Is the Sinn Fein voter database story really a big deal?

Photo Credit: Sinn Féin Flickr (CC attribution)

Over the last week, Sinn Fein and its legion of online activists have gone to war with the Irish Independent’s Philip Ryan, who has diligently and thoroughly reported on the party’s “Abú” voter contact logging system.

The story has divided people: If you’re a Sinn Fein supporter, then it’s just another example of the rotten blueshirt media out to do down poor hard-working Sinn Fein, who are just doing their best to stay in touch with the voters. If you are a Sinn Fein sceptic, then it is more evidence of the party’s “win at all costs” approach, its shady ethics, and its limitless funding. But is it really important?

That question, to be clear, is not to assault Philip Ryan’s journalism, which has been thorough, and has completely exposed what Sinn Fein is doing, and brought into the public light something that the public did not know, and has a right to know.

But on one level, what’s the big deal? Almost every political party on earth does what Sinn Fein is doing here to some degree. In less digital times, parties kept copies of the electoral register, marked off their known supporters on it, and made sure to send people around on polling day to make sure that their supporters had voted.

Of course, that was in a time when parties had big local branches, full of eager activists, and this could all be done at local level. Those days have gone, even for a big activist organisation like Sinn Fein.

Instead, they’ve moved it to the digital arena:

If you look at what SF is telling its candidates to do there, it is practically the same as identifying a supporter in the old days: Find someone who expresses support, record their name, address, and contact details, log them in as a supporter, and then make sure they vote.

The main difference, to be fair to Sinn Fein (and believe me, in this line of work, no Sinn Fein person ever believes you are being fair to them) is that they have moved the whole thing online. This system is very similar to what the UK Conservative Party uses, or what the US Republicans and Democrats use. It is effective, and it is very, very, very expensive. And let’s face it: If the other parties could afford it, they would all be doing it too.

Where SF will run into trouble, of course, is on the matter of privacy and data protection laws. Because this is their own system and not, whatever they might say, the electoral register, it means they are holding data on millions of Irish people without their consent. That might sound like an absurd law (most of us have our names and addresses in public, after all, somewhere, even if just in the phone book) but it is the law. And as Mary Lou McDonald appeared to concede on television last night, this system, at least as originally constituted, broke the law. That’s not a small problem.

But isn’t the more important question about this whole thing simply this: How can they afford it?

No organisation on the island, after all, has murkier or more impenetrable finances than Sinn Fein. It appears to raise funds in both jurisdictions, as well as overseas in the United States, and around the world. It somehow manages to accrue millions in surprising bequests from people’s wills. It’s TDs and Senators are expected to contribute funds to the party from their own salaries, even though the amounts they are expected to contribute would comfortably exceed the maximum allowable donation by an individual to a political party in a calendar year. The party is reputed to hold significant property holdings on the island, and beyond our shores. Financially, at least, Sinn Fein is not like any other party on the island, and that’s without even mentioning the historic links to robbery, smuggling, extortion, and other crimes.

There’s also the matter of SF’s reaction to the story. It’s unleashed a wave of highly personalised hate against Philip Ryan for the crime of reporting it, and he has received various threatening messages consistently since he broke the story. Yesterday, we had the absurd spectacle of a senior SF figure calling the Independent’s story an act of “voter suppression”, which seems to be a concession that the story might make people less likely to vote for SF.

Ultimately, Irish people have a right to know that SF is storing their names and addresses on a server somewhere in Frankfurt, Germany, and recording how loyal we all are to the nationalist cause. The Independent have done nothing wrong by bringing this to light. Instinctively, my own view was that SF had done little wrong by trying to identify their voters. But the reaction of the party, and its supporters, to a good piece of journalism, would make one second guess that, would it not?


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