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From a handful of TDs to a 'seismic' surge: Sinn Féin's long and winding road to electoral breakthrough

Three elections ago, the party only won four seats in the Dáil.

SINN FÉIN’S SHARP rise in the polls, which will see them emerge as one of the three main Dáil voting blocks, marks a significant breakthrough for the party after decades in the Oireachtas.

The party, which emerged in its current form following a split in 1979 originally had a policy of abstentionism from Dáil Éireann – in the same manner as it’s current approach to taking seats in Westminster. 

Attempts to change this policy failed until, in 1986, an IRA Convention indicated its support for future elected Sinn Féin TDs taking their seats in Dublin. 

When a motion to end abstention was put to the Ard Fheis on 1 November 1986, it passed by a two-thirds majority (Republican Sinn Féin emerged as the breakaway faction from that particular split). 

In spite of this change of policy, over the ensuing decade, the party did not have any seats in the Dáil to take. The slow improvement in the party’s fortunes happened in tandem with the nascent peace process, as the party leadership, under Gerry Adams, increasingly put greater emphasis on the political process. 

As the peace process gathered pace, Sinn Féin recorded its first electoral breakthrough in the Republic in 1997 as Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin won a seat in the Cavan-Monaghan constituency and became the first Sinn Féin TD to take their place in the Dáil. 

This was the same year the IRA announced its second ceasefire. The Good Friday Agreement was signed the following April. 

Five years later, as the peace process began to bed in, the party increased its seat count to five. 

Far from showing steady progress in the years that followed, however, they actually dropped a seat in the 2007 election as Tallaght’s Sean Crowe lost out. 

In the 2011 election Sinn Féin benefitted from the Fianna Fáil-led government’s downfall, winning 14 seats in total, and marking the beginning of the party’s strong upwards momentum.

In a surprise move, Gerry Adams had announced the previous year that he would make his first attempt to become a TD, going on to top the poll in Louth with more than 15,000 votes. 

Mary Lou McDonald, meanwhile, had made party history after becoming Sinn Fein’s first MEP in the Republic in 2004.

She became vice-president of Sinn Fein in 2009 and in her third attempt at the general election, she won a seat in 2011 in Dublin Central.

In 2016, with Gerry Adams still in the leadership role in the party he had taken up in 1983, the party took 23 seats, the third highest number in the Dáil, giving them a solid presence on opposition benches.

Now in 2020, another seismic shift is expected. Tallies coming in from around the country so far indicate a number of Sinn Féin candidates are topping the polls.

This is McDonald’s first general election as Sinn Féin president and the first election in a decade without Adams on the ballot anywhere. 

After suffering a bruising defeat in the 2018 presidential election and in last year’s local and European elections, Sinn Fein had been bracing itself for a tough general election campaign.

McDonald said at the time that her party had “listened and learned” from the election losses and would hope to win more seats in the Dáil.

And in the November 2019 by-election the party’s candidate Mark Ward unexpectedly took a seat in Dublin Mid-West, providing something of a boost for the party. 

But as it planned for 2020 it appeared the party may have been spooked by its losses in the local and European elections. It only ran 42 candidates in this election – far short of the 80 seats needed to form a government.

Even in Mary Lou McDonald’s own constituency of Dublin Central, where according to final tallies she is far outperforming any other candidates, the party did not put a running mate on the ballot with her.

The campaign 

In her first general election outing as leader McDonald presented a clear message, while TDs like finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty and housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin, both acknowledged as very capable TDs and experts in their briefs, were to the fore in the campaign. 

Source: Niall Carson

In their manifesto, the party proposed some radical ideas in these policy areas, such as a plan to build 100,000 social homes and to cap mortgage interest rates.

Those policies came in for harsh criticism, particularly from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, but as the campaign went on McDonald performed well in media interviews and in debates.

As the weeks went by the needly began to move and opinion polls saw support from the party creep up as the campaign continued – culminating in last night’s exit poll findings which put them in a three-way tie alongside FF and FG. 

There were some stumbling blocks for the party, the first of which came in the first few days of the campaign. Podcast comments made by Sinn Féin councillor Paddy Holohan about the Taoiseach’s Indian heritage and about “scum” teenage girls blackmailing older men came to light – but McDonald was regarded to have acted decisively as the Dublin representative was suspended from the party.

The final RTÉ leaders’ debate, which Sinn Féin fought to be included in, highlighted further stumbling blocks for its leader when she was challenged on her views on the Special Criminal Court and criticised for her party’s response to comments made by Stormont’s Finance Minister, Conor Murphy, in the wake of the murder of Paul Quinn.

Looking at last night’s exit poll and the results coming in from count centres around the country, it appears the controversy did not prove a drag on the Sinn Féin brand. 

While the party’s support is highest among 18-34-year-olds, Sinn Féin is the most popular party among all age groups up to 65.

The results so far are indicating the actual results will be close to the exit poll results, and Sinn Féin looks on course to take seats in constituencies where they have never been in contention before. 

It is still early as far as official results go, but so far Sinn Féin has taken 11 of the 13 seats announced. The first seat of the election was won by Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire 

Kathleen Funchion in Carlow-Kilkenny, Pat Buckley in Cork East, Thomas Gould in Cork North Central, leader Mary Lou McDonald in Dublin Central, Eoin Ó Broin in Dublin Mid-West, Dessie Ellis in Dublin North-West, Paul Donnelly in Dublin West, Johnny Guirke in Meath West, David Cullinane in Waterford,  and Johnny Mythen in Wexford have all been elected.

Sinn Fein’s director of elections Pearse Doherty refused to be drawn on how many seats Sinn Fein would win, but said he was proud of his party’s campaign.

“We have excellent candidates, and I haven’t even heard what the reaction here in Donegal is at this stage,” he said.

He also praised his party leader on the success of the campaign:

“The other thing is Mary Lou has run a fantastic campaign, and she’s somebody who gets where ordinary people are, often I think that’s the difference from other political parties.”

Speaking at the RDS count centre in Dublin earlier, McDonald said the two-party system in Ireland has been “dispatched to the history books”. 

“I do not believe it is a sustainable position for either Leo Varadkar or Micheal Martin to say that they will not speak to us, representatives of a such a sizeable section of the Irish electorate,” she said. 

This is not a protest vote. This is certainly an election that is historic in proportions, this is changing the shape and mould of Irish politics.

“This is not a transient thing – this is just the beginning.”

- With reporting from Daragh Brophy, Grainne Ní Aodha and PA.

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