Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O’Hanlon: Electorally wounded Sinn Fein must learn to curb its nasty side

Sinn Fein’s Elisha McCallion looks on as SDLP’s Colum Eastwood speaks after winning back the Foyle seat
Sinn Fein’s Elisha McCallion looks on as SDLP’s Colum Eastwood speaks after winning back the Foyle seat
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

Now that the giddy excitement of taking North Belfast from Nigel Dodds has worn off, Sinn Fein faces a cold dose of reality, having dropped in overall support more than any other party, with no obvious or immediate remedy in sight.

The wide variation in results suggests that there are multiple and local factors at play, which complicates the post election post-mortem; but it's the loss of Foyle to Colum Eastwood of the SDLP, a party which was supposed to be in terminal decline, which will hurt the most.

It recalls the time that Gerry Adams lost his West Belfast seat to Joe Hendron. They reacted with bad grace to that defeat, and need to beware not to repeat the same mistake. Humility will be needed, and a willingness to accept responsibility, neither of which comes naturally to republicans.

One reason why Sinn Fein did badly is its existential untrustworthiness. It was a Brexit election, but, whilst the SDLP and Alliance were both focused on the damage that leaving the EU could do to Northern Ireland, there was always a suspicion that Sinn Fein was exploiting the issue cynically to advance its core agenda of Irish unity. Arrogant demands for a border poll in the days since have done nothing to disprove it.

It's too easy to keep bringing everything back to the suspension of devolution, but that is hurting Sinn Fein in the same way. Lording it up in the Executive gave them visibility and prestige. Since its self-inflicted demise, they have looked again like a pressure group rather than a party of government.

In the midst of a full blown health care crisis, it's impossible for Sinn Fein to escape blame for not putting other considerations aside and getting back to Stormont to start fixing the mess.

Traditional voters may also feel that the party is now focused too much on making headway in the Republic, and have taken their northern base for granted, as Labour did in its working class heartlands in the UK, in the drive to win over a new, younger, politically correct middle-class.

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That Mary Lou McDonald is a Dubliner gives the party a different voice, literally. How much does she really understand voters in Northern Ireland?

Sinn Fein boasts that it's the only all Ireland party, but it was always two parties on different sides of the border, brought together by a fetish for reunification. That may not be enough to reconcile these Pushmi-Pullyu contradictions.

Bullying rows in the party, and the departure of longstanding representatives to form Aontu, have also cut through.

Sinn Fein supporters are among the nastiest and most aggressive online and in real life. It's not a good look, and they shouldn't imagine that this toxic culture goes unnoticed.

The party needs to curb its ugly side. The tribal abnormality of Northern Irish politics has made Sinn Fein complacent, blind to the fact that votes are only lent and can be taken away as quickly.

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