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The rise of Sinn Féin June 18, 2014

Posted 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.

He writes:

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.


1. Séamas Ó Sionnaigh (An Sionnach Fionn) - June 18, 2014

“It is true that most southern voters do not accept the Sinn Féin version of history…”

I suppose it depends on your definition of “most”. I’ve noticed myself a greater willingness amongst people – especially the under 30s – to challenge the old media orthodoxy that the “Troubles” were wholly and solely the fault of (P)IRA.

A more nuanced view seems to be emerging amongst a significant minority of people even if that is not (nor ever will be) reflected in electoral support for SF. As someone pointed out to me recently, an old Republican hand, these days to make reference to (P)IRA is not the socially isolating faux pas it once was. There is an almost “good old IRA” versus “bad contemporary IRA” dynamic in some quarters and greater acceptance of the alternative narrative to the conflict. Even Paddy Ashdown, the former Lib-Dem leader in Britain, has expressed a version of it.

In some ways I’m reminded of Fianna Fáil in the mid-to-late 1920s and its slow re-admittance to polite society. The “official” version of the civil war as promulgated by proto-Fine Gael, the Church and media was gradually challenged and FF’s version gathered its own momentum.

Like yourself I can’t see Sinn Féin going much above the late -teens in percentage terms come the next general election. Anything above 20% would be genuine earthquake stuff. However I can’t see them loosing much support either, even with an economic pick-up (illusionary or otherwise). Too much emphasis is being placed on the “protest vote” narrative, mainly by the invested interests. Whistling pass the graveyard and all that.


WorldbyStorm - June 19, 2014

That’s a very persuasive point you make re changing narratives and more nuanced views. I also think you’re right re that not converting into support for SF.


2. Ed - June 19, 2014

On that point about SF picking up ‘middle class votes’—I was just reading an article by the pollster Peter Kellner in the latest Prospect which is a master class in avoiding what’s staring him in the face. His polling company found that the class categories used by the industry—ABC1 for middle class, C2DE for working class—actually bore very little relation to the way people in Britain defined themselves; 9 million ‘ABC1’ people considered themselves working class, 5 million ‘C2DE’ people considered themselves middle class.

The obvious conclusion is that the definition of the middle class is too broad and the definition of the working class is too narrow; Kellner managed to avoid making that point and went off on a wild-goose chase, talking about how ‘cultural issues’ are now the most important thing, not ‘ideology’ (yawn). It would have been far more useful to try and break down those figures. I’d guess that a large number of the ‘middle class’ people who define themselves as working-class are white-collar workers who are unionized, often employed by the public sector or at least dependent on public services, maybe with university education themselves but not too far removed from parents or grandparents who don’t / didn’t.

With the ‘C2DE’ people who define themselves as middle-class, my best guess is that they would be blue-collar workers with relatively good salaries who think of themselves as being aspirational, upwardly mobile etc.—the kind of things that are identified with the middle class in Britain (and in Ireland). Anyway, there’s nearly twice as many people in the former category, despite the fact that there’s been several decades now of politicians and journalists relentlessly asserting that the working class is a thing of the past and everyone is middle class now; the only people who aren’t belong to a poor ‘under-class’ of benefit scroungers and criminals.

Transfer that to Ireland, and I’d be interested to see what kind of ‘middle-class’ people were voting for SF (or PBPA or AAA for that matter); it might show us that the idea of a giant middle class whose members are all very affluent and very conservative is a giant myth. With all the polls that are being done nowadays, that would be a very interesting thing to get some hard empirical data on. Don’t hold your breath for the Times or the Indo to commission a poll along those lines; did somebody say ‘squeezed middle’?


shea - June 19, 2014

if their job is to collect analytical data on peoples habits and sell that to interested parties then if they are doing it wrong then from a simple money making point of view logic of it might be worth their while changing their methodology, but is their methodology wrong though.


hardcorefornerds - June 19, 2014

“9 million ‘ABC1′ people considered themselves working class, 5 million ‘C2DE’ people considered themselves middle class.

The obvious conclusion is that the definition of the middle class is too broad and the definition of the working class is too narrow”

Is that out of approx 30 million each? Perhaps it is the C1 ‘lower middle class’ (which isn’t a phrase one hears too often anymore, maybe because society has become more polarized) who identify as working class, perhaps out of background and the decline of an aspirational narrative that emphasized the LMC (in contrast to the assumption simply now ‘that we are all middle class’, which obviates the need for finer distinctions but may lead people to plump more readily outside of it if they feel disaffected)?


Ed - June 19, 2014

He doesn’t go into that kind of detail about the numbers. That’s what I’m talking about with the lack of relevant information about the way the figures break down, you’d think it would be the most obvious first step to specify how many C1s identify as working class, etc., but he goes off on an inane tangent, coming up with silly David McWilliams-style labels (‘Alf Garnett’, ‘Dave Spart’, ‘Hyacinth Bucket’, yeah it really is as moronic as that). Hard to believe the guy makes his living doing this sort of thing.

It could be very interesting to probe this stuff in more detail; if blue-collar workers identifying as middle-class means they think of themselves as aspirational, or give priority to income tax cuts over everything else, does white-collar workers identifying as working-class mean the opposite, that they believe in social solidarity and give priority to the quality of public services? But the answers probably wouldn’t fit in with the script of the orthodoxy; much better to trot out some more cliches about the ‘middle-class majority’ with zero research done to back them up.


WorldbyStorm - June 19, 2014

I saw that in Prospect (a magazine it becomes ever increasingly more difficult to like) Ed. Kellner’s analyses in each edition are becoming increasingly strange and that one is very strange – quiet apart from the point that the ABC classifications are marketing and not really based on anything substantive as regards social/class or other groupings.


3. roddy - June 19, 2014

WBS, SF actually got 19.5% in the euros which wasn’t that far away from the opinion polls.With regard to class, I find that SF voters in the North who live middle class lifestyles would never describe themselves as middle class.I have engaged in banter at my local polling station with people from a nearby private housing estate who were voting in their droves for SF.To put it another way ,they don’t forget where they came from and never will.


WorldbyStorm - June 19, 2014

You’re absolutely right roddy, apologies, not sure where I got the 17% figure, I have a feeling it might have been Leahy’s but it could easily have been my mistake.

And you’re right too, that is important because the Euro’s are a lot closer to the opinion polls for nationals and a lot more similar.

To me that’s fundamental, it’s about not forgetting.


4. SF and the European elections… | The Cedar Lounge Revolution - June 20, 2014

[…] Just to reinforce a point that roddy made in comments re SF and the European Elections. I’d said that they got 17% in the European Elections, but they didn’t, it was in fact 19.5% which is much closer to the polling they’ve been receiving in recent months. What does that suggest? Well, a European contest is more similar to a General Election than a local election in certain ways, and that being the case it would imply that SF did perhaps better than some commentators in the media have suggested. […]


5. Paddy Healy - July 23, 2014

What would a Sinn Féin led Government Do?
Would Refusal to Implement the Fiscal Treaty be a Red Line Issue?
Follow Discussion
New Piece including Comment by Rory Hearne


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