Results suggest Sinn Féin’s ‘inflection point’ (and a UI) remain some way off

Regardless of how you cut it, one of the big stories of the southern locals was Sinn Féin’s failure to break through, again. In order to understand why more than 2o0 SF candidates failed to gain a council seat it’s worth noting the poll ratings at the start:

NOTE: This was NOT an exit poll but a projection of national polling onto the locals. It demonstrates the folly of confusing the two, not least because the number of challengers who can realistically get a council seat is much greater than at national.

The European elections offered a better story. A two candidate strategy doubled its haul to two seats. Unfortunately for the now politically homeless Michelle Gildernew her incumbent running mate did not attract enough votes to get her over the line.

Local government as base layer for future success

Local government matters, not least because by roughly maintaining their core strength in a dominant electorate of the Seanad the government parties can approach the next general election knowing that they can hold the upper house of the Oireachtas.

It is also the conduit by which central government can fund local communities, through initiatives like the Rural Regeneration and Development fund which gives government party councillors something to sell in the local political market.

This was the key element in all the government parties resilience against prior expectations that each of the three of them would see a cratering in votes and seats. Against the pattern set by previous administrations, local investment has seen a sharp rise.

It’s also an incubator for future Dail candidates, a pool which Simon Harris’ Fine Gael party may draw deeply from after so many of his TDs announced they were planning to retire. These results will provide him with considerable relief.

So, was it Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael that put a stop to Sinn Féin’s long march in the south?  Yes and no. This was Sinn Féin’s second failure to get a bounce at the local level. At the time of writing they have 102 seats, ten years ago they had 159.

While Fianna Fáil has fallen slightly and Fine Gael risen (a bit) since 2014 both broadly occupy the same territory they have done for the last 10 years. Despite its national surge in 2020 the trend suggests Sinn Féin is battling on slippery local ground.

Note that the political choices facing people in local elections are far more  varied with less potential jeopardy attached than in a general election, where the palette is far more constrained. So locals are not predictors of who will win at a general.

In post crash Ireland fragmentation means the opposition now stretches from extreme right to extreme left. Just holding on in such an ultra competitive space has become perfidiously difficult for anyone wanting to transition into future government.

As for the government parties they appear to be in a separate space. As one insider told Slugger, the voters are may not be over the moon about the government, but some of the extremes worried them so much that they ran for safety of the familiar.

Incumbency too was a factor. What put a dent in Sinn Féin’s plans for the locals was the renewal of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil’s local teams in 2014 and to some extent in 2019. Despite the fact both lost ground, they smuggled new talent in this time too.

Housing, health and education have played a role in steadying the government ship. Ireland is now spending more on new build housing than any other country in the EU. There’s hardly an inch left in Dublin that’s not being used for new residential space.

Though waiting times are still an issue, investment in the HSE is turning that ship around, with menopause clinics in nearly every part of the state. In Donegal there’s a Mica redress scheme which is again slowly lifting a heavy burden on house owners.

But overall probably the biggest factor in the government party’s success has been the booming economy which is taking advantage of a massively increased public spend, and producing record levels of government surplus in income tax.

This is what’s prompted even elected Sinn Féin councillors like Aidan Mullins in Laois to comment that “we’re supposed to be the main opposition party but for the big issues in people’s minds for most of the year we didn’t provide much opposition.”

He cited missteps on immigration, whipped support for the two referendums earlier in the year and the hate speech bill.

The (albeit modest) consolidation of Labour in Dublin and rise of the Soc Dems (both centre left parties with policies consistently aimed at building equality) doesn’t help. And it’s clear SF’s ‘resistance’ base is turned off by a bid for respectability.

Did the polls mislead everyone?

It’s important to note that very often the problem with polling is not to do with the limitations (in Ireland north as well as south, there’s a persistent bias towards urban areas) of the companies but how their work is used to predict winners.

There is no equivalent in Ireland (north or south) to the massive databank that YouGov have developed in Britain over the last twenty years. Their MRP model can produce incredibly accurate soundings for relatively small constituency areas.

Journalists who no longer have the huge rolodex of local contacts all over the country who can inform them of what’s happening lean more and more into polling data to tell them how elections will play out years before they even arrive. Polls don’t do that.

It never seems to occur to many journalists that what a government (or a council) does in the meantime might actually have some baring on its chances on regaining office, perhaps because that involves examining the performance of government policy.

The result is that journalists treat government/economic performance largely in static terms. As Torsten Bell has noted, this “feels like a safe space for technocrats and journalists for whom anti-politics eye-rolling is the path of least resistance”.

Any party relying on polls to tell them how to set their strategy is asking for trouble. For the second time of asking Sinn Fein made the same mistake Irish Labour did in 2011 in believing that a huge mid term surge in popularity was real.

Polls measure mood as well as intention, but that’s rarely controlled for in how they are dealt with by the media, and moods can change quickly. Ireland Thinks one of the newest on the scene has provided some useful clues for any post crash investigator.

It contains some salutary insights which run against many of the assumptions Sinn Féin (and much of the media) have subscribed to over the last four years, not least on housing (the local issue par excellence):

A breakdown of how the public voted, based on their accommodation status, shows more renters voted for Fine Gael (20pc) than voted for Sinn Féin (18pc).

Even people who are living at home with their parents – who Ms McDonald made a big play for in the run-up to the election – overwhelmingly voted Fine Gael (21pc) and Fianna Fáil (17pc) rather than Sinn Féin (12pc).

Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin were neck and neck on votes from people living in council houses, with both parties on 20pc while Fine Gael was on 12pc.

People who own their home outright favoured Fianna Fáil (29pc) over Fine Gael (26pc). Those with a mortgage were marginally more favourably disposed to Fine Gael (24pc) over Fianna Fáil (23pc).

Even voters aged 18 to 34 turned out for Fine Gael rather than Sinn Féin. Just over a fifth (21pc) of women in that age group voted for Fine Gael, while 12pc voted Sinn Féin. Similarly, young men backed Fine Gael (21pc) over Sinn Féin (13pc).

Housing has been a happy hunting ground for Sinn Fein since the aftermath of the crash. Arguably it was the major factor in the levelling up process that took place after the 2020 election, when they painted Fianna Fáil as complicit in a long failure to build.

No one can argue the housing problem is solved, but I’ve argued the fate of the next general election will swing on the number of front door keys this coalition is able to hand out. SF may pay a price for their objections to rezoning at O’Devaney Gardens.

Damage was also caused by Mary Lou’s claim that her party could reduce average house prices in Dublin to €300,000, from a current level of about €420,000; a claim she then reversed just before last week’s election.

Another interesting finding from the exit poll:

The top three parties all ran a similar number of candidates, but more than a third of voters said they met people running for Fianna Fáil (35pc) and Fine Gael (34pc), while 18pc said they met Sinn Féin candidates.

It’s hard to know without previous data what to make of this. Perhaps it is the lack of local infrastructure that’s at play here. They’re trying to compete in areas where the tradition of working for FG or FF is still deeply embedded.

But it also reveals that the hardest working politicians caricature of the party doesn’t really apply in the south the way it has in Northern Ireland. To be blunt, they don’t have retiree IRA volunteers to do the donkey work for them in the Republic.

Rebels without a credible cause?

In urban areas far right activists (like Gavin Pepper, now a Dublin City Councillor) made for a very rough challenge to a party which is used to having Primus inter Pares status all to itself amongst the opposition-ist camp in Irish politics.

Smaller rivals to power like Aontu have also made progress by not following SF’s populist playbook, but by being prepared to adopt and stick to positions that may be unpopular in middle class Dublin or with the NGO lobby, but are at least consistent.

Here’s Colette Nolan who stood for Sinn Féin in Enniscorthy and failed to get a seat, speaking on Morning Ireland (1.11 in) yesterday…

What we do is we dust ourselves off after it [the election], we’ll learn what went wrong and we change to give the people exactly what they want.

It’s this inconsistency along with a sense they’ll tell you whatever it is they think you’ll want to hear, that’s going down badly with southern electors. The complaint that the government aren’t building houses when they plainly are doesn’t help either.

If I might use the old Slugger saw Sinn Féin has leaned too heavily on ad hominem attacks on the government rather than dealing in matters of substance. So something is wrong merely because X has done it. See this tweet from a Dublin Cllr…

Anyone who has been at a southern count centre when a SF candidate is elected knows waving the tricolour is de rigeur along with the broader custom of raising the candidate shoulder high. To SF the flag becomes right wing only when a rival uses it.

This confusion reflects a strange opacity within the southern discourse about what right wing means. In the Midlands North-West Luke Flanagan (left independent) was partly elected on a huge influx of transfers from Peter Casey (right independent).

The terms left and right have never quite applied in post independence Irish politics. Unlike Britain, the Labour movement has been marginalised since the start and has never led an Irish government. And it’s even more marginalised now than ever.

The old Sinn Fein briefly played around with Marxism, but the current version which arose from the Provisional movement has tried to present as a broad nationalist coalition more commonly associated across Europe with the right.

Is the solution in SF’s hands?

The final thing to say is that money couldn’t fix it for them (and they are by far the richest party on the island). Sinn Féin outspent its nearest rival Fine Gael by a factor of three, and five times what Fianna Fáil and the Greens spent:

How will this affect the Westminster elections in Northern Ireland? With retiring SF MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone Michelle Gildernew just missing a European seat in Midlands North-West new candidate Pat Cullen may have a fight on her hands?

But other than convince SF workers they have to work harder, not a lot a lot else as far as I can see. The trouble for the party is that as Peter Donaghy shows clearly, there’s not much for them in these elections:

Sinn Féin has aced the northern nationalist vote by promising a politically unified island that it is still in no position to deliver. Yet it remains a minority preference in the north whilst Southern voters remain unconvinced that it can be trusted with power.

But if this was a disappointment for Sinn Féin not all of the causes lie with them. They face a changed environment, with far more competition in the opposition space, and an activist government that is tackling most of the issues it tries to raise.

What fired a lot of passion on the right, where some of SF’s nationalist core came from, was immigration. Ironically they took more heat than the government, for siding with the government. Leadership, even of the opposition, clearly has downsides.

Fixing that problem means surveying this new cluttered landscape and finding some way to bridge from the ‘anti system politics’ that brought it to prominence to playing a credible role of ‘government party in waiting’. It won’t be easy.

In the meantime, Mary Lou has made it clear she’s going nowhere.  It remains to be seen whether the same applies to her party.

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