The headline figures for Sinn Féin emerging from the local and European elections in the 26 counties could not be more stark.
In 2014 the party elected 159 councillors. Today they have 81.
In 2014 they had three MEPs. Today they have one.
In terms of voter share, in the 2014 local elections they won 15.2% Last week, 9.5%.
In the Europeans their vote share fell from 19.5% to 11.7%.
And lest they gain any comfort from retaining the 6 county seat – again depending on whether Brexit happens, Anderson’s vote was down by 33,000 on 2014; in percentage terms a slippage of 3.2%. In the recent local elections, while Sinn Féin won 105 seats, that compares to 138 in 2011, and vote share was also down.
In the context of Brexit and the demand for a border poll, the 6 county results were arguably just as disappointing. Especially given that the murder of Lyra McKee had led to new talks to revive Stormont which no doubt boosted support for the Shinners and their erstwhile coalition partners of ten years, the DUP.
Anderson’s attempt to claim that Sinn Féin had lent votes to the alliance Party was comedy gold. Even if true, why would Irish republicans vote for a Unionist party in order to remain part of the European union, let alone to further the prospects of Irish unity.
In the south, the excuses were even more pathetic. One meme circulated by Tallaght Sinn Féin sought to blame the voters for the party’s bad performance. Which put me in mind of a Bertolt Brecht poem in which he suggested that disappointed parties “Dissolved the people and elected another.”
For anyone who shared their Schadenfreude the party line was to offer the hope that we overcome our “bitterness and stuff.” Which is the kind of disturbing faux concern that is showered on people who leave cults. Although no doubt, their private feelings about us all is far less benign.
Blaming the voters and the low turnout is a convenient way of not dealing with the fact that where Sinn Féin, as in Dublin, were a significant force on two local authorities that they were not particularly good at using that position to improve the communities which elected them. Sinn Féin does have good local councillors and TDs and where that is the case, their vote held up. Where they were wasters and chancers, it did not.
In a significant number of cases, candidates were co-options who had replaced elected councillors who had left or been forced out. Most of them lost their seats, and some of them had distinguished themselves by doing almost nothing to justify anyone voting for them. Some of them through their closeness to the party apparat were obviously convinced that just having the franchise was sufficient in itself. It is not.
Indeed it will be interesting to see how many of the fallen stars will stick around. It is certainly difficult to imagine a lot of them doing the sort of work which was a signature of the hungry Sinn Féin. And that includes most of those who lost their seats.
Now, there will be another bout of internal navel gazing. Already there is talk of Mary Lou being ditched by the real leadership, who of course do not have to concern themselves by being elected by anyone either among the populace or Sinn Féin. That may or may not happen, but she does not bear the responsibility, or at least not the main part of it, for the party’s decline.
Some had been convinced that Adam’s retreat into the shadows possibly to prepare for a General De Gaulle like re-emergence as Michael D’s successor in 2025, would make Sinn Féin more acceptable to the middle ground they crave. In fact all that Adam’s departure achieved was to remove the party’s aura of historical import, and to expose it as just another bland social democratic liberal party that accepts Partition.
Of course there is nothing wrong about aspiring to be the next Labour Party, but as the Official IRA discovered, that is not compatible with remaining republican. And worse, from the SF perspective, the type of voter who typically votes for bland social democratic virtue signalling candidates and parties, continues in the main to harbour a visceral antipathy to the Shinners. Not because of their current politics, but because of what they represent as the degenerate historical successor of generations of republican resistance. Their dwindling support is based on a similar illusion.
I recall the post mortem after the disappointment of the 2009 local and European elections although that was minor compared to this. In 2009, the SF Gramscis thought that calling for an unreciprocated transfer to Labour was the clever thing. It was not. No doubt had they believed that the Greens would reinvent themselves as the “Party that had nothing to do with handing over the state to the EU Troika” they would have made a similar call. Now they must ponder the dialectic of how to, rightly oppose the Carbon Tax, with passionate concern for polar bears stranded on melting ice bergs. A North Pole of Equals might yet appear on some pastel shaded election poster.
The “core group” was pissed off with Toireasa but took some of it on board. By 2011, however, all of that was forgotten, and leftist posturing – ludicrous in the context of what Sinn Féin were supporting under the Tories in Stormont - seemed once again to be the way to go. The intake of new staffers after the 2011 election created a critical mass which meant that virtue signalling had decisively won the day. As one former resident of the H Blocks said: “Many of these people would be better working for a charity like Oxfam.” Sinn Féin’s loss was Oxfam’s gain.
On a more positive note, a significant number of non Sinn Féin republicans won council seats in both jurisdictions. Most of them were at one stage and some quite recently, members of SF. Quite a number of them, and other candidates had been forced out. Gerry O’Neill who had represented the party for long decades through the hard times was one of those. He was elected on the first count in west Wicklow. Micheál MacGiolla Easpaig topped the poll in north Donegal, in Sinn Féin heartland.
So there is hope. Opportunist politics which involved the desertion of key republican principles have failed. So too has the misplaced nostalgia for a return to armed struggle. People who once supported the party line – and I number myself among them – were fond of TINA; there is no alternative. There has to be.