Growing, stabilising, or stagnating? They may not sound like eye-catching buzzwords, but for Sinn Féin the phrases and what happens over the coming days are crucial to defining the party’s next step on the long road to what it presumes will eventually lead to power.
A year after Mary Lou McDonald replaced Gerry Adams as the party’s president, Sinn Féin is facing its second election contest in the Republic under new management, after last autumn’s faltering presidential campaign.
Repeated polls say the party’s support has levelled off at a respectable if uninspiring 16%-18%. Its attempts to protect its core voter base from other left-leaning parties while extending into middle-class Ireland is causing as many difficulties as opportunities. And while party officials may dispute the suggestion, the backdrop makes this week’s MEP elections crucial in the new phase of Sinn Féin’s development.
The party currently holds three MEP seats in the Republic, with Matt Carthy in Midlands North West, Lynn Boylan in Dublin and Liadh Ni Riada in Ireland South all in genuine contention to retain their positions this Friday.
However, any drop in their support — which has been mooted for all three candidates in three campaign polls to date — would indicate a noteworthy if not quite yet worrying trend Sinn Féin would rather do without.
No pressure, then, for its trio of MEP candidates as they reach the campaign home straight this week. Speaking to the Irish Examiner at the Metropole Hotel in Cork City, arguably the party’s most high-profile MEP Ms Ni Riada — who was elected in 2014 with the second highest first preferences in Ireland— is outlining her re-election policies.
Irish cost of living and “bread and butter” issues can be addressed in Brussels, she says. Extra supports for fishing communities are essential and can be achieved through quiet negotiations, she claims, and European Investment Bank funds must be freed up to solve Ireland’s housing and, potentially, broadband problems.
With her track record in Europe, where she has been ranked in the top 10 of 751 MEPs for productivity and was nominated as MEP of the year, Ms Ni Riada says she is the person to deliver. But on the wider issue of whether Friday’s vote is a make-or-break moment for her party, the West Cork-based MEP is far more non-committal.
“You always have to evolve as a party and you have to look at the political landscape, and I think the locals and Europeans will be a good indication of that, on what we can do to ensure the party grows and moves with the times.
“The most important thing is to take the seat, so the figure doesn’t really matter provided you get over the line.
“You take note of the polls, of course you take note of them, but at the end of the day and I know it’s a cliche but it’s the ballot box that will tell,” she says.
How Ms Ni Riada intends to ensure the ballot box tells her what she wants to hear, she explains, is through convincing voters the EU is not some distant bureaucratic beast, but instead offers a real opportunity to impact on their daily lives.
While joking she has had to go to “great lengths” to explain to some voters “potholes are not under the European competency to be fair”, Ms Ni Riada is adamant the belief MEPs are cocooned from daily political problems is incorrect, and insists they can help with “the bread and butter issues” at home.
In 2014, when she was first elected to Brussels, there was “a huge anti-austerity” vote as “people were still reeling from the shock of the bailout and the banks”. Ms Ni Riada says the issues coming up on the doors in this campaign have been about the next step — cost of living.
She says while there is high employment in Ireland, “people are working more hours, precarious hours, and still not having anything in their pockets after all these bills”. She says the fact there is a recovery but people are still not feeling that recovery makes this a different election.
The point is a standard and often accurate post-recession Sinn Féin position, with the party’s TDs, senators and councillors regularly pushing for greater supports for struggling households and communities. In a European context, Ms Ni Riada says she can also help through her work in Brussels by influencing policies which trickle down to Irish law.
Describing herself as a “solutions-based MEP”, Ms Ni Riada says over the past five years she has put forward amendments to European legislation on vulture funds and cost of living concerns at the European parliament’s budget and petitions committees.
She says the practical measures introduced there have ensured “we have an Irish voice in Europe” on grassroots issues affecting this country which she believes might otherwise not be heard from other parties.
Ms Ni Riada says the “big problems” of vulture funds and housing have not been addressed effectively by other parties so far, saying it is “heartbreaking when you see communities starved of cash and realise the funding just isn’t being drawn down” from Europe.
Similarly, she says there are over-burdensome obstacles in the way of farmers trying to access Leader funding, with just €38m of the €250m available accessed by Ireland since 2012, an issue she says she has worked to address by holding Europe to account.
While welcoming the €100m Brexit support fund for farmers announced last week, Ms Ni Riada says: “Their promises are well and good but if they’re not implemented it’s no good for the person on the street.”
She says that, again, is an issue up to MEPs to ensure does not happen. And on broadband and fishing community support - the latter of which is a central part of why she is in Brussels — the MEP is adamant the European parliament cannot just give a “lastminute.com” approach to Irish concerns, saying our political representatives should push for European Investment Bank help to shore up financial gaps.
They are all genuine issues for voters, and Ms Ni Riada’s record shows she is consistently raising them in Europe. They may not be buzzwords, but for better or worse the party has more riding on the European elections outcome than just the results themselves.