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Mary Lou McDonald at the party's campaign launch. Alamy Stock Photo
Sinn Féin

SF has slumped in the polls - we spoke to grassroots members about what needs to change

Sinn Féin may yet make major gains at the polls this week, but its grassroots say the leadership isn’t listening on major issues.

SOME GRASSROOTS MEMBERS of Sinn Féin have accused the party leadership of “not listening” to them on key issues over recent months as the party has continued its slide in the polls.

The party has dramatically fallen from peaks ranging in the mid-30s to a mere 22 percent in last weekend’s Ireland Thinks poll in the Sunday Independent.

The poll - which asked about voting intentions in the general election - puts Mary Lou McDonald’s party on level-pegging with Fine Gael and a point behind the various Independent candidates who are on 23 percent support.

Members, who often form the backbone of any party in local areas, told The Journal that Sinn Féin’s leadership has struggled to respond to hot button issues such as migration, while also suffering a backlash over its stance on the recent family and care referendums.

Canvasses and defections

One cumann chair outlined how some people are still planning to vote for the party, but are doing so “with trepidation” after different decisions taken over recent months.

Others told of how they have lost canvassers in the last few months, with a number of veteran campaigners for Sinn Féin saying there was also a noticeably smaller number of canvassers hitting the streets for this election. Campaigners for other candidates have also noted that there are fewer canvassers on duty for SF this time around.

Other long-time members and some recently departed members said one of the strongest features of the party had been its community activism, in a raft of campaigns from housing to healthcare protests. Some claimed this had become less common in recent years.

There’s been a drift of members from the party over a similar timeframe, Sinn Féin figures who spoke to us said – with departures to the left and right of the political spectrum.

In one instance, a former staunch IRA man is now canvassing for a rival mainstream party. Elsewhere, veteran republicans with longtime ties to Sinn Féin have defected to run as independents and have prioritised stricter migration controls as part of their platforms.


Barry O’Regan, who chairs the McGrath-Sands Cumann in Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary, said the party hierarchy had made decisions without proper consultation with membership on some major issues.

He pointed to March’s referendums on family and care, which the party had backed a Yes-Yes vote for. In the end, both were rejected and O’Regan believes the majority of Sinn Féin supporters had voted No in the second ballot on care.

“My own father is disabled and is a member of the Irish Wheelchair Association, and I was listening to him and groups like that when I was making up my vote.”

The party’s stance didn’t go down well with some grassroots members in his area, he said. “There are two lads who have always lent a hand with canvasses and they basically said to me after the referendums: what was that about?”

On the campaign trail across hundreds of houses in Tipperary, migration has arisen only a handful of times according to O’Regan.

“It’s come up on three occasions,” he noted. In two of those instances, canvassers were told the party wasn’t doing enough to clamp down on illegal immigration – in the other, a man told them they weren’t being vocal enough about encouraging immigration. The man is an employer locally – and “needs people to fill the jobs”.

An Irish Times/Ipsos B&A survey last month suggested that the party’s supporters held the toughest line compared to other parties, with 70% wanting a tighter border policy.

More than one party member said the online sphere has seen posts and comments by party representatives often become “swarmed” with criticism by far-right accounts.

The Journal has previously reported on how a relatively small number of social media accounts posing as Irish users are actively targeting politicians, journalists and news outlets with negative responses in a potential ‘influence operation’ ahead of the elections.

“They’re trying to demoralise you all the time. People are calling Sinn Féin traitors and sharing stuff from people like Tommy Robinson – he was never a friend to Ireland,” O’Regan added, referring to the UK-based far-right agitator.

At its election launch last week, Sinn Féin leader McDonald was adamant that the claims of “traitors and sell outs” directed at the party was not a defining feature of campaign.

The other aspect that Sinn Féin party members point out is that, even with its lower position as suggested by the polls, the party is still set to have its best ever result at a local and European elections.

It suffered a similar fallback in the 2019 elections – receiving just 9.5 percent of the total vote – before a remarkable recovery six months later in the general election where it received 24.5 percent. (Turnout may be a factor here, as the number of people who voted in February 2020 was 12 percent higher than the seven months prior)

But what has stung is how expectations had risen so high given its performance in 2020 on a platform seeking change, followed by large-scale public meetings featuring hundreds turning out to see their high profile TDs before the pandemic hit.

“It’s hard to keep the momentum of change going over five years and I think we’ve seen that play out. But we need to now get back on track and be able to back it up for the general election,” another cumman chair said.

‘Open borders’

What some members termed a ‘hardened’ stance on migration was cited by several of the grassroots activists as a cause for confusion.

While the party has said before this year that it’s ‘against open borders’ Sinn Féin has come in for heightened criticism recently over its use of the phrase amid the current debate on accommodation for asylum seekers. In April, its frontbench spokesperson on foreign affairs Matt Carthy told RTÉ Radio One’s Saturday with Colm Ó Mongáin that it came about as a way to quell criticism from “nasty actors online”.

This was immediately jumped on during the same programme by Labour’s Aodhán Ó Ríordáin who accused the party of being “led” by the far-right.

“Sinn Fein is not for open borders, we are for a system that is fair, human rights compliant, efficient,” party president Mary Lou McDonald said, following the release of a social media video by Cork TD Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire.

Weeks earler, during an interview with RTÉ Radio 1’s This Week programme, McDonald said: “There is no such thing. Ireland doesn’t have open borders.”

The apparent contradiction frustrated one candidate who told The Journal that clarity was badly needed ahead of the upcoming general election, as “there were real attempts to drive a wedge between us and the working class communities we’ve been strong in”.

As for how the party should decide on its stance and communicate that to voters, they weren’t so sure. “There are a lot of discussions needed to know where we’re going on this.”

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