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How did they do it? Sinn Féin's historic 24% win was built on learnt lessons and a fed-up electorate

Sinn Féin gathered 9% of first preferences in the local elections – now the party has increased Dáil seats from 22 to 37.

general-election-ireland-2020 Source: PA

THERE ARE TWO main factors at play in how Sinn Féin secured a spectacular gain in the 2020 general election – how the party learned from its devastating local election result, and the disillusionment of a substantial chunk of the electorate.

Sinn Féin had a disastrous run in the local elections last May, losing half of its council representation, which left it with just 81 out of 949 seats. It also lost two of its three MEP seats in the European Parliament elections.

That local election result was viewed as particularly damaging for the party, as this is the base from which the party propels itself forward in a general election campaign. 

At the count centre at the RDS in May, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald looked shocked as she spoke to reporters, questioning why their message on the housing crisis hadn’t returned more Sinn Féin councillors.

It came up on the doors, she said, but not in the votes. 

“It certainly was bruising, and people were hurt by it,” she admitted in an interview with TheJournal.ie during the summer.

Sinn Féin’s members had said at the time that they didn’t manage to get its core group of voters out to exercise their vote in the local elections.

Lynn Boylan – who lost her European seat in Dublin and for whom the hashtag ‘Thank You Lynn’ trended on Twitter afterwards – told RTÉ that Sinn Féin supporters didn’t go to the polling stations and that the same level of anti-austerity anger wasn’t there as had been in previous years.

Now the party has won the most first preference votes (24%) – pushing it ahead of Fianna Fáil (22.2%) and Fine Gael (20%) – and taken 15 more seats than it did in the last Dáil.

So how did the party make such a spectacular turnaround?

Sinn Féin asked what went wrong

McDonald told TheJournal.ie in August that the party “tried to pinpoint” as best it could the areas where Sinn Féin made mistakes and the areas where a new approach was needed.

“It was a really bad day out for us. But sometimes that happens in politics, and it’s a test for you. I mean it’s a test for me personally, obviously, as the leader.”

Now, it has had 37 of its 42 candidates elected – an incredible success rate of 88%.

Sinn Féin’s only MEP Matt Carthy, who is now a TD in Cavan-Monaghan, said that the party’s turnaround after the local elections is down to McDonald.

When asked on RTÉ about the election success, with Carthy managing to pull his running mate Pauline Tully over the line with him, Carthy said:

Following the local and European elections, Mary Lou McDonald came into my constituency and she didn’t want to do big meetings, she sat around with five or six people, with people in different rooms, and asked them what issues were affecting them and explained what Sinn Féin’s policies were.

They started talking about SF policies

Mixed messaging was a part of the problem in the May elections, McDonald admitted.

“I think our conclusion is that it wasn’t one single thing, actually it would be more straightforward if it was. I think there was a whole set of things that we need to go back and revisit, obviously, our messaging, the manner of our activism.

I think Sinn Féin is a party that is about social justice, it’s about all of the bread and butter issues. It’s about human rights issues.

“We’re about Irish unity, we’re about that big picture project, which is so important at this time in particular, and maybe we’ve mixed our metaphors or the clarity of our messaging hasn’t been what it should be,” she said.

Sinn Féin sources said it was clear that their message during the local elections about what solutions the party had to offer didn’t reach voters.

Carthy said that the party’s policies haven’t changed between the locals and general election, but articulating them was something that Sinn Féin “became better at”.

Time and time again we got back [from people], ‘I like those policies but that’s not what we’re hearing from you’.

So they began to push their party figures forward to offer solutions: finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty gained credit from across the Dáil chamber for his vociferous questioning of the insurance industry’s dubious assertion that false claims made up 20% of all claims, which was why insurance costs were so high in Ireland. 

Housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin has been clear and strong on possible ways to tackle the housing crisis, attracting a new generation of voters through pitching innovative solutions to homeless and housing challenges.

Ahead of the election, he told the Irish Times: “I think people are fed up of politicians going on TV shows and not knowing what they are talking about and making it up. I’m serious. TDs are exceptionally well paid, we have staff. The very least you can do is know the subject.”

Ó Broin has written a book on housing policy, ‘Home: Why Public Housing is the Answer’. 

A ‘positive’ party

Sinn Féin sources said that apart from their messages on policy not reaching people ahead of May 2019,  there was also an issue with pointing at Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and their faults, but not highlighting how Sinn Féin was different.

“How we communicated our message” was an issue, they said, adding that yes, housing was an issue eight months ago, but the Sinn Féin policy on the matter wasn’t clear to the voter.

This has been said by other Sinn Féin figures including the party’s Director of Elections Pearse Doherty. He said that it switched up the approach after the locals, changing the messaging to clearly articulate their policies – and to become less negative.

In the last Dáil, the party had brought forward legislation to bring the pension age back down to 65, which became a huge issue at the start of the election campaign; the party also promised a rent-freeze for three years in order to stabilise the economy.

Fianna Fáil allowed legislation on a rent freeze to go through the first stages of the Dáil, before calling it unconstitutional during the election campaign, and after being corrected on this, have since said they would look into it if in government.

These policy moments really landed with the electorate, shifting the party from a focus on being in opposition, to a party that was pitching to preside over the country. 

Aisling d’Éireann

This time around, instead of overly criticising Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy and what they believe are Fine Gael’s wrongs, they decided to focus on promoting their policies – pushing a positive message that change is possible.

A Sinn Féin source said, in this election, the people knew the party stood for renters and tackling the homeless and housing crisis. The voter also knew they stood for a rent freeze, more houses (both social and affordable), as well as a rent tax credit.

Along with making that clearer, Carthy said that over the past year, citizens have been looking for parties to put forward a “vision for Ireland”.

I think the parties that [benefitted] quite clearly had a vision for the future – so the Green Party would fall into this – they had a view of Ireland beyond just an electoral term.

A vote for change: Housing

That ‘vision for Ireland’ coupled well with growing dissatisfaction among the electorate.

For the majority of the time that Ireland has been in power, it has ping-ponged between a Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil government.

The economic crash and the part that Fianna Fáil played in it has hurt badly – though the party has regrouped from where it was in 2011 – the party was predicted to win around 50 seats in this election. Instead, it has lost seats, down from 44 to 38.

Fine Gael was the next choice for people – but a spiralling housing and homeless crisis has proven unforgivable by the electorate. Although housing was the second biggest issue overall for why people voted (26%), behind health (32%), housing was the biggest issue among Sinn Féin voters (38%).

general-election-ireland-2020 Source: PA

There was also a strategy from Sinn Féin to lump the big two parties together.

“Twiddle Dum and Twiddle Dee” as McDonald has on occasion described FF & FG, particularly during the election debates.

“Two sides of the same coin” or “two cheeks on the same arse” are just two other sayings that were bandied around during the election campaign.

Although Ireland has seen somewhat of a recovery from the recession, this could be seen as the third ‘recession election’, in the sense that political parties are still being punished for their role in the crash, the subsequent austerity and for not spreading the recovery fully, or evenly across the island.

In RTÉ’s exit poll, 63% of people felt that the economic recovery hasn’t benefited them.

This frustration with the two big parties fuelled Sinn Féin’s popularity. The election results showed that it was the strength of the party’s brand rather than the local candidate that attracted voters. 

What fuelled it further was the satisfaction with Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, who has enjoyed a high satisfaction rating. Of those who voted, 49% said that the party leader was important in how they voted – but out of Sinn Féin voters, this increased to 61%.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil’s knee-jerk reaction to the party’s surge in the polls – refusing to entertain the idea of forming a government with them – also added to the appeal of the party to voters who wanted a change of a Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael government.

When RTÉ had initially refused to allow Mary Lou to take part in the televised leaders’ debate – the reason being that it was between the two politicians who could become Taoiseach – this fuelled sympathy for the party further.

Off the back of two opinion polls that showed the party make significant gains, McDonald was allowed to take part in the debate.

When questioned about the false aspersions a member of her party cast on Paul Quinn – a 21-year-old man who was murdered 13 years ago – McDonald performed badly, but this wasn’t enough of a blow to halt the growth of the party thus far or to cancel out the positive messaging or appealing policies that were offered in the first half of the debate.

What Mary Lou’s plan was

In an episode of TheJournal.ie’s The Candidate podcast, recorded on the Thursday before polling day, Mary Lou said that the party had a “bad day out last summer”, referring to the local election result.

McDonald said that she wouldn’t say she was being cautious by fielding just 42 candidates in 39 constituencies in this election but admitted her ambition was to hold onto the seats they already had.

She said that she isn’t a “poll watcher or a numbers fanatic” and that the only polls that matter are on the day of voting.

McDonald said that their plan for Saturday, 8 February was to encourage young people from “less well-off suburbs” to come out and use their vote, by telling them:

They’re counting on you staying at home. Don’t sit at home, come out and use your vote. Vote for Sinn Féin, vote for change, but also transfer for change, too.

google-trends-aontu Source: Google Trends

Successful on social

Sinn Féin has also outperformed the other parties on social media throughout this campaign. 

Google Trends shows that Sinn Féin has been the most-searched political party in Ireland for several weeks, accounting for more than half of all party related searches in the past two weeks. 

Data from Crowd Tangle, which covers Facebook and Instagram, shows that Sinn Féin’s postings in the last few weeks have engaged with far more than their posts usually are. This shows that more people are proportionately engaging with Sinn Féin candidates than others.

This could be a chicken-and-egg situation, however. Were they popular and therefore receiving more engagement from its fanbase or did their popularity increase because their posts resonated with social media users?

The bump from Brexit and the RIC

There are possible external factors which are more difficult to measure. Brexit has been bubbling away in the background since 2016, but came to the fore as the main issue in June 2018, when the EU and UK were meant to agree on an Irish protocol, aka “the backstop”.

They couldn’t find agreement – which led to a year of Northern Ireland issues tossing and turning around in the British media, often with an incomplete grasp of Irish history and the history of conflict in Northern Ireland.

High-profile British politicians assertively misunderstanding the island of Ireland, coupled with the adversarial role the Tory government has adopted in Brexit negotiations, may have made Sinn Féin more acceptable for voters – particularly the younger members of the electorate – as everyone ‘wore the green jersey’.

In the run-up to the general election announcement, on 4 January, the mayor of Clare Cathal Crowe announced that he would boycott a planned State commemoration for the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC).

This kicked off days of rolling coverage on whether a State commemoration was appropriate, mostly because of the notorious gang of violent RIC auxiliaries, the Black and Tans.

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Days of argumentation went on before the government said that it was “postponing” the State commemoration, while also planning to change the format to something else - effectively cancelling it

In Clare, Sinn Féin’s general election candidate Violet-Ann Wynne came out of the blue to top the poll there; she has won a seat in the 33rd Dáil alongside Fianna Fáil’s Crowe – the Clare mayor who raised the first concerns over the RIC issue.

How much this impacted people ahead of the campaign isn’t quantifiable but it meant one of Fine Gael’s most recent memorable play had certainly stirred up negative emotions against the party. 

What else might be behind this election vote for Sinn Féin?

ni-powersharing-talks Source: Niall Carson

A generational shift, according to the same Sinn Féin source.

There are a lot of young faces in the party, they said, adding that some were waiting for Mary Lou to start feeling at home in her role as the party leader. Gerry Adams is retired, meaning that more voters might find the party more palatable to vote for this time around.

Chris Andrews, who was elected in the Dublin Bay South constituency, said it was the policy platform that the party stood on which people bought into.

“Sinn Féin has shown they can articulate and represent people right across society and we will do that hopefully over the next five years,” he said.

The surge in popularity in the party is, however, “hard to explain in many ways”, he said.

“After the local elections we had a very good discussion among each other and I think we learned and listened to the public, and I like to think we learned from that,” he said.

When asked to expand, he said the party members “had to be more active” and the party had to learn how to articulate peoples views.

On the local elections, he said “maybe we weren’t getting our message across as well as we should” adding that the tone and some of the content was off.

“I think that tone and content has changed… [we’ve] had to adjust the way we communicated,” said Andrews.

general-election-ireland-2020 Sinn Fein's Chris Andrews is elected at the RDS in Dublin. Source: Niall Carson

But others in Sinn Féin don’t put the success solely down to their own party’s work behind the scenes. They concede that other parties’ strategies pushed the electorate into their open arms. 

“They never stopped talking about us,” said one member. “While we decided to promote our solutions and things in our manifesto, they were bringing us up in conversation, rather than focusing on their own offerings.”

No matter what preparations, reviews and going back to the drawing board the party did after the local elections, no one, not even Sinn Féin could foresee such a boost for their numbers.

“Hindsight is 2020,” said Andrews when asked about the party just fielding 42 candidates in this general election.

McDonald said last week that “in the fullness of time” it might become clear that running that number was a “missed opportunity”.

“Maybe this election story is a story of the growth of Sinn Féin,” McDonald said.

With additional reporting by Christina Finn

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