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What Next

Five key takeaways on what went wrong for Sinn Féin and what it needs to do to up its game

The party needs to spell out clearly what alternative it is offering the electorate.

THE BIG QUESTION over the weekend was – what went wrong for Sinn Féin?

In October 2022, polls were putting the party on 36%, but just two years later and just a few weeks out from the local and European elections, Mary Lou McDonald’s party had slumped back to 22%.

The writing was on the wall that something had gone amiss, but it appears heads were in the sand about what could possibly be coming down the line. 

“Today was not our day,” the Sinn Féin party leader told the waiting media at the RDS yesterday.

While the party is expected to make gains on the disastrous 2019 local election, it is not to the extent as was expected. 

To make that pill even more difficult for Sinn Féin to swallow, all indications from the ongoing counts of European and local elections suggest that government parties do not appear to have suffered a major electoral blow, which had been predicted.

There was lots of talk yesterday from the party leader and other Sinn Féin TDs that it needs to “regroup” and “recover” before a general election – which now could come sooner rather than later. 

Across the airwaves, Sinn Féin representatives said it will now undertake a listening exercise to discern what the electorate has said to the party, with McDonald stating that the party would “reflect on that, learn from that”. 

So what are the key takeaways we have learned about why Sinn Féin is facing into another disastrous local election and what do they need to do to recover before the general election?

Sunday Count 50_90706887

1. Voters weren’t clear on where SF stood on issues

As the polls began to slide for Sinn Féin, comments began to be made by some about the party sitting on the fence on a number of issues as well as the lack of clarity around where the party stood on some matters. 

Accusations were also levelled at the party for flip flopping on some key areas.

One of the issues was migration, one of the main talking points in the run up to these elections. 

While the right and far-right agitators were making their anti-migrant view clear, Sinn Féin was silent for a time. 

The party then came out with videos on social media about how the party are against ‘open borders’.

That one had people scratching their head.

The party moved to harden their position on issues such as welfare cuts to those from Ukraine and made no protest over the removal of tents in Dublin city centre by the government. 

The question around migration was posed to Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin on Newstalk yesterday. He said: 

I think the public and those that voted for us in 2020 were not clear where we stood.

“Voters weren’t as clear where we stood on those matters,” Ó Broin said about migration.

When put to him his position might be too left on the issue for his party’s voters, he said: 

“I do have a human rights based approach around international protection.”

Given the lack of a boost for Sinn Féin, the thinking is the confusion over their stance on migration ate into their support, particularly in working class areas.

The party was also accused of flip-flopping on other political issues, such as the hate crime/hate speech Bill. The party supported it a number of months ago, only to roll back later on. 

The obvious conclusion is the party pivoted once the pushback against the legislation became more prominent among its base. 

The party also got blowback for backing a yes vote in the family and care referendum, with some privately within the party stating over the weekend that this further inflicted damage to the party. 

761European Elections RDS_90706765

2. The angry vote has moved somewhere else

Independents have seen a surge, and while independent candidates spread across both the left and right of the political spectrum, it appears that some Sinn Féin voters have been gobbled up by the independent vote.

Sinn Féin has always banked that angry voters and an electorate that wanted to give the government party a kick would vote for them. 

But with Sinn Fein only secruting 12% of first preference votes nationally under first counts completed yesterday evening, 10 points behind Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, it is clear the vote they were counting on has moved elsewhere.

Independents and the smaller Opposition parties have reaped much of the benefit of any anti-government vote McDonald might have hoped for. 

As the dust settled and the percentages became apparent, Sinn Féin politicians were out stating that the party would have to work quick to win those voters back. The question now is can that be achieved?

Eoin O Broin-3_90702197

3. Lack of clarity and detail on their own policies

Sinn Féin can hammer the government all day on housing. It has done so for the last four years.

Middle class voters, particular younger voters, many of whom are struggling to get on the ladder or who are stuck at home with their parents, migrated to Sinn Féin.

Two months ago, The Journal/Ireland Thinks European Elections poll found that support for Sinn Féin was strongest among voters who live in local authority rented accommodation, private rented accommodation and those that live at home with their parents. 

In comparison, support for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil was strongest among voters who own their home outright or who have a mortgage. 

However, as time moves on and housing delivery ramps up, Sinn Féin faced into a dilemma as first-time buyers increased and more houses came on stream.

There is still obviously a monumental shortfall, a serious affordability issue and there is very much still a housing crisis. 

But Sinn Féin failed to be clear on what their housing policies are if they are in government.  

Ó Broin said yesterday that one of the things that came up on the doorsteps is that people want a change but said “they were doubtful and questioning whether Sinn Féin had the policies and the clarity of position to deliver that change”. 

Ahead of the general election, the party is going to have to convince people that Sinn Féin has clear and well defined policy alternatives to government, said the party’s housing spokesperson.

He went on to state that people were demanding “more from us in terms of setting out our stall” on what those alternative policies are, which he said was a reasonable thing to expect.

“We have to do work much harder” to set out that alternative and convince the public it has merit, he said.

Notably, McDonald got herself in a spot of bother when she Sinn Féin wanted the average house in Dublin to cost €300,000, clarifying only recently that she was referring to an affordable housing policy the party plans to roll out if in government. 

She also told The Journal in the run up to the election that Sinn Féin would keep the government’s Help-to-Buy scheme for a period of time if they were in power, assuring people relying on the deposit that there would be no cliff-edge. 

Neither of these matters created certainty for voters around the party’s housing policy. 

It is clear now that with less than year to a general election, if the party wants to be seriously considered, it must spell out clearly and in detail what alternative policies they are putting on the table and how they will operate.

Mary Lou McDonald feature 001_90696364

4. Party’s ground game lacking

There has been criticisms levelled at the party leader that she was not out and about as much as the likes of Simon Harris and Micheál Martin.

An hour didn’t seem to pass without the Taoiseach doing an Instagram live or for Harris to be photographed next to one of his party’s candidates. 

The Sinn Féin machine was a force to be reckoned with in the 2020 election, but appears to have been lacklustre this time around in the locals and European canvasses. 

O’Broin didn’t see it that way when asked yesterday, stating that in his view, the people that voted for Sinn Féin four years ago failed to turn out and vote this time around. 

However, MEP Barry Andrews, who topped the poll in the Dublin constituency on the first count last night spoke to this point stating that Sinn Féin’s “ground game” isn’t what it used to be. 

He stated that just 18% of voters met Sinn Féin candidates out on the campaign trail, compared to 35%meeting a Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael candidate out campaigning.

“If I said that to you five or six years ago you wouldn’t believe it but that’s what happened,” he said. 

Sunday Count 54_90706885 Daithi Doolan hugs Mary Lou McDonald outside the RDS

5. Splitting their vote

McDonald appears to have made the decision fielding too many candidates in some constituencies, putting forward 335, a record for the party.

As the first tallies came in, it became apparent that it had been overconfident in what it could deliver.

The party chose to run three or four candidates in some areas, a decision which looks set to have split the vote for them. A fatal error it would appear.

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