Gerard Howlin: Sinn Féin's rise - Unseen, unheard and unanticipated until too late

Gerard Howlin: Sinn Féin's rise - Unseen, unheard and unanticipated until too late
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald celebrates with her supporters after being elected at the RDS count centre. Picture: Charles McQuillan

Micheál Martin went into Saturday’s election shunning Sinn Féin.

As the cost of a campaign that misfit the public mood was counted today he recalibrated, slightly. He spoke of electoral ‘volatility’ and the ‘continuing fragmentation’ of national politics.

Asked what he would do, he told RTÉ’s Áine Lawlor he "would put the country first". Making clear that a fuller assessment awaited the declaration of results, the old fire and brimstone on Sinn Féin markedly absent.

Fianna Fáil prepared for a different election than the one that materialised. The centre would hold and grow. The 50% of the vote fought over with Fine Gael in 2016 was a nadir.

Economic recovery nationally, and recovery politically as the party demonstrated qualities of substance and leadership through confidence and supply, would position it to challenge Fine Gael for a larger share, of a larger centre.

The virulence of the attack on Sinn Féin was twofold:

  • Firstly, it was based on real concern about wheels within wheels in that party and who exactly was turning them
  • Secondly, it was what in political bunkers is called 'prebuttal' — this is proactive attack on an issue you expect to be attacked on

Fianna Fáil knew it was vulnerable in that tidal estuary of the middle class between it and Fine Gael on the accusation that it would do a deal with Sinn Féin. Those attacks arrived. Fine Gael used the accusation of collusion as a contrast with its own supposed steadfastness and principles.

Arguably the din of the two beating up on Mary Lou, did her a service. Her exclusion from debates between Varadkar and Martin only, allowed her to emphasis her change credentials. The personal popularity of the two declined during the campaign. What they did, delivered for nobody except Sinn Féin.

This is a deeply disappointing election result for Fianna Fáil. In advance of declarations, but after the Ipsos MRBI poll, fewer votes and Dáil seats are certain.

Saturday’s vote upends a narrative of recovery for the party begin after the local and European elections in 2014. The consequences are far bigger than the detail. If the Sinn Féin surge solidifies there is another threat, more insidious than the economic crash, to its relevance. For Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael is competition for a band of voters between the two. Sinn Féin is now an alternative to itself.

It was to be so different. Martin showed steel and stamina few credited him with. In Irish political terms his recovery from 2011 – 2020 is unequalled in scale and in fact far outstrips the comeback of his early mentor Charlie Haughey between the Arms Trial in 1970 and his becoming Taoiseach in 1979.

Martin’s strategy underpinned determination to keep Leo Varadkar in office for as long as possible. He stood up to parts of his own party on that and much else. He succeeded in part. Varadkar’s own surge since becoming Taoiseach in 2017 has long since subsided. But what beset his opponent contaminated Martin.

Unseen, unheard and unanticipated until too late, a Sinn Féin wave galvanised around a single unanswerable theme of change. What it means and delivers is for the future.

But the electoral consequence is already Fianna Fáil’s recent past. All options that exclude both Sinn Féin and Fine Gael, Martin’s stated strategy, are likely inoperable. Dealing with either requires a u-turn of gobsmacking proportions.

One sensed a taut, controlled Martin, was wrestling yesterday less with his conscience than with urgent necessity. One necessity is to lead-on. He is on the cusp of Houdini-like success, albeit under terms and conditions he abhors. Failure to find a way through means an end for his leadership. Talk to the contrary is blather. His life’s work politically has crystallised into this conundrum.

The biggest issue for Fianna Fáil is cultural. It is not in step with the times. Another take on the same thing is that in a fragmenting society, it can no longer catch-all. Its preponderance over Celtic Tiger Ireland was an Indian summer. The country was changing fundamentally but the political architecture remained intact for so long as the boom lasted. The crash was not just political realignment. It was a belated cultural reset. Fianna Fáil has never reconnected with urban Ireland or made a connection with the young who lead fundamentally different lives. The stand-out stat in the Ipsos MRBI poll was that with the exception of Aontú, Fianna Fáil’s single outstanding lead among any population cohort is among regular mass goers. That’s good, and those people don’t deserve Varadkar’s denigration. But if that’s the highpoint of your political base, you have a problem.

Fianna Fáil got 44 seats in 2016. It was a great result on the day. But it hasn’t delivered thought leadership or vision that resonates, however. Many spokespersons are competent. Few inspire or set fire. The party believed that workmanlike reliability would be asked for and rewarded by the electorate. It wasn’t. The party became a version of continuity. The people wanted change.

The imperative now is to give it to them. The worst of all worlds for Fianna Fáil is revival of any duopoly with Fine Gael. It is for Martin to get himself out of the corner he painted himself into on Sinn Féin.

I have a sense that Fine Gael wants to see Fianna Fáil stew in its juices. Martin must cut the knot.

He can reconfigure the conversation by answering the call for change and offer a government for one budget, and one year, to lead Ireland through the trade talks. It would be a national government. It would have specific, limited objectives. It would consist of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Sinn Féin.

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