Special Report: Mary Lou McDonald’s leadership comes under scrutiny in wake of poll performance

Special Report: Mary Lou McDonald’s leadership comes under scrutiny in wake of poll performance

Sinn Féin never imagined their recent election results would be so poor and must now figure out how to get the electorate back on side, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell.

They simply did not see it coming.

For Sinn Féin’s TDs, senators and even their leader Mary Lou McDonald, the devastating defeat they suffered at last month’s local and European elections came out of the blue.

Heading into the elections on Friday May 24, in most constituencies, the party had expected to hold and, in some cases, increase its vote and its councillors.

Having won 159 council seats in 2014, an increase of 105, the increases this time around were expected to be modest, but doable.

The party also saw two of its three MEPs – Lynn Boylan in Dublin and Liadh ni Riada in Ireland South – lose their seats. Only Matt Carthy survived with a much-reduced vote.

No one saw the collapse. No one saw the loss of 78 seats. Across the country, the backlash was not being picked up by TDs, senators and those knocking on doors.

But when the ballot boxes were opened on Saturday May 25, a major shock was in store.

“It was a shock, we didn’t see it coming, this was not coming up on the doors,” said Dublin Fingal TD and health spokeswoman Louise O’Reilly.

“Nobody thought it was going to be this bad. Had we picked it up on the doors, we would have changed direction or tone. But it was a disaster,” said one TD.

Some panicked, others flipped out, thinking the end was nigh.

Louise O’Reilly
Louise O’Reilly

Three weeks on from the election, the party has begun its introspection as to what went wrong.

The normally deeply secretive party has for the first time shown a willingness to be open about its failures and the Irish Examiner has spoken to several TDs and senior party figures about what happened.

Firstly, it has emerged that the feedback during the campaign was deeply defective.

A number of the party’s top figures have revealed that as many as 70% of doors on a canvass were not being opened. So, as a result, feedback from the ground was patchy and not reliable.

The party’s directors’ of elections concluded, incorrectly, that the closed doors hinted that turnout would be down and affect all parties equally.

Secondly, some areas have done a detailed analysis of what happened the vote between 2014 and 2019 and a devastating conclusion has emerged.

Despite many pundits pointing to turnout being a problem, it has actually transpired that in many strong Sinn Féin areas, turnout was as high as 2014.

The votes simply abandoned them and went to other parties.

Special Report: Mary Lou McDonald’s leadership comes under scrutiny in wake of poll performance

This realisation has stung many as it places the blame squarely at their door, they cannot blame anyone else.

The truth of the matter is that most of the gains made in 2014, were lost.

“We lost them all,” said one TD.

But where did that vote go?

What many feel is that the party which captured huge swathes of working class and lower middle class votes and squeezed middle votes in 2014, off the back of the water charges controversy saw them all depart to other parties this time around.

The water charges issues was a huge calling card to working class voters who saw Sinn Féin as the most obvious candidates to support.

This time some of that vote went to Labour, some to the Soc Dems, some to Independents and in some areas the vote just fell away.

Party figures have said they need to work out quickly why those voters who flocked to them in 2014 fled this time around.

Were this to be replicated in a General Election, some have said the party would be back to where they were in 2011, down from the 23 seats they currently have in the Dáil to about half of that.

Thirdly, speaking honestly, some of the party’s biggest hitters have accepted the conflation of the abstentionist policy in Westminster, the lack of an assembly in the North, the absence of the party from government formation talks in 2016 and the bullying abuse scandals have merged together to create a bad smell around the party.

Some TDs have argued that each issue in isolation is arguable and defendable but when wrapped in together, it is clear they were a put off to voters.

Fourthly, significantly, some have conceded the party has not handled McDonald’s transition to become leader well at all.

There was such an expectation at her taking over that she would simply slot into the Presidency of the party and devour all around her, as she had done so effectively as Deputy Leader.

But she has stuttered, and the party is suffering as a result.

Another question being posed by leading party members is ‘why was it that the two angriest and loudest groups in the Dail, the Shinners and the Trots’, who saw their support collapse?

So what are the answers?

The people Sinn Féin should be courting, are not doing much better than they were, but clearly want more than anger from the party, they say.

They want a more constructive opposition and clearly they are not hearing or buying the Sinn Féin.

What has been clear from the conversations with party members is a growing internal criticism that the Sinn Féin Dáil team is not performing well.

The main criticism is that a small number of leading spokespeople, most notably David Cullinane and Louise O’Reilly, are “overexposed” and too aggressive on the airwaves.

Such is the concentration on too few people, TDs say their supporters struggle to name Sinn Féin’s spokespeople on key portfolios.

Some, while stopping short of saying McDonald’s position is in jeopardy, have criticised her leadership in a way Gerry Adams’ never was. She needs to stop being everyone’s friend, she needs to be more of a leader, she needs to give the underperforming TDs a kick in the backside, they say.

Eoin Ó Broin, speaking on RTÉ conceded that perhaps the party’s messaging was overly negative, and it needed to moderate it.

Special Report: Mary Lou McDonald’s leadership comes under scrutiny in wake of poll performance

“We need to have a very quick but very honest review of what happened. We are going to have to make changes in how the party does its business, how we communicate, how we campaign, how we work in the Oireachtas.

“One of the things we were hearing on some of the doors was criticism that we are a bit too negative as a party. The people we are trying to represent want to hear constructive solutions.

“Between now and General Election, our target voters will want to hear is how we are going to do things differently,” he said.

Waterford TD David Cullinane concurred with O Broin’s assessment but expanded on it.

He cited three main factors as to why his party’s vote collapsed – low turnout, boundary changes which affected the party and the party’s overly negative tone.

“Low turnout, the boundary issues and Sinn Féin not articulating our positive vision are all issues we have heard from Sinn Féin people over the last number of days. We are hurting because we lost a lot of good councillors and two MEPs. We have to listen, we have to learn,” he said.

To address the issue of under-performance by some TDs, there is a growing expectation that McDonald will reshuffle her front bench, which is normally what happens after such a heavy defeat.

The size and shape of such a reshuffle will depend on when a general election is likely to happen.

But while there is a consensus the party’s tone and message needs to change, some things are deemed to be impossible.

For example, while it plays poorly down South, there will be no end to the policy of abstaining from Westminster, as to do so would immediately split the party. Also, the restoration of Stormont is not entirely a matter for Sinn Féin to decide upon.

Sinn Féin is a party in transition and in world of pain at present. Questions are mounting as to whether McDonald is the right person to lead them into the promised land of government.

Pressure builds on McDonald but no push on her leadership is expected, yet

In May 2014, after a torrid three years in office and his party suffering major losses at European and local level, then Tánaiste and Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore tended his resignation.

Having led his party to an extraordinary success, a record 37 seats in 2011, his decision was announced just hours after seven of his own TDs and one senator expressed a vote of no confidence in him.

It was a spectacular reversal of fortune brought on by his party’s part in implementing a very rough agenda of austerity under the watchful eye of the IMF-led Troika.

In total, Gilmore’s Labour Party lost 81 local election seats across the country and had no MEP left standing.

Last month at the local and European elections, Sinn Féin suffered a similar scale of defeat, losing 78 of its 159 local authority seats, leaving it with just 81 seats on councils across the country.

The party also lost two of its three MEPs in Liadh Ní Riada in Ireland South and Lynn Boylan in Dublin with only Matt Carthy in Midlands/Northwest holding on.

The defeat of Boylan was made more remarkable given she topped the poll in Dublin five years ago.

Ní Riada’s defeat was her second heavy reversal in less than a year, having flopped spectacularly in her bid to be President.

Ni Riada and McDonald at the count centre in Cork
Ni Riada and McDonald at the count centre in Cork

But the defeats marked two major failures for her party leader Mary Lou McDonald.

Unlike Gilmore, whose position was deemed to be untenable, McDonald’s future was not placed in doubt, despite how “paNícked” and “shocked” her colleagues were at the scale of the losses.

McDonald, the posh private-school educated southsider was always destined to end up at the head of the party once Gerry Adams decided to depart.

She became leader of Sinn Féin in early 2018 on a wave of great expectation that she would lead the party to new heights, but it is fair to say the transition has failed to deliver on that expectation.

Speaking to a large number of party members over the past week, many have said calling time on McDonald is not realistic given the short time she is in the position.

To remove her now would further destabalise the party, which is clearly reeling from what the voters inflicted upon them. But, they have made clear, her time is runNíng out to turn things around and the next election is a make or break one for her.

In essence, she has been granted a fool’s pardon but TDs are certainly nervous a repeat of this result at the General Election would see half of them lose their seats.

One of the most revealing aspects of the last three weeks has been how openly critical some Sinn Féin TDs have been of their leader, which rarely happened with Gerry Adams.

Such open criticisms of her leadership, and her failure to be decisive enough, would mean she will not have many more chances to protect against a heave.

She certainly does not uNíte the party the way Adams was able to and while he did not help win many new middle-class voters, he certainly did appeal to the party’s traditional die-hard base.

Special Report: Mary Lou McDonald’s leadership comes under scrutiny in wake of poll performance

McDonald has not only failed to attract those elusive middle-class voters which the party needs if it truly wants to be a party of government, she has allowed virtually all of the support gained in 2014 to ebb away.

What is clear to many within the party is that the demands of being leader are preventing McDonald from being her most effective.

“By being limited to the big set-piece occasions in the Dáil, Mary Lou has not been the Mary Lou so many respected,” said one TD.

The feeling is that she connected with the voters by being so prominent at the Public Accounts Committee and by being out on the media much more. A number of her own TDs have gone as far as saying they have questions over her commitment, an issue which they say cost her seat in the European Parliament in 2009.

She needs to be more focused, they say, and more strategic in how the party positions itself ahead of the General Election. Otherwise, she risks finding herself deposed from the office she has worked so hard to achieve.

SF’s long march to power not only stalled, but in reverse

The party’s disastrous performance in last month’s local and European elections has undone the promising gains of 2011 and 2016, says Gary Murphy.

IN March 2015, a veritable armada of Sinn Féin activists from all across Ireland arrived in Derry for their last ard fheis, prior to the looming general election in the Republic.

Although that election wouldn’t happen for 11 months, the triumphalism and expectation of the Sinn Féin troops, as they assembled in the historically republican walled city, were palpable.

Riding high in the polls, supremely well-organised, harbingers of a populist anti-austerity message, and lavishly well-funded, the party seemed on the cusp of a huge electoral breakthrough, which could have changed Irish politics forever.

Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness
Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness

Throwing off its status as a party of permanent opposition, the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Derry’s own Martin McGuinness, told the gathered throngs that Sinn Féin was ready to enter government in the Republic.

The proviso, and indeed promise, was that they would only do so by leading the Government and being the largest party in it. McGuinness also thundered that Sinn Féin did not do austerity. The delegates lapped it up.

The cherished Sinn Féin vision of a united Ireland would be ever closer with the party in power on both parts of the island, implementing an anti-austerity agenda for a happy people living contented, de Valeraesque lives, as dreamed by those icons of republican politics, McGuinness and the party’s leader, Gerry Adams.

Sinn Féin’s view was that an electorate feeling disenfranchised by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael (the parties that had run this country since Independence), and which was worn down by austerity, would turn its lonely eyes to Sinn Féin.

Special Report: Mary Lou McDonald’s leadership comes under scrutiny in wake of poll performance

The problem, however, was that it was all baloney. The question of where the money was to come from to implement Sinn Féin’s economic vision was left suitably vague, beyond the usual canards of tax and spend, which went out of fashion in the 1970s, and a third band of tax for the so-called wealthy.

This latter group was not, however, to be confused with the wealthy Americans who provided much of the funding for the party, but that remained unsaid.

The real issue was that Sinn Féin took no notice of the realities of politics in the Republic of Ireland. It still doesn’t. The tin-eared use of the phrase ‘southern state’, uttered by the party’s vice-president, Michelle O’Neill last Wednesday, was typical of its own partitionist mindset.

While Sinn Féin had no expectation of being Ireland’s largest party after the 2016 general election, it did assume that it would be another large step in its long, slow, but inevitable march to power.

That march had begun at the 1997 general election, when the party won its first seat in the modern political era, via Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin in Cavan-Monaghan. 

A decade earlier, it had run its first candidates in an Irish general election under Gerry Adams, having made the painful decision to fight elections, abandon abstentionism, and take any seats they won in the Dáil.

The electorate, however, was immune to Sinn Féin’s charms in those early pre-Good Friday agreement days. 

The peace process, which was cemented by the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998, paved the way for Sinn Féin to offer itself as a normal political party interested in the everyday things that Irish people voted on.

Over the following two decades, a steady, incremental process of advancement occurred under the watchful, beady eye of Adams, the republican movement’s most revered figure.

Adams, party leader since 1974, led Sinn Féin from that single seat, in 1997, to five in 2002, four in 2007, 14 in 2011, and 23 in 2016. 

This is remarkable progress in anyone’s book. The reality, however, is that it could have been so much better. And the party expected it to be.

The problem was Adams himself. His constant re-election, every year, without challenge, had a touch of North Korea about it. 

And there was certainly a strong centralist twinge to Sinn Féin: any dissent from the message, as articulated by Adams, was not tolerated.

Special Report: Mary Lou McDonald’s leadership comes under scrutiny in wake of poll performance

The cult-like devotion to Adams was something not seen in Irish politics since Fianna Fáil’s religious-like zeal for its own revolutionary hero, Éamon de Valera.

Adams was both Sinn Féin’s greatest strength and most worrying weakness. The strength was the rock star appeal he had built up over four decades, at the heart of the Northern Ireland peace process.

Despite his unquestioned status as leader of Sinn Féin, Adams seemed curiously unaware of what was happening in the wider Republican movement. 

The innocent abroad routine, and injured tones, as he faced rigorous questioning about his knowledge of what went on in the murky world of the IRA, post-ceasefire, always amazed. But it made little difference to the Sinn Féin electoral advance in Northern Ireland.

The problem was that in the Republic people had different priorities. This manifested itself in Adams’s huge weakness; his woeful grasp of politics and economy this side of the border.

Used to the tribalism of Northern Ireland’s politics, Adams floundered in three successive general election campaigns in the Republic, when the vast majority of voters were interested in pretty much one thing: the economy.

In 2007, he was spectacularly inept during a tanáiste’s debate on RTÉ television, proving no match for Michael McDowell, of the Progressive Democrats, and Labour’s Pat Rabbitte.

The subsequent four years, up to the February 2011 general election, were amongst the most dramatic in modern Irish politics. Yet at that election, dominated by austerity, and with Fianna Fáil at its lowest ever ebb, after the collapse of the Brian Cowen government, Adams’ grasp of economics appeared tenuous at best.

He seemed somewhat perplexed to be constantly challenged on his party’s economic policies. This climaxed in a woeful performance during the leaders’ debate.

In 2016, his performance was, if anything, even worse. A series of increasingly terrible interviews on RTÉ, about Sinn Féin’s economic policies and how it would pay for its anti-austerity promises, saw Adams repeatedly fail to explain his party’s top rate of tax.

This was particularly disastrous given that, on the first day of the campaign, the party’s finance spokesperson, Pearse Doherty, had exposed the mammoth gap in Fine Gael’s fiscal space figures.

Liadh Ní Riadh
Liadh Ní Riadh

A return of 23 seats, on just shy of 14% of the vote, was a reasonable day’s work for the party, but it had hopes of winning up to 30 seats and its first-preference percentage was pretty much the same as Martin McGuinness received in the 2011 presidential election.

That election summed up another problem for Sinn Féin. While voters in Northern Ireland were used to the party’s candidates having been involved in the so-called armed struggle, their counterparts in the Republic were far more squeamish about it.

McGuinness became visibly upset when he was asked, in a live television debate, by Miriam O’Callaghan, how he could claim to be a man of religion when he was ‘involved in the murder of so many people’.

He accused O’Callaghan of asking disgraceful questions, confronted her after the programme, and Sinn Féin made an official complaint.

But if the 2011 presidential campaign was difficult for Sinn Féin, then the 2018 contest was a disaster. In the first electoral test since Mary Lou McDonald succeeded Adams as leader, the previous February, the party’s candidate, Liadh Ní Riadh, polled a barely believable 6.4% of the vote.

Mary Lou McDonald gave a barnstorming performance during the referendum to repeal the eighth amendment, in May of last year, but this was all but forgotten five months later, when the people next went to the polls, to re-elect Michael D Higgins as president.

While many in the party put down its poor result to the overwhelming popularity of the incumbent president, there was no such excuse for the party’s disastrous performance in last month’s local and European elections.

The loss of two of its three MEPs, and half of its councillors, allied to the 12% of the vote it received in the local elections, suggests that the long march to power has not only been stalled, but slammed clearly into reverse by the electorate.

Gary Murphy is professor of politics at Dublin City University

Timeline

Breakthrough

1997 - Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin is elected to Dáil Éireann for the Cavan–Monaghan constituency, making him the first Sinn Féin TD elected since 1957 and the first Sinn Féin TD to take his seat in Leinster House.

2002 - As Bertie Ahern’s Fianna Fáil wins a second term in office, Sinn Fein win 5 seats in the Dáil having secured 6.5% of the first preference votes.

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin

Its TDs are Ó Caoláin, Martin Ferris, Sean Crowe, Aengus Ó Snodaigh and Arthur Morgan.

2004 - Sinn Féin wins 11.97% of first preference votes in European Elections, with future leader Mary Lou McDonald winning a seat in Dublin.

Wobbles

2007 - While it marginally increases its first percentage vote in the General Election, Sinn Féin loses Sean Crowe’s seat, reducing its number of TDs to 4.

2009 - Amid the worst financial crash, Sinn Féin suffers another loss as McDonald loses her seat in the European Parliament, despite again the numbers of votes it received increases.

Big surge ahead

2011 - Amid the electoral implosion of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour form a massive coalition government under Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore.

Sinn Féin sees a surge both in terms of its support and in turn the number of Dáil seats it wins.

Both Gerry Adams and McDonald are elected as TDs, with them assuming roles as leader and deputy leader in the Dail, with Ó Caolain marginalised.

Sinn Fein become the 2nd party of Opposition. The party wins 9.9% of the vote, which delivers 14 seats.

2014 - At the height of the water charges fiasco, Sinn Féin rides the crest of a significant wave of support making significant gains both at European Parliament level and at local authority level.

The party wins three of eleven MEP seats with Lynn Boylan, Matt Carthy and Liadh Ní Riada all elected.

Gerry Adams
Gerry Adams

At council level, the party wins an additional 105 seats and sees it seize control on many councils by way of cooperation pacts.

2016 - Sinn Féin confirms his position as the third party in Irish politics winning 23 seats in the Dáil.

However, despite its surge, Sinn Féin is side-lined from the government formation talks and is isolated for the duration.

Under pressure

2014 - Gerry Adams is arrested by police investigating the abduction and murder of Jean McConville.

In a statement, Adams describes it as a “voluntary meeting” following his public comments last month that he was available to meet with the PSNI over the case.

2016 - Controversy arises as Cork East TD Sandra McLellan says she wanted to run again but that her job became impossible because of efforts to “undermine and malign” her within the party.

2017/18 - The party is rocked by allegations of abuse and harassment from within its own ranks with more than 13 of its councillors resigning.

Change is a coming

2017 - A visibly frail Martin McGuinness and Sinn Fein collapse the Northern Assembly over row with the DUP over the so-called ‘cash for ash’ scandal and a failure to adequately recognise the Irish language, despite it only being spoken by less than 5% of the population.

Special Report: Mary Lou McDonald’s leadership comes under scrutiny in wake of poll performance

Ballymun councillor Noleen Reilly posts pictures of bruised legs amid allegations of physical attack by former party colleagues.

2017 - McGuinness dies having reportedly suffered from amyloidosis, a condition that attacks the vital organs on 21 March, aged 66.

He is replaced as Northern leader of Sinn Féin by Michelle O’Neill.

2018 - After 34 years as leader, Gerry Adams announces his decision to stand down as leader.

He is replaced by McDonald who causes controversy during her acceptance speech by saying “Up the rebels, Tiocfaidh ár lá”.

Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill
Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill

Disaster

2019 - Sinn Féin has a disastrous local and European Elections losing two of its three MEPs and 78 councillors.

Party TDs accepts its messaging is “too negative” amid open criticism of Mary Lou McDonald’s leadership.

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