focus to the South, which might mean giving Southern members their head but is more likely to mean the Belfast leadership running the South more directly. It seems to escape Adams that the Northern leadership’s lack of feel, or even basic knowledge, when it comes to Southern politics was a major reason for SF’s poor performance. And behind the technocratic argument lies Mairtin O Muilleoir’s recent argument that SF failed because it wasn’t business-friendly, and what was needed was a further swing to the right.
It is important that we do not overstate the political level of this debate. There is no ideological left wing in Sinn Fein; what there is, is a large number of people in SF – mostly in Dublin but to a lesser extent in other parts of the South – who know where their votes come from. And even in terms of the most critical contributions from SF members, there are significant weaknesses. One is that, in the SF tradition, all criticisms of the leadership are presented as appeals to the leadership, with a ritual expectation that the wise leadership will see the party right in the long run. Another, equally important, is that the Northern peace process is seen as beyond discussion. Even those Dublin SF members who are sceptical about their leaders’ prescriptions for Southern politics almost invariably follow Adams’ lead when it comes to the North. But the two are not easily separated – the SF leadership’s enthusiasm for public-private partnerships in the public sector was largely justified by SF ministers’ use of PPPs in the North.
However, it is certainly the case that SF’s growth in the South in recent years has created a logic of its own, and contributes to the tensions within the party. Emblematic of that gap is the question of coalition with Fianna Fail. The Belfast leadership are keen to be in government on both sides of the border, apparently on the grounds that this will bring about a united Ireland by stealth. Southern members, particularly in Dublin, are resistant to coalition, not on ideological grounds but on the pragmatic grounds that too close an identification with FF will lose them votes.
What this demonstrates is that Sinn Fein is no more able to escape the logic of partition than any other party. In the North it is sufficient for SF to stand for nationalist rights to get votes; in the South it needs to win votes on a political basis. A layer of SF activists in the South sense instinctively that their electoral interests lie in being a radical protest party, although they aren’t very clear about what that means, and the vast majority can be expected to stay within what is still a large and reasonably successful party. Those who see themselves as serious radicals, however, and who are willing to fight for their positions, are likely to find it increasingly difficult to function within Sinn Fein.
Tragically, the anti-imperialist consciousness that would provide a firm base for a new movement has long been abandoned in the discourse within the party.