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Voting no to the politics of constant negativity

Sinn Féin candidate Liadh Ní Riada and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald TD last week at the count centre for Ireland South in Nemo Rangers, Cork. Picture: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

After its poor showing in the recent elections, Sinn Féin faces a tough task to make up ground before the next general election, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell.

Last Sunday night, a weary-looking Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald arrived at the count centre at the RDS in Dublin and faced the music.

The normally assured and poised leader appeared shaken and unsteady as she addressed a large media gaggle over the mauling her party got from the electorate two days before.

As she spoke, she held and squeezed a ball of bluetak or perhaps chewing gum, rolling it constantly in her fingers, an outward sign of the whallop she had taken. 

Her voice wavering ever so slightly as she spoke.

She said her party must “take stock” of what happened and have the “humility” to acknowledge if mistakes were made, but insisted her leadership is not under threat.

“No, I don’t believe so,” Ms McDonald said when asked. “I believe when you take on to lead an organisation such as ours we’re a big organisation, we’re a national organisation. 

"You have to steel yourself for the days that things don’t go your way and that really is a more direct test of a leader.”

The next day it was confirmed that MEP Lynn Boylan, the 2014 poll-topper in Dublin, had lost her seat and Liadh Ní Riada was in trouble in Ireland South.

Defending the decision to call for a full recount in South, Sinn Féin’s director of elections Jonathan O’Brien said he estimated only 2% of all the total ballots had been checked. 

He added the only way of knowing for certain whether the outcome would change was by the recount being conducted.

At council level, the party’s vote halved in percentage terms in key urban areas in Dublin and Cork and it lost 78 seats, dropping from 159 to just 81.

Having surged so far ahead five years ago, the party is truly shaken by its first serious reversal since it took its first Dáil seat in the modern age in 1997.

The movement has had wobbles, like when McDonald herself lost her MEP seat in 2009, but this election was a major rejection of its overtly aggressive politics of protest.

Some of the party’s former members and its most loyal supporters gave their views on where it all went wrong when canvassed over the past week.

“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. 

“We have rushed headlong into the centre under Mary Lou that we have abandoned our old clothes in a manner many of us were not comfortable with. 

Now we are stuck in a position where our core vote did not turn out and the middle classes still don’t trust us.

Many were reluctant to speak on the record. But Eoin O’Broin, speaking on RTÉ yesterday conceded that perhaps the party’s messaging was overly negative and it needed to moderate it.

“We need to have a very quick but very honest review of what happened,” he said.

“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 a 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 one MEP at least in Lynn Boylan. We have to listen, we have to learn,” he said.

However, others canvassed were more direct.

“We made a mess of it,” said one TD. “We were well marshalled in 2014 and we focused on the water charges issue which the people connected with across the board. 

"But this time, we were too aggressive on issues that didn’t land as well. They saw us as the angry mob with no solutions, rather than the party of answers.”

But several people at Oireachtas and council level sought to criticise the “over-exposure” of the likes of Cullinane and O’Reilly on the national airwaves as a problem.

“People are fed up listening to them lecturing. We have to moderate our tone but also spread out more who the party is putting on radio and TV,” said one TD.

However, senior party figures point out to a deficit of Oireachtas members who are able to “hold their own” on radio or TV panel shows and hence Cullinane and O’Reilly are frequently put forward.

Exceptionally low voter turn out in many urban areas across the country had a devastating impact in Sinn Féin but also some of the other hard left parties like Solidarity/People Before Profit. 

For example, in South Dublin County Council areas, the Sinn Féin vote was down 12.5%, down 12.2% in Dublin City, and 9.3% in Cork City. 

In all areas, overall turnout was well down on 2014 and ran at below 50%.

Put simply, the Sinn Féin voters of 2014 stayed at home or they voted for other parties and independents.

Unlikely to vote for Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil or Labour, this time they did not feel it worthwhile to even vote for Sinn Féin. 

“They dont see the point in engaging, that is the challenge we have to address,” said O’Broin.

The big fear, especially for many of Sinn Féin’s 23 TDs is that were a general election to be called this year, half of them would lose their seats.

One angry TD said: “We have an identity crisis and people will not vote for a party which is unclear in its policies. We could fall to 12 or 13 TDs the way things are. It is that bad and we do not have a lot of time to put it right.”

That prediction of seat losses was shared by a number of TDs contacted by the Irish Examiner.

So McDonald and her bruised colleagues have a big call to make.

Continue on the politics or protest and see themselves pushed back to the margins, or genuinely seek to play a constructive role in Government.

The big risk there is that the middle classes, still highly suspicious of Sinn Féin, will not reward them for doing so.

The party is genuinely caught in a catch-22 scenario and there is no obvious way out.

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