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Nelson McCausland

The day Sinn Fein ceased to be the pariah party and instead became the popular party

Nelson McCausland

But SF surge in southern elections tarnishes the Republic's reputation as a liberal state, argues Nelson McCausland


Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald with Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald with Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill


Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald with Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill

In November 1986, Sinn Fein voted to abandon the long-standing policy of abstaining from the Dail. The decision was taken with the prior approval of the IRA army council, because that is how Sinn Fein works, and Gerry Adams carried the day. Three decades later, that decision has been vindicated, with Sinn Fein out-polling both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael and looking to be part of the government of the Irish Republic.

The general election in the Irish Republic produced a result which surprised almost everyone. Sinn Fein emerged as the party with the largest number of votes and it came second in seats only because it did not run enough candidates. Even the Sinn Fein strategists did not anticipate how well they would do.

In October 2018, the Sinn Fein candidate for president polled just 6.4% of the votes. Then, in May 2019, the party took just 9.48% of the votes in the council elections and lost 78 councillors. Meanwhile, almost every other party was making gains.

On the same day, in the EU election, Sinn Fein lost two of its three seats in the Republic and dropped to one, taking 11.7% of the votes. An opinion poll in October put Sinn Fein on 14%. So, how did Sinn Fein manage to increase its vote-share last week to 24.5%?

Some will argue that the party is doing better under Mary Lou McDonald and saying she isn't tainted by past associations with the IRA. Indeed, at the time of the IRA hunger strikes, Mary Lou was attending a private Catholic school for girls in Dublin.

But that doesn't explain it. She was the leader during the party's dismal days of 2018 and 2019 and commentators were even predicting her demise. So, what changed this time round? And what does it tell us about the electorate in the Irish Republic?

We know that Brexit didn't really feature in their thinking, although it may have had some influence in the border counties, where Sinn Fein did especially well.

The big issues across the Republic seem to have been the housing crisis, the homelessness crisis and the state of the health service. These were the push factors, pushing voters away from Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.

On top of that, the taxation promises of Sinn Fein were one of the pull factors that attracted some of the new voters to Sinn Fein.

Another factor was undoubtedly the desire for "change". Everyone was talking about "change" and Sinn Fein, along with some of the smaller parties, stood out as having a vision and a passion that were missing in the 'Big Two' parties. By contrast, they looked stale.

So, with a fragmented electorate that returned 19 independents, a desire for change and deep public concern about housing and health, it was the perfect storm for the two parties that have dominated for generations. It was also the perfect time for Sinn Fein.

The pariah party has become a popular party and the atrocities which it once applauded in the columns of An Phoblacht are now seen as being of the past.

When some young voters were interviewed, they talked about the Troubles as something historical and almost ancient history.

The IRA murder of Garda Jerry McCabe in 1996 is, for many people in the south, just a vague recollection and the 1,800 people killed by the IRA, mostly in Northern Ireland, well, that was north of the border.

Some journalists and commentators have been courageous and consistent in exposing the ugly immorality of Sinn Fein, something that was further exposed during post-election celebrations, with some Sinn Fein members shouting "Up the 'RA" and others singing IRA songs. However, such exposures seem to have gained little traction with an Irish electorate that is focused more on issues that affect them personally. We may look on that as amoral, but we shouldn't be surprised.

Alongside that amorality there has always been a widespread ambivalence in the Republic about the IRA, something that surfaced in 1969, when some senior politicians helped to arm the Provisional IRA.

Today, with one in four voters in the Republic voting for Sinn Fein, that well-polished image of the Republic as a liberal and forward-looking state is looking rather tarnished.

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