Michael Clifford: Sinn Féin needs to keep playing the long game

Michael Clifford: Sinn Féin needs to keep playing the long game
Thomas Gould celebrates after being elected in Cork North Central at the Nemo Rangers GAA Club in Cork.

The new brand is all about driving the vehicle marked Change, writes Michael Clifford

At 11.05am they broke out into ‘Come Out Ye Black and Tans’. Somebody unfurled a tricolour and the volume went up a few notches. It was the first commotion yesterday in the RDS, the count centre for the Dublin constituencies, the cockpit of this election.

The would-be Wolfe Tones were supporters of Dessie Ellis, Sinn Féin TD and former IRA activist whom tallies had suggested was polling at around 44% of the vote in his Dublin North-West constituency.

After the spontaneous effort at song, things subsided for a few minutes until some of the supporters broke into a chant. At that point, Ellis pulled a few of them aside, had a few words, told them to tone it down. There’s a new image for the party, more about bread and butter than Tiocfaidh ár lá.

At 3.35pm, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, who had entered the cavernous room some while before, addressed the media. There were no tricolours waving in the background. The new brand is not about the old and vexed question of the island’s political status. It’s all about driving the vehicle marked Change. You want change? We got it.

This was Sinn Féin’s greatest day in electoral terms south of the border.

It represented the greatest leap towards what once must have been a pipe dream for the party — leading a government of left-wing entities. That remains for the next election to determine, but the wake of this election throws up a tricky question for the party: Is Sinn Fein, if offered the opportunity by one of the other two parties, now ready to make the major leap from protesting and campaigning into actually governing?

“We asked people to give us a chance to deliver the platform we had set out on the housing crisis, health, giving ordinary workers a break,” McDonald said in the RDS. “What I want is to have a government for the people, a government without Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael in it.”

That won’t happen, but there is no denying that Sinn Féin has moved onto another plateau.

The success has many fathers. In the first instance, Mary Lou McDonald had far and away the best campaign of any party leader. She played a blinder, coming across as empathetic, articulate, and always on message. Unlike her predecessor, she carried no baggage from the violence in the North. Her most potent line was “Give us a chance”.

The narrative had it that Fianna Fáil had wrecked the country and Fine Gael had mismanaged the recovery. This more than anything resonated particularly with a younger audience inclined to vote on issues rather than tradition or history.

The party entered the campaign on the defensive, hoping to stem any losses rather than make gains, but the seeds of their victory were sown over the last six months. After very poor local and European elections last May, Sinn Féin redirected the focus from protesting to offering solutions. The principal figures in this regard were Eoin Ó Broin and Pearse Doherty, who, along with McDonald were the public faces of the campaign. Housing, in particular, was at the heart of the message. This resonated right across the voting demographics.

Another factor was that for the first time the party presented itself as open for business — willing to talk to anybody about entering government.

More than anything though, the party had possession of the greatest asset in any contest — luck. This election was the third since the collapse of the economy. Over that time the political culture in this country has been going through slow, transformative change.

Fine Gael and Labour promised a different way when they took the reins in a time of deep crisis in 2011. Five years later the drift from the big two parties was under way because the change promised had not been delivered. Now, with the economy undoubtedly recovered, yet many parts of society failing to feel it, the landscape was primed for a major change.

The only party outside the big two still standing, albeit bruised, was Sinn Féin. In that regard, the Shinners resembled the corner forward standing on the edge of the square as the ball comes back off a post into his hands. The goal is now on, more likely than not, but there’s still a bit of work to do. And under McDonald’s leadership, they did the work and reaped the rewards.

In electoral terms, this was a very Irish revolution. Most upheavals in recent years have involved the sweeping to power of right wing populist parties or individuals. What happened here was of a completely different order.

Sinn Féin claims to be a left-wing party, but it would be more accurate to describe it as a populist entity, albeit coming from the left rather than right.

Some of its polities would be anathema to anybody of the left striving for a progressive programme to eliminate inequality. What left-wing or socialist outfit could condone abolishing a property tax at a time of a housing crisis?

How unequal is it to rob future generations of the chance of a pension by pandering to today’s voters?

The other noteworthy feature of this electoral revolution is that Sinn Féin has not been swept to power. A case could be made that the party does not want to go into power at this point, as the only option to do so would be with Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. A far more attractive proposition would be to go into opposition where it could build further to a point where it could realistically aspire to lead a government after the next election. Unlike the populist entitles elsewhere, Sinn Féin plays a very long game.

The change wrought at the polls on Saturday was transformative. But as this was an Irish revolution, it’s way too early to tell where exactly it’s going, and how long it’s going to take to get there.

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