‘We don’t want a Spring Tide or a Gilmore Gale.”
It sounds like a curious thing for a political party to say but Sinn Féin representatives are adamant.
The Spring Tide of ’92 and last year’s Gilmore Gale represented Labour’s two most successful elections.
In 1992, Labour under then leader Dick Spring won 33 seats, more than doubling its representation in the Dáil and a record for the party at the time.
Eamon Gilmore broke that record last year when leading Labour to 37 seats, 17 more than it had going into the general election.
So why wouldn’t Sinn Féin politicians want that kind of success?
Because it was ephemeral, in their view.
By the time the 1997 general election swung around and Labour had spent five years in government, they had lost their oomph. The party promptly lost 18 of its 33 seats in the election.
Sinn Féin believes something similar will happen with Labour come the next election, and that many of Gilmore’s TDs will lose their seats.
Consider it in percentage terms: In 1992, Labour won 19% of the vote, then fell back to 10% in 1997, and stayed at that level in the 2002 and 2007 elections until rising to 19% again last year.
Admittedly, the collapse of Fianna Fáil is something that complicates assessments of Labour’s future electoral health (it seems unlikely that Labour would lose much support to Fianna Fáil next time out).
Either way, Sinn Féin doesn’t want what it regards as fleeting successes and boom-bust electoral cycles. It wants steady, consistent growth that will ensure long-term success, and its leadership and representatives appear more than prepared to bide their time to achieve it.
“We went from 10% to almost 30% over 15 years in the North,” one representative says, adding that the goal is to do likewise in the Republic.
Sinn Féin grew in the North by eating away at the SDLP’s share of the nationalist vote. Southern politics are a completely different ball game.
Certainly, the 15 months since the general election have represented an excellent period for Sinn Féin: The party has made a better fist of opposition in the Dáil than Fianna Fáil, and its support is booming as a result.
Recent opinion polls suggest Sinn Féin could be on somewhere between 20% and 25% of the vote — unheard-of territory for a party whose 10% in last year’s election was considered a significant success.
Few in the party are foolish enough to believe the 20%-25% range is realistic. Rather, it’s a reflection of discontent with the Coalition — a shot across the bows of the Government.
But what Sinn Féin representatives do believe — with good reason — is that their support is definitely growing. It may not have reached 25%, but the chances are, if there were an election in the morning, the party would exceed last year’s 10%.
Is there capacity for Sinn Féin to continue that growth over the long-term and become a party — or the party — of government?
To try and answer that, it is necessary to consider a couple of things — Sinn Féin’s structures on the ground and the audience it is chasing.
According to one Sinn Féin representative: “Labour didn’t want to alienate any section of the electorate [in the last election] — and that’s crazy politics.” He says Sinn Féin will focus on representing “those left behind”, or broadly, the “C2DEs” — the socio-demographic classification referring to the working classes. (A, B and C1 refer to the upper, middle, and lower middle class, respectively.)
“Maybe the bottom end of the C1s as well,” he says. “That’s our electorate and that’s more than 45% of the electorate.”
And with that 45%, in Sinn Féin’s view, taking the brunt of the economic collapse and austerity, there’s a massive potential vote to tap in to.
“Potential” is the key word. C2DEs don’t vote in the same numbers as ABC1s. Persuading people who agree with them to actually vote, therefore, will be one of Sinn Féin’s biggest challenges if they are to succeed in the long term.
There is a related problem — the party’s structural strength, or “capacity”, as Sinn Féin representatives refer to it.
Imagine for one second that the recent polls are accurate and Sinn Féin is on 25% of public support. Even if they polled that in a general election, they would not currently have the candidates, canvassers, or organisational strength to turn all those votes into TDs in the Dáil.
“Building capacity has to be our focus,” says another representative. “The polls are encouraging... but we have to build the party.”
All of which may suggest 2016 — the indicative date for the next general election — will still come too soon for the party.
But that doesn’t seem to bother Sinn Féin unduly, maybe because their overarching goal is the holding of a referendum on Irish unity.
Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, a united Ireland would be on the cards if a majority in the North voted for it (there would also need to be a referendum in the South).
As Martin McGuinness indicated to the Irish Examiner earlier this year, Sinn Féin believes a referendum could be held between 2016 and 2021.
Even if they lost that referendum, the campaign would offer Sinn Féin the perfect opportunity to pitch themselves as the only “all-island” party and likely result in tonnes of positive publicity — in turn securing more public support.
After such a referendum, Sinn Féin would be better placed than ever to make a serious pitch for power.
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