The rise of Sinn Féin June 18, 2014Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, Irish Politics, The Left.
A very measured piece from Pat Leahy in the SBP recently about the rise of Sinn Féin. He notes that that rise is but the latest manifestation of the aftershocks of the economic crisis (though in many respects it was also a political crisis) that has reshaped and continues to reshape Irish politics.
Just on that thought there is the question as to when this part of that will have played out, and when some sort of balance will reenter the Irish political system. It seems untenable that Ind/Other can remain at 20 − 30% of the polling vote across a protracted period – one would imagine that even were very very significant numbers of Ind/Others to be returned (and in particular Ind) then at the subsequent election they would most likely be decimated if government formation proved overly difficult. Though that said one also has to factor in the local aspect of it and the ability of Ind/Others to hold their seats across two or three consecutive Dáil elections.
If one thinks of Gregory, Healy-Rae, Lowry, Higgins, et al none of those were (or are) unable to retain a seat for long periods of time. And while the examples of Breen, Cowley and McHugh are less happy in that regard it seems reasonable to suggest that once an Independent TD can carve out a clear space in a constituency or successfully contesting two elections their chances of holding the seat increase. Given that many of those who are currently in the Dáíl look likely to retain their seats that may have significant implications for Ind/Other figures two and more elections down the line.
Anyhow, Leahy neatly critiques the approach of some of the political parties towards that rise and how that approach has foundered.
The conventional wisdom among them about how to stem the rise of Sinn Féin is twofold. Firstly, it is believed that focus on Sinn Fйin’s violent past and its relationship with the IRA, particularly with reference to individual party members, will turn southern voters away from the party.
That’s why they were so pleased not just with the arrest and deliciously prolonged detention of Gerry Adams, but with stories during the campaign that identified campaign workers as former IRA men, in one case involved in the murder (or “assassination”, as An Phoblacht put it) of Lord Mountbatten and three other people, including two boys.
And he continues, and I think this is very very convincing:
I wonder about that. It is true that most southern voters do not accept the Sinn Fйin version of history, no matter how persistently the party pushes it. But they also accept – overwhelmingly – the peace process, its settlements and its sometimes messy compromises. And that means not letting the past determine the future. If the results of election tell us anything, it is that after the arrest of Adams, Sinn Féin’s history in the North is not a barrier to its growth in the south. Focusing on Sinn Féin’s history may make convinced anti-SF voters even more convinced in their opposition to Sinn Féin, but that will have little discernible political effect.
You only have one vote, no matter how fervently you believe in it.
And that, I suspect is that. The trade-off, if one can put it as crudely as that, does reduce down to an acceptance or toleration of the peace process and almost all that that entails including full participation of SF in the political system in the South. It’s not that the past has been forgotten, or forgiven, but Leahy’s formulation is appropriate – that past isn’t going to determine the future. How could it? If the UUP and the DUP can, however unwillingly, sit around a table in Stormont with SF then it is simply illogical that they cannot function as a political party in the South. And there’s more. Their discipline, that appears to concern some, is attractive to voters in the context of a political system that has fractured, as are their effectively mild social democratic policies. Indeed it is a testament to how appallingly badly others have played the last five years and longer that that mild social democracy appears almost radical in the context of the contemporary Irish political system.
Leahy is also dubious about what we can term the ‘SF are economic ignoramuses’ line.
The second part of the established parties’ anti-Shinner strategy rests on somewhat firmer ground. It suggests that greater focus on Sinn Féin’s economic policies will frighten off its new middle class voters.
It’s true that Sinn Féin has attracted more middle class support in these elections, though its support is still heavily weighted in favour of working class voters. According to the RTE exit poll, the party won 13 per cent of middle class support in the European elections, and 24 per cent of working class support.
And while he suggests that:
…it’s also true that the economy was simply not an issue in the local and European elections in the way that it will be in the next general election. That is one of the single most important characteristics of the campaign. In a general election voters choose a government which makes decisions on taxing and spending which directly affect their lives. That is not the situation during a local or European election.
But he notes that:
However, the established parties are mistaken, I think, if they believe that this fact alone will deliver back votes lost to Sinn Fйin, or even stem the party’s growth. Many ostensibly middle class voters are feeling the pinch every bit as much as their working class fellow citizens. Indeed, for the unemployed or underemployed who previously enjoyed middle class lifestyles but are now squeezed to the very pin of their collars just to get by every month, the squeeze may be all that more uncomfortable.
That last point is very interesting – one has to wonder does it fuel some of the populist response (the Freemen stuff etc?) which can’t go left but is alienated by the broad consensus on the centre and right as regards the crisis? But that’s by the by in the broader discussion….
For every threat that Sinn Féin’s economic policies would cause economic chaos, many of these voters will respond: what do you think I have in my life right now?
For every lofty warning about the disruption that would be the result of Sinn Féin’s confiscatory tax regime, many voters might think: a bit of disruption to the current system might be no bad thing at all.
I’ve met people who five years ago would never have countenanced voting for SF who did this time at the European and Local elections, some because they wanted to shake things up. And by the by the same dynamic was extant in relation to some of the Ind/Other vote.
Leahy ultimately thinks SF will do better, though he retains the necessary caution as regards its vote – pointing to the fact that it did much less well than pre-election polling had suggested. That’s true, and I’m of the view that we see an SF staging process where they gain 3% or so in each successive election and retain that vote. So, 15% in the locals and
17% 19.5% in the Europeans and it is likely that they’ll be up around 18 or 19% come the next General Election – a comfortable place to be, particularly with an FF that remains weak and an FG that is cruising downwards in the polls to the low 20s. SF as a majority party in 2015/2016? Highly unlikely. But a strong enough party, surely.
And I think Leahy’s absolutely correct that the defining issue for SF in the next twelve to eighteen months is coalition and what to do if that becomes a real possibility. And what does all this mean? It means that those opposed to SF have to craft a better narrative than the one’s they’ve been using thus far if they have any hope of reducing their appeal, and truth is that it is probably far too late for that anyway.