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Thursday, July 11, 2024 | Back issues
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Sinn Féin in shock slump following Irish elections

Governing parties got an unexpected boost following local and European elections in Ireland.

(CN) — Ireland's left-wing party Sinn Féin suffered an unexpected collapse in popularity in elections that strengthened government parties and bolstered independent candidates.

The socialist republican party, which has comfortably led opinion polls since the last Irish general election in 2020 and topped 30% until recently, picked up just 11% of first preference votes in the poll for European Union elections, held June 7 in Ireland with results tabulated days later.

The results have thrown into doubt Sinn Féin’s ability to form a government in the upcoming Irish general election — expected at some point during the next year — and initiated a post-mortem across the party.

Launching an internal review of the results, party leader Mary Lou McDonald said: "Everything for the review is on the table. I will lead this reflection and this process. I lead a party with immense talent and immense potential, we don't always get it right. We clearly have lessons to learn.”

McDonald’s leadership — which previously seemed secure — now appears to be under the spotlight. Usually a party with strong message discipline, party insiders have expressed frustration in recent months over mixed messages on a burgeoning immigration debate and during recent referenda campaigns.

The party’s strategy of fielding a full slate of candidates also appears to have cost them representation — a direct reversal of errors the party made in the 2020 election, when a lack of candidates meant they did not take advantage of a last-minute vote surge in their favor.

Experts expect the review of the results to conclude quickly, as the party knows that the outcome could encourage Taoiseach Simon Harris to push for an early general election. But internal debate within Sinn Féin, a party renowned for keeping their family spats private, is starting to spill over into public view.

“People nearly thought we were in government and perception is everything in politics,” Sinn Féin councilor John Hearne told the Irish Times. “We were trying to be all things to all people. People thought we were spoofing.”

In contrast to Sinn Féin, the government parties will be breathing a sigh of relief after their core votes largely held up across the country. The main governing parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, each secured a fifth of the electorate in both the EU elections and in local elections held the same day.

Fine Gael’s Harris was in a buoyant mood at the vote count, telling reporters: “As I travelled around the country, I think the people knew exactly what Sinn Féin were selling, and they just didn’t want to buy it.”

“The Irish people don’t believe they live in a failed state, the Irish people don’t believe in all of the negativity,” he added.

The Green Party, the junior coalition partner in government, also had a strong night, retaining their two members of the European Parliament and their representation in Irish local government. The total vote share for the government parties exceeded 50% of the electorate.

The centrist parties had not been expected to pick up such a strong result in a political climate that seemed to be increasingly anti-establishment. The results turn upend a widespread perception in Ireland that public support was seeping away from the center and toward candidates with a more radical, populist tone.

Alongside Sinn Féin, a range of right-wing and far-right independent candidates also failed to fully capitalize on this perceived public mood.

Over the last two years anti-migrant sentiment in Ireland has rapidly risen to the top of the political agenda, culminating in unprecedented riots in Dublin last year, and a range of attacks on accommodation earmarked for asylum seekers.

While a number of candidates on the radical right did get elected to local positions, many more narrowly missed out. The Irish anti-migrant movement is held back by internal divisions and disorganization, seemingly a factor as to why public support failed to translate into significant representation.

Nevertheless, independents in general did have a strong night, continuing a recent trend away from partisan voting. A quarter of the vote in the local elections fell to independents, who ranged from anti-migrant agitators to left-wing firebrands, and also many locally respected figures with a less ideological bent.

Speculation had been rife as to whether the government would pounce on the surprisingly strong results and call a parliamentary election, which must take place by March 2025. However, Harris — new to the job of prime minister following his colleague Leo Varadkar’s surprise resignation — has for now ruled out such a move.

“The people of Ireland have just gone out and voted in local elections and European elections and I think what the people right across the country want me to do is my job,” said the taoiseach, while promising a general election “in due course.”

Categories / Elections, International, Politics

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