Irish election: Sinn Féin’s moment?

Kevin Meagher looks ahead to the Irish General Election, taking place on Friday, examining the evidence and looking at whether this might be Sinn Fein's moment.

Ireland’s Celtic Tiger economy may have grown mangy – but it remains luminescent next to the reputation of the Irish political class. Irish voters now have such low regard for their political masters that a recent poll showed only Greeks, Israelis, Nigerians and Romanians rated their political parties as being more corrupt.

The general election on Friday is potentially, then, the equivalent of a political ducking stool. Pre-empting the possibility of an early immersion, Irish Fianna Fail premier, Brian Cowan, finds himself the first sitting taoiseach in the history of the state not to stand for re-election, his stock fatally depleted by the fallout from last November’s humiliating bail-out from the International Monetary Fund and European Union.

Correspondingly, the fortunes of his Fianna Fail party have plummeted too. Once the electoral juggernaut of Irish politics, governing for 61 of the last 79 years, current opinion polls have them trailing in third place.

In Irish politics’ fairly predictable pattern, Fianna Fail’s misfortune will be to Fine Gael’s benefit. Bookmaker Paddy Power recently halved the odds on them winning an overall majority from 16/1 to 8/1. They need 84 seats in Ireland’s 166-member Dail for that to happen (however a coalition with the Irish Labour party remains the most likely scenario).

But in some respects, the most interesting aspects of the campaign lie elsewhere. What impact will the record number of independent candidates have on the result? Will current junior coalition partners, The Greens, be wiped out? How far will Fianna Fail actually drop? And what about Sinn Fein?

One thing is already certain about 2011: this is the year Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the IRA, got serious about the south.

Widely regarded as a Northern Ireland party by many Southern Irish voters, Sinn Fein is mounting its most determined effort ever to burnish its all-Ireland credentials. It has a lot of rowing to do; the party did not even recognise the Irish state before 1986, determined to do nothing that accepted the partition of the country imposed in 1922.

Yet Sinn Fein – Irish for “ourselves alone” – is positioning itself as the antidote to the cosy club of Irish political parties accused of bringing the Republic to its knees. The sense of national humiliation is palpable; and symptomatic, voters believe, of the corrupting nexus between the Irish political and business elites. Last Thursday, the party published its election manifesto, titled ‘There is a Better Way’, reminiscent, it has to be said, of New Labour’s 1997 manifesto, ‘Because Britain Deserves Better’.

Sinn Fein’s pitch is three-fold: left-wing economic populism; an attack on the complacency and nepotism of the old political class of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael; and an appeal to patriotic self-respect (they promise to “burn the bondholders” who have humiliated Ireland).

Their economic policy consists of slower deficit reduction; a seven billion euro job-creation programme which includes a “labour–intensive” essential infrastructure programme; and a wage subsidy to protect small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). They also want a wealth tax on non-farmland assets worth more than one million euros; the restoration of the minimum wage; and the return of social welfare payments to 2010 levels.

To cover their flank, they have also sounded upbeat about the importance of entrepreneurs.

But with 50,000 young people set to leave Ireland to search for work this year and next, reminiscent of darker days in Ireland, even the more radical aspects of Sinn Fein’s prospectus do not seem that outlandish to many angry voters.

Predictions of their gains vary. An early poll had them projected to win up to 22 seats in the Dail. A more granular constituency-based analysis has them winning around 13 seats under Ireland’s Single Transferable Vote system. What is inevitable, however, is that they will increase their parliamentary representation markedly from the five seats they currently hold – and they are certain to get the seven seats the party needs to have full speaking rights in the next Dail.

Some party insiders readily concede theirs is a “two election” strategy, reminiscent of how they clawed their way past the SDLP over time north of the border.

But there is no shortage of ambition this time around, even if it may turn out to be far-fetched. Party president, Gerry Adams, himself leading the party’s charge standing as a candidate in Louth has called for nothing less than a realignment of Irish politics, claiming:

“It… makes sense for progressive politics. It is time for all those who believe that a government without Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael can deliver a better Ireland – to work together.

“A hundred years ago James Connolly appealed for unity among the left in Ireland. It made sense then. It makes sense today.”

But it is not as comradely as Adams suggests; the Irish Labour Party, although widely expected to end up in government as a junior coalition partner, is locked in combat with Sinn Fein for centre-left voters. The Sunday Business Post recently ran a piece titled:

‘Labour and Sinn Féin in fight for left supremacy’

And it doesn’t stop there. Despite still classing itself as:

“A radical, campaigning, activist party dedicated to achieving a society free from prejudice and discrimination, and providing justice, equal opportunity for all in a 32-County democratic, socialist, united Ireland.”

…Sinn Fein shares the centre left spectrum not only with Labour but with other leftist groupings and a record number of independents. This looks likely to split the anti-establishment vote that Sinn Fein needs to solidify.

And there have been false dawns before. In the 2007 general election, early predictions of a Sinn Fein breakthrough proved unfounded as the party failed to make any headway. And in 2009, Sinn Fein’s Mary-Lou McDonald lost their only seat in the European elections.

Sinn Fein traditionally suffers from a pincer attack with Fianna Fail providing a ‘respectable’ vehicle for voters with republican sympathies, while the Irish Labour party provides a credible centre-left alternative. But behind the hubris of the election campaign, there is a confluence of factors and anniversaries that may provide grist to Sinn Fein’s mill.

The general election in the Republic will be followed by elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly on 5th May. Given the enduring schisms within unionism, there remains a prospect of Sinn Fein topping the poll for the first time ever north of the border and thereby making a claim on the role of first minister.

Northern Ireland secretary, Owen Paterson, recently indicated the government would not block that appointment if that were to happen, despite angst from some unionist quarters.

Later this year, the Irish will elect their next president when Mary McAleese’s term expires. A weak field may see Gerry Adams enter the fray. Although largely symbolic, the role would be powerful validation that Sinn Fein had emerged as a respectable, mainstream party.

Whatever lingering reservations some Irish voters may have about Sinn Fein, there is no doubt that the party’s leaders have star wattage. These are the international faces of Irish politics, meeting presidents and prime ministers, shading the parochial backwoodsmen of the Irish political parties; it is Sinn Fein’s website that has Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness posing with a smiling Nelson Mandela.

Indeed, the most spectacular example of this came last year when former IRA commander Martin McGuinness was judged Northern Ireland’s “most impressive” political leader, even gaining approval from many unionists. It all goes a long way in helping mainstream the Sinn Fein brand, the party’s most immediate strategic priority.

Sinn Fein’s trio of electoral opportunities is set against a brace of important anniversaries in recent Irish history.

Next month sees the thirtieth anniversary of the start of the Hunger Strike when ten republican prisoners in the Maze prison starved themselves to death in protest at the British government’s refusal to grant them status as political prisoners. The anniversary has enduring emotional resonance – and political significance too, as the strikes catapulted republicans into politics, spawning the “ballot box and the armalite” strategy that has led Sinn Fein, inexorably, to this point.

2011 is also the fortieth anniversary of the imposition of internment without trial in Northern Ireland, which saw hundreds of innocent Catholics dragged from their beds and imprisoned without trial. Such anniversaries underscore the scale of British policy failures in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s and 1980s.

There will be no earthquakes in Ireland’s election. They will lose decisively, but speculation about the annihilation of Fianna Fail will prove hyperbolic. Fine Gael, led by the lacklustre Enda Kenny, will prove no more popular or successful over the medium term. But the result may well signal the point that the mould of Irish politics cracked and Sinn Fein emerged as a political force in southern Ireland for the first time since the party won three-quarters of the parliamentary seats in Ireland at the 1918 general election.

To watchers on this side of the Irish Sea, that seems like an eternity ago; in Irish politics, however, it is the blink of an eye.

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30 Responses to “Irish election: Sinn Féin’s moment?”

  1. Patrck O'Brien

    RT @leftfootfwd: Irish election: Sinn Féin’s moment?

  2. katewonderland

    Irish election: Sinn Féin's moment?: But with 50000 young people set to leave Ireland to search for work this ye…

  3. Frank Spring

    RT @leftfootfwd: Irish election: Sinn Féin’s moment?

  4. Ballyhannon Castle

    Irish election: Sinn Féin's moment? | Left Foot Forward: Kevin Meagher looks ahead to the Irish General Election…

  5. Stephen W

    Good God. We can only hope not. Sinn Fein are an awful hard-nationalist, sectarian, terrorist-front of a political party. As much as some of their policies are intriguing. There has got to be a better option than barely-repentant former terrorists and criminals.

  6. Mark Stevo

    Sinn Fein know more than more about burning the banks…

  7. Mark Stevo

    Sinn Fein know more than most about burning the banks.

  8. Martin

    well known international economists have stated Ireland will not be able to repay the loans taken out to protect the bond holders from Europe and the IMF. If this is the case the only sane economic policy is that put forward by david McWilliams and Sinn Fein.

  9. Debra V. Wilson

    RT @leftfootfwd: Irish election: Sinn Féin’s moment?

  10. Martell Thornton

    Irish election: Sinn Féin's moment? | Left Foot Forward: The general election in the Republic will be followed b…

  11. Martell Thornton

    Irish election: Sinn Féin's moment?: Irish voters now have such low regard for their political masters that a re…

  12. R. Mac Giolla

    There is more conflict between Sinn Fein and Labour than just competition for centre-left votes.
    One of the reasons a SF/Labour alliance is unlikely is that a large amount of Labour TDs and activists are ex-members of the Worker’s Party. Think of Rabbite and de Rossa etc, all ex-Officials who fought to the death against the Provisionals in the ’70s and ’80s. Politics is an arena with a long memory.

  13. Michael T

    Stephen W I am bemused at what you have written. When you say hard-nationalist, for many that has right-wing connotations and is completely unjustified to say. You also claim they are sectarian, how are they sectarian? Sinn Fein’s goal is a United socialist republic based on equality, since when are socialism and republicanism linked with sectarianism? I would love if you would provide us an example of a Sinn Fein politician making a sectarian comment or engaging in sectarianism.There has got to be a better option than corrupt, barely repentant political criminals who not only have crippled the country with unfair austerity, but who have also been in power during a period where the Irish government facilitated the use of Shannon Airport for the US military to commit international crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is an alternative and that is Sinn Fein.

  14. T4T

    God bless and speed those brave souls that fight for the well being of their peoples over the enslaved position of adherance to international monetarist demands with continued bailouts for the very snakes that brought this mess upon those brave souls heads! God speed indeed!

  15. Tacitus

    Now there’s a grand thought – Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness leading an united Ireland. I wonder why nobody has ever thought of that before?

  16. Paul Evans

    A good round-up of Sinn Féin’s prospects in #ge11 here

  17. auerfeld

    The UK reaction to this will be interesting. RT @Paul0Evans1: A good round-up of Sinn Féin’s prospects in #ge11 here

  18. Alasdair Ross

    RT @Paul0Evans1: A good round-up of Sinn Féin’s prospects in #ge11 here

  19. Liathain

    The 2007 election (which Kevin describes as a false dawn) was actually pretty embarrassing for Sinn Fein. A melt down in the capital (their words not mine) and a washout in many constituencies they had spent the campaign talking up really deflated many of their activists.

    “One thing is already certain about 2011: this is the year Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the IRA, got serious about the south.”

    Sorry to be abrupt but to put it simply it’s not – they’ve been serious about the south for the last decade, their problem is the south hasn’t taken them seriously.

    For example SF ran more candidates in the 2007 general election than they are running in 2011. Since around 2000 SF have dropped some serious money in the Republic but to little avail. This time round they’ve been forced to float in some northern personalities and have had to persuade some old timers to change their plans and not to retire but to run again to keep their seats (Ferris and O’Caolain for example).

    It was widely assumed the bold Gerry would be taking a shot at the presidency later this year but their failure to consolidate their seats let alone gain new ones in 2007 put the kibosh on that (and there is already a strong field of candidates declared – Gerry aint gonna fancy throwing his name in the hat).

    Mary Lou McDonald has completely failed to impress and her unemployment in 2009 caused several of SF’s longest standing councillors in Dublin to leave the party rather than fall on their sword and give her a seat in the Council. They brought a lot of the organisation with them and Christy Burke (running as an independent against Mary Lou) is one to watch. Her star has fallen pretty quick since then both internally and externally.

    STV tends not to favour SF as many voters who will transfer from FG (or to a lesser extent FG) would consider Labour but never SF – similarly many SF voters transfer to Labour but never to FG.

    I’d imagine that SF will come home with about a dozen seats in the Dail (as will the Trots in the ULA) . Considering the once in a lifetime scenario that this election is taking place in I wouldn’t be happy if I was an SF member and I was being told it was a ‘two election strategy’. This kind of moment may not come around for another 50 years and already looking to the next election is defeatism and/or spin.

    The North is a different kettle of fish altogether and for all the talk of SF dominance the numbers tell a different story. While the schisms within Unionism are great entertainment the DUP:UUP voter numbers tend to have reflected the respective vote ratio in the nationalist side.

    At the moment SF trail the DUP by 9 seats. The DUP are starting to get back into their campaigning stride and a lack lustre UUP are abjectly failing to make an impression. Coupled with a poor new leader and recent defections the UUP are also watching Alliance cut deep into the liberal part of their vote.

    SF’s discipline is starting to show some cracks with Gerry McHugh leaving the party and taking his seat with him and Paul Butler slighted by Adams one too many times and standing down in Lisburn (where he was well on course to lose his seat anyway). The SDLP have seemed to have bottomed out and are on course to hold most of their 16 seats (may lose one or two and pick up one or two in different constituencies).

    All these things taken into consideration it really is hard to see where SF will get the dozen seats or so it needs to become the largest party in the North. They’ll do well and hold most of what they have and maybe add a few, no question but hard to see em leapfrogging the DUP. Still as they do at every election it gives them a target with which to motivate their base (similarly the talked up targeting Mark Durkan at the last Assembly election, Nigel Dodd’s at the last Westminster and Bab’s topping the poll in the Euro’s)

    One consideration rarely mentioned is due to the botched negotiation in St Andrews we cannot appoint the First Minister without simultaneously appointing the deputy First Minister. This allows a unionist veto which SF somehow managed to miss when they started to pick apart the GFA. Great.

    Still in the south anyway, any amount of ridiculous clichés and hoary old harking to the Rising doesn’t wash with the majority of people when you’re faced with the stark option of the dole queue or emigration.

    PS not that it makes a blind bit of difference ,but FF’s slogan ‘Real Plan, Better Future’ also shares the similarity with New Labours 97 slogan. Meh, I’ve never met anyone who votes for a tag line.

  20. Kevin Meagher

    Liathian – Some interesting points, but as I say, this election is unlikely to see a fundamental shift. The Shinners recognise that. Their expectations will be realistic. What this election offers them is the chance to develop their electoral toehold in the South into a foothold.

    A reasonable performance will see them emerge on 12-15 seats. From that point, they really will have a chip and a chair in Southern politics for the first time. This is, of course, how things started off in the North; with SF gradually supplanting the SDLP.

    Sinn Fein’s biggest opportunity – and challenge – is how to process the party’s fame, pull, notoriety and instant brand recognition into a coherent electoral offer. If they find the right blend and go mainstream, future elections will see them hard to shift.

    So this election is not a “once in a lifetime scenario” as you suggest. Fine Gael and Enda Kenny – who are clearly set to govern alone – or with Labour’s support – are quite useless. They will be mired in no time. FG were trying to get rid of poor old Enda less than a year ago!

    The question is whether Fianna Fail will mount a comeback, and how quickly. Micheal Martin is considerably more popular than Brian Cowan. A backhanded compliment if ever there was one, but he seems to be having a good campaign. If FF loses support to SF, will he be able to pull it back?

    So the presidential race offers “a strong field of candidates”. You’re not convincing me! Usual cast of hacks. Gerry Adams may find it hard to resist, but probably too early in their southern strategy to have a cat in hell’s chance of winning. But SF has nothing to lose in trying…

  21. Stephen W


    Good God. Are we talking about the same party? This is Sinn Fein we’re talking about. They have spent most of their history politically fronting a nationalist terrorist campaign, based on the principle of using a campaign of violence to overturned the democratic will of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland to be part of the UK. On the basis of forcing membership of an IRISH republic across the geographic territory of Ireland and driving out the British.

    They are the extremist party of the Nationalist side of the Sectarian Northern Irish divide. A divide they have done more than almost anyone else to try to perpetuate and deepen. If this does not qualify them as sectarian and nationalist in your book, then I suggest you look up Sectarian and Nationalist in a dictionary.

    Baulk at collaboration in extraordinary rendition if you wish, condemn the venality and incompetence of southern Irish politicians. But at least they are not terrorists and former terrorists and barely-repentant criminals.

  22. Liathain

    Kevin, indeed it seems remarkably hard to change the cast of Irish politics. In 2002 Fine Gael were down to 31 seats yet as you say now they’re back in contention to be the first single party government the south has had for the best part of a generation (a frightening thought). FF will probably come back with 30 odd seats and we may very well see them back in power in 5 years.

    Enda does appear to be spectacularly useless but the difference between the putsches last year and now is around 15% in the opinion polls and if he brings them into a FG dominated government I can see a lot of the plotters being very forgiving and certainly very forgetful.

    There really is no comparison though between SF’s position North and South – the political landscape is fundamentally different.

    If SF try to duplicate their out manoeuvring of the SDLP in the same way in the south it just isn’t going to wash.

    FG don’t share a voter pool with SF and to be fair I know some of the older TD’s remember Sen. Billy Fox – they won’t be hesitant to attack SF on all fronts.
    Fianna Fail tends to wrap the green flag round them while in opposition (for example Anglo Irish opposition) and the Legion of the Rearguard discipline matches that of the boys of the old brigade step for step.
    Much of Labour’s leadership came the Democratic Left/Workers Party route and there’s no love lost there.

    But and this is SF’s biggest problem, fundamentally the electorate in the Republic demand different things. SF don’t have negotiation cards as they did in the lead up decommissioning in 2001, if they tried anything the likes of Stormontgate it would actually be a scandal and prosecutions would ensue (as O’Snodaigh’s election manager found out in 2002), there’s no unionist bogeymen to bounce off in the south and while blaming the banks is good craic it doesn’t help anyone find a way out of the current mess (plus our friends in the SWP and Militant tendency shall have that sown up).

    SF will have to learn a new game if they want to succeed in the South and to be fair to them I think they know that.

    Over the last two years they started being very centrist in their economics – they even supported the bail out of the banks however at some point in the last six months a tactical decision was made to go back to the agitprop position (in the South, in the North they’ve just implemented a budget with a cuts/tax ratio of 75%/25%).

    On the presidential field some are more impressive than others but to be fair a range of the usual hacks it isn’t;

    Sen. David Norris – the man who got homosexuality made legal in the Republic, a campaigner in the public eye for 25 years now and possibly
    Irelands first gay president?
    Michael D Higgins – stalwart of the Irish Labour Party, published poet, university lecturer, international negotiator and all round renaissance man
    Fergus Finlay – CEO of Barnardo’s, responsible for bringing the Special Olympics to Ireland, Mary Robinsons campaign manager
    John Bruton, former Taoiseach and European Union Ambassador.
    Seán Kelly, MEP, former President of the Gaelic Athletic Association

    Take it that you need 400,000 votes (on a low turnout) to be elected president, SF have quite the road to travel from their 150,000 (now if people living in the North got a vote in the elections that would change things but the GFA and dropping ART 2 and 3 made that more problematic). If Gerry gave it a shot and did the Dana on it, that’s the end – a pretty sour note to end on for the man who once had the safest seat in Europe.

    Going beyond the whiff of cordite that excites so many commentators, Gerry hasn’t really done much to bolster his CV, he’s hardly an economist and certainly not a legislator. You mentioned in your original article that there’s a picture of Gerry and Mandela on the SF website? (There’s also a picture of me and Mandela on my notice board but alas it does not make me a political colossus) Certainly Gerry and Martin made much hay from the peace process and danced the world stage but real politic moves on and with it so has their 15 mins of fame. At this stage the only international friend they could call upon is their old patron Gadaffii.

    There’s no doubting McGuinness has done well as Deputy FM but compare himself and Robinson scuttling to Washington to beg investment from Declan Kelly (a Munster man who has risen farther fsater then either of them) – it’s hardly reminiscent of the days when Bill Clinton was personally getting their visas approved and they had the ear of Congress. Times move on, there’s little these days (thankfully) for the media to rubberneck at and the day to day boring politics of High Hedges Bills and Caravan legislation just doesn’t carry the same draw. And so the hand holding that SF and the DUP etc all got isn’t there for them anymore.

    All in all I reckon Gerry is better off in the Dail letting Pearse Doherty do the heavy lifting with Gerry only contributing to let us know some of his penny book philosophy. Maybe he could write another book

  23. Liz McShane

    Stephen – just a point of reference or fact. The State of Northern Ireland was created with an inbuilt Unionist majority (only 6 counties of Ulster and not all 9 were included, as that would not have delivered the desired mathematical/electoral outcome)- hardly democratic.

  24. Nollaig

    Just a few former terrorists who remain or remained unrepetant about their actions but are now widely lauded & accepted by Irish or British commentators (sometimes both): Cromwell, George Washington, Nelson Mandela, Menachim Begin (Nobel Peace prize winner), Maggie Thatcher, Michael Collins, Eamonn De Valera etc etc. Sinn Fein are in very good company

  25. Sean South

    Nollaig, you forgot Gaddafi

  26. Stephen W

    @Liz McShane.

    Exactly. Those areas of Ireland where a majority wanted to stay part of Britain stayed part of Britain, those that didn’t became part of the new Irish state. How is that not democratic? What definition of democracy are you using?

  27. Ged C

    Those people that have been Fianna Fail voters will be loath to vote Fine Gael. It’s like football teams in Liverpool or Glasgow handed down generation by generation since the end of the civil war. Whilst Sinn Fein will do comparatively well, partly because the left and the greens managed to taint themselves in coalition, I think the non-affiliated independent candidates are the real dark horses to watch. Even if the bottom hadn’t fallen out of the country events like the Mahon tribunal had a corrosive effect on the mainstream political system providing empirical evidence of widespread corruption.

  28. Liz McShane

    Stephen – those counties weren’t really consulted I think pressure from Edward Carson & threat about bringing German arms might have helped ‘persaude’ the British Government about which way to carve up the province to give the ‘right’ electoral outcome for quite a few years & indeed generations to come.

  29. Éoin Clarke

    Sinn Féín are almost certain to win 10 seats in ROI with an outside chance of 12.

    Louth will give them 1
    Cavan-Monaghan 2
    Donegal 2
    North Kerry 1
    Cork North Central 1
    Dublin, inner, west, north 3

    Possibilities is Dun Laoghaire will be worth keeping an eye on…

    STV gives them a chance of hanging onto these seats in future years provided they are good constituency reps.. Sinn Féin have a good record on consolidating their gains, with some minor exceptions..

  30. Kevin Meagher

    Dear posters – many thanks for your various contruibutions to the debate. Good stuff. Let’s see what tomorrow brings…



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