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Sinn Fein left to rue decision not to field more candidates

A recent run of poor electoral performances did not suggest a surge in support was imminent.

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Sinn Fein supporters celebrate as ballot papers are counted at the RDS in Dublin during the Irish General Election count (PA)

Sinn Fein supporters celebrate as ballot papers are counted at the RDS in Dublin during the Irish General Election count (PA)

Sinn Fein supporters celebrate as ballot papers are counted at the RDS in Dublin during the Irish General Election count (PA)

Sinn Fein celebrations amid Ireland’s General Election results will be tempered by some regret at not having run more candidates.

The party’s decision to field 42 candidates in the race for 159 Dail seats looks like a misjudgment that has cost it a series of extra gains.

Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, by contrast, ran 84 and 82 candidates respectively.

But hindsight is a wonderful thing and the decision on candidates numbers needs to be viewed in the context of the party’s poor performance in the last three elections in the Irish Republic.

General Election Ireland 2020
Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald has led a remarkable turn-around in the party’s electoral fortunes south of the border (Niall Carson/PA)

Poor showings in presidential, European and local council polls did not suggest the Sinn Fein was on the cusp of the historic breakthrough it is set to achieve in the 2020 ballot.

Last May, the party lost two of its four seats in the European election while in the council elections it also saw half of its seats go.

Those disappointing results came on the back of the 2018 presidential election, when Sinn Fein limped in to fourth place, with its 6% vote share less than half the 13% it secured in the previous contest.

The extent of Sinn Fein’s surge in the 2020 General Election was not anticipated, including by party strategists.

Party president Mary Lou McDonald acknowledged that Sinn Fein might have done things differently with hindsight.

“I am advised I should have had a running mate in my own constituency, that’s for sure,” she joked, after topping the poll with lots to spare in Dublin Central.

“We certainly could have fielded another candidate, but hindsight is a great thing. I’m just delighted that the candidates that we did run have performed so astonishingly well and have come back so strongly.”

Sinn Fein’s Donnchadh O Laoghaire, who topped the poll in Cork South Central ahead of Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, was taken aback by the results.

“Yes I was surprised, that is the truthful answer, we weren’t expecting a vote like this,” he said.

Irish presidential election
Liadh Ni Riada’s disappointing result in the 2018 presidential election was one of several poor showings at the polls for Sinn Fein prior to the General Election (Niall Carson/PA)

Asked if the party regretted not running a second candidate in the constituency, Mr O Laoghaire said: “You have to make decisions on the basis of evidence and there was no evidence to support us running a second candidate.

“We could not possibly have expected that there would be scope to run a second candidate on the basis of previous elections.”

To run too many candidates in a proportional representation contest comes with serious risks.

It can result in votes being spread too thinly among party candidates in a particular race, meaning the loss of seats that could otherwise have been won with a more cautious approach.

Sinn Fein candidates will be elected with huge surpluses above the quota, meaning it would likely have taken additional seats in several constituencies.

While the party will be left to rue those missed chances, the lessons will undoubtedly be learned come the next election, which may not be that far away.

PA