Only a fool or fruitcake would write off Sinn Féin’s chances after this bad election - Tom Kelly

Make no bones about it - Sinn Féin lost the council and European elections

Tom Kelly

Tom Kelly

Tom Kelly is an Irish News columnist with a background in politics and public relations. He is also a former member of the Policing Board.

Ian Knox cartoon 12/6/24: Sinn Féin did not perform as well as expected in elections in the Republic
Sinn Féin trailed in behind Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in the local and European elections, but it would be foolish to write off the party's prospects in an upcoming general election

Like most political nerds I was glued to the tortuously slow counts for the local government and Euro election results in the south.

In truth, there has to be a better way to do this - even the Catholic Church can choose a Pope more quickly.

The government parties fared much better than even they expected.

Only the indefatigable Micheál Martin appeared surefooted and confident about his party’s possible performance. (Though the FF candidate spread in the Midlands/North-West was ill thought out). Meanwhile, the new taoiseach got a Harris hop.

And so, to the victors, if not the spoils, the narrative.

The results confounded a lot of pundits. This reflects a disappointing tendency to put too much reliance in opinion polls to detect the direction of the political wind. The media should commission fewer polls and put more resource into investigative journalism and thoughtful analysis.

The expected blood on the carpet didn’t belong to the taoiseach or tánaiste but to the leader of the opposition.

Make no bones about it - Sinn Féin lost these elections.

There are serious questions to be asked of the leadership, the strategy and the mixed messaging on everything from immigration to housing and the economy. Sinn Féin has risen high in the polls because their populist policies have enjoyed a free ride from the media and escaped the forensic scrutiny expected of a party aspiring to government.

Sinn Féin like to tell the public what they want to hear. That’s not leadership.

In this election, Sinn Féin has shown electoral fragility by losing on two fronts - to those further to the left of them and to those on the far right.

It was telling that independent far left and far right candidates actually transferred in large numbers to each other rather than to Sinn Féin. The old trope about my ‘enemy’s enemy is my friend’ was alive and well. Aontú voters certainly didn’t do Sinn Féin any favours - despite being kissing cousins.

There was no serious far right surge - though their various factions had more than their fill of headline grabbing ‘fruitcakes’.

Ireland is a tolerant country and the voters proved this by endorsing mainstream parties, including Sinn Féin.

There should be no complacency about facing down these disaffected and ill-informed right wing, flag-waving nationalists. Everything they do is borrowed from the disrupters’ handbook of Nigel Farage and Tommy Robinson.

The last thing Ireland needs is to mimic English nationalists and their coat-trailing racism.

A dilemma for Sinn Féin is that an element of their support base comprises an unreformed, undiluted, fervent and unhealthy form of Irishness which speaks more to a monocultural, insular, jingoistic shamrockery Ireland of the 1950s, rather than the realities of a diverse, multicultural and outward looking, pluralist 2024 republic.

The challenge for Sinn Féin as they transition towards government office is how to hold together all the disparate parts of their more recent support base without losing the old guard.

In fairness to Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald, she has to contend with the normal vagaries and fickleness of an electorate in a fully functioning democracy, unlike her contemporaries in the north where voting patterns are tribal and whole communities live in silos.

Michelle Gildernew from Sinn Fein listens to the results in Castlebar for the Midlands North West constituency in the European elections
Sinn Féin's decision to move Michelle Gildernew from Fermanagh and South Tyrone to contest the Midlands/North-West constituency in the European elections backfired (Niall Carson/PA)

It’s difficult to understand the wisdom of running the popular - but now former - Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP, Michelle Gildernew, in a vast geographical area where she was largely unknown. Hopefully she won’t be left on the beaches as Sinn Féin pursue victory for political newbie, Pat Cullen, in Ms Gildernew’s former patch.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that there are two Sinn Féin parties on the island of Ireland and joining the dots between the two is evermore difficult.

All said and done, Sinn Féin is a resilient organisation.

They have to scale an electoral mountain to be in contention as a lead player in any future Irish government but anyone forecasting their political demise is a fool or a fruitcake.