PROBING post mortems from the election results are under way. The nature of election fallout is that winners are beyond critical review.
In politics nothing succeeds like success. Fine Gael, Labour and the independents will busily plan to convert their recent gains into future Dáil success. Gilmore, Kenny, Lowry, Seamus Healy and Joe Higgins can bask in the temporary glory of success. Meanwhile the vanquished must provide answers to their critics.
The biggest surprise both recently and in the 2007 general election was Sinn Féin’s setback. Pundits predicted they would obtain 10 TDs in this Dáil — instead they declined to four seats. Now they have lost their only MEP.
They went into the local elections with 54 city and county councillors. They emerged with the same number. Despite gains in Munster and the midlands, they lost council seats in Dublin and the border counties. These setbacks are too serious to disregard.
Matters have since been compounded by the resignations of two prominent party stalwarts, Christy Burke in Dublin Central and John Dwyer in Wexford. They stood in countless local, Dáil and even Euro elections. Their departure has been acrimonious against the leadership and damaging to morale. The party hierarchy has failed to give credible explanations, only calling on them to return their seats and accusing them of selfishness.
The fate of Sinn Féin in Co Wexford reflects on the party’s fate nationally. In 2004 they elected three county councillors for the first time — councillors Fleming (Gorey), Dwyer (New Ross) and Roche (Wexford). Fleming defected to Fianna Fáil. All three lost their seats this month. This cannot be attributed to lack of local community/constituency work or personal failings.
The SF party brand has become problematic. National, economic and social circumstances could not have been more favourable, given the unprecedented government unpopularity and the healthy vote received by protest politicians.
While searching for the cause of this decline, I do not wish to dance on their political grave. My interest is in detecting the undercurrents of political opinion. Mary Lou McDonald lost out to Joe Higgins — not a centre or right-wing figure. Sinn Féin’s organisation, professionalism, resources and campaigning are on a par with past performance. The opprobrium of having to defend violence and atrocity is gone. Their past stigma was sufficiently diluted for Fine Gael’s Frank Flannery to woo them. What are the reasons? My initial guess is that the success of the peace process and participation in government in the North has reduced their visibility and news relevance. Maybe life in the South is so de facto partitionist that people don’t want a party leader with a northern accent living outside the jurisdiction. Notwithstanding Gerry Adams’s place in Irish history, perhaps he is a figure from the past. His grasp of detail on economic matters here is questionable. Beyond bland clichés, policy specifics are scanty. Sinn Féin’s Dáil performance has been weak and low-profile.
The party tried to develop a dual leadership structure with Mary Lou acting as a Dublin figurehead and vice-president. Her unpopularity among long-standing members seems to epitomise the inherent conflict between the old and the new. Is this a debate between traditional republicanism and modern socialism?
Life was simple when your sole political passion was Brits Out, an end to unionist tyranny and a 32-county republic. Pragmatic powersharing with the DUP has fallen short of the original idealism. The popular jibe is that the Armalite brigade has been replaced by the Armani set who crave government coalition in the South by 2016.
Surely the future lies with the modernisers. Any romantic notions of republican glory are outdated and increasingly irrelevant to ordinary workers’ needs in the South. When interviewing Adams recently, I asked him was SF’s future as a party of protest or government? Without hesitation, he replied the latter.
Sinn Féin must find a formula that embraces their diverse electorates north and south. Lately, we look askance at events beyond the border. The ongoing tribal, sectarian bigotry and hatred has been an appalling feature of Northern life. Recent attacks on Polish immigrants after the soccer match in Windsor Park were disgraceful.
The shameful intimidation against Roma residents in Belfast was sickening. While we are happy to indulge in cross-border shopping, most of us do not aspire to live there. SF needs to find a profound redefinition to reverse recent losses.
The Green party were the biggest losers at the polls. They lost all nine council seats across Dublin local authorities. They have no seat in our regional cities of Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford. Michael Lowry, with four councillors, claims to have more representation than the Greens at local level. The outcome could not have been worse.
In the dark days of the 1980s, as a government backbencher, Fine Gael parliamentary party meetings debated growing political despair due to the deepening recession and unpopularity of the government parties. I recall the late Jim Mitchell, in response to a call for party and economic optimism, saying “it is wrong to give hope where there is no hope”.
This sentiment is appropriate to the plight of the Greens. During the 2007 general election campaign, as a pundit, I repeatedly predicted the decimation of the PDs, including the loss of Michael McDowell’s seat. I was accused by them of bias and unfairness. There is no point in blaming the messenger. I predict the same fate awaits the Greens in the next general election.
THEY are carrying out a series of meetings across the country to review their performance in government and plan future strategy. Forget the soul-searching. The message from the electorate is clear and simple. No matter what Gormley, Ryan and Sargent achieve with their environmental agenda in government, it is marginal to the major economic and social concerns of the electorate.
If every light bulb used was energy efficient... all planning laws perfected... 40% of all electricity generated from renewable sources... we only ate organic food and had perfect drinking water... all cycled or used public transport to get to work, and all our wheelie bins were for recycling material — it wouldn’t save the Green party from electoral demise.
The Greens cannot continue to operate on a parallel political universe. The circumstances of gaining their six TDs have utterly changed. The mood of indulgence towards the green agenda and climate change hasn’t evaporated. It has been engulfed in a tsunami of concerns about jobs, taxes, public services, personal/public debt and standards of living. My advice to the Greens is to renegotiate the programme for government on mainstream issues other than the green agenda. This is how they will ultimately be judged.
The cyclical popularity of larger parties can ebb and flow. Their history, regional spread, traditional membership and overall organisation means they can survive when the tide goes out. Smaller parties like the Greens and Sinn Féin need a minimum critical mass to survive. In diametrically different circumstances of government and opposition they cannot sweep recent reversals under the carpet. Failure to address the reasons for their rejection could be fatal.