Photo credit: Sinn Féin via Flickr (CC BY 2.0

Sinn Féin’s Dilemma

Sinn Féin’s recent reshuffle of portfolios may have given a hint that the party doesn’t feel that its present team is landing the punches. Yet, that same reshuffle may well have overlooked the most important factor of all in the electoral fortunes of Sinn Féin – the leadership of Mary Lou McDonald.

Faced with the current FF/FG/Green coalition, Ireland’s main opposition party is literally being presented with an open goal opportunity. Yet McDonald’s Sinn Féin, far from punching a hole in the net, increasingly looks like it’s unable to put away one of the most dysfunctional governments this country has ever had.

If the old adage about a camel being designed by a committee is true then so too would one about the current administration being nothing more than a government of convenience. It is driven, first and foremost, by Micheál Martin’s own personal life-long desire to be Taoiseach; with Fine Gael’s belief that it is now the party of power by right and with the Green’s sense of opportunism to manipulate a political opportunity to press home its own extremist agenda. The true extent of the Green’s extremism is now apparent in policy areas such as climate, gender ideology and immigration.

The thing about this coalition government is that not only did the electorate never actually vote for it or its programme for government but its constituent players expend more energy in minding their own political base than they do in taking corporate responsibility for the FF/FG/Green coalition government. This is a three-headed monster of incompetence and extremism which should be a pushover for any functioning political opposition.

But going by the polls, this is not the case for Sinn Féin. The most recent Red C poll put their support at 31% which, while making them the largest party, still leaves them a long way short of gaining anything near an overall majority. In fact, Sinn Féin’s poll ratings appear to have peaked in the summer of 2022 when they recorded 36% support. With housing evictions on the rise, that surely says something about Sinn Féin’s competence as the main political opposition.

Of course, the problem for McDonald’s Sinn Féin is that many of the government’s failed policies are mere low octane versions of its own policies. There is a growing recognition that rent controls and the like, far from helping the housing situation, have only actually increased rents and led to more evictions. Sinn Féin’s problem is that they fully own these failed housing policies. In fact, the prospect of Sinn Féin being in power is, if anything, increasing the stampede of small landlords from the rental market.

It’s been much the same case with immigration, one of the core policies of the Greens. With over 80,000 Ukrainians and another 20,000 asylum seekers in need of accommodation, the pressure on local communities has been immense. However, as with many other failing government policies, Sinn Féin also fully own the Greens policies on immigration although polls consistently show that their own core working class voter base is strongly opposed to this.

It’s a measure of the level of dysfunction in Irish politics that in recent times it appears to be Sinn Féin, the main opposition party, that is taking the hit in the opinion polls for immigration rather than the coalition government parties. No doubt, there is much quiet satisfaction within Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael that it is Sinn Féin, not the government, that appears to be paying for Roderic O Gorman’s immigration welcome mat policy.

McDonald’s pitch to the Irish electorate is that her Sinn Féin is an alternative to the Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil/Green coalition. Yet, drill down into the slogans and the carefully orchestrated social media campaigns and you’ll find that this is hardly so.

Back in the day, readers will remember how unionists frequently spoke about the operation of a ‘pan nationalist front’ north of the border. Today, citizens of the Republic are themselves more likely to be discombobulated by a pan liberal and leftist front of which Sinn Féin is an integral part. The difference between McDonald’s Sinn Féin and the government parties these days may be more about style than substance.

In the modern Irish political landscape, the popular view put out there is that Fine Gael and Sinn Féin are polar opposites offering the public a real political choice. Yet, Varadkar’s liberal and centre left Fine Gael is a world removed from the Fine Gael of even 30 years ago. By the same token, McDonald’s ultra woke, economically far left Sinn Féin is also a world removed from the socially conservative, nationalist party that was implacably opposed to EU membership in 1972.

As part of Ireland’s pan liberal, left-leaning political establishment, both parties may well have a lot more in common than they’d like to admit. For starters, it’s worth noting that both Fine Gael and Sinn Féin are now led by privately educated Dubliners who for all their talk about equality know more about social privilege than they do about social inequality.

With a general election due in 2025 at the latest, McDonald is making heavy work of what should be the easiest task in Irish politics – replacing a largely dysfunctional government of convenience. Given the present poll ratings there’s a strong likelihood that isn’t going to happen. In fact, McDonald’s leadership of Sinn Féin may well now be the best thing that the Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael/Green coalition have going for them.

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