The votes have been cast and counted. Sinn Féin has emerged as the largest party by votes in the southern state. Over half a million (535,595) citizens gave their first preference to Sinn Fein. We have 37 seats in the Dáil.
It was a remarkable election and an equally remarkable result. There had been a sense in the lead into the campaign that something was stirring within the electorate. The early opinion polls and the first canvas had indicated a greater than usual frustration at the Tweedledee – Tweedledum politics of the two larger parties of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. For four years Fianna Fáil worked in partnership with Fine Gael. Propping it up in government. Empowering its disastrous policies on health and housing. Echoing its lines against a Unity Referendum as set out in the Good Friday Agreement and outdoing its vitriol against Sinn Féin. And then, as if the electorate are fools, Fianna Fáil tried to tell citizens that it was different from Fine Gael. That it was the alternative. That it could deliver change. A con job.
Last week, before a vote had been cast, I wrote of the “growing frustration and anger with the empty promises of the two bigger parties … anger at the willingness of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to protect the wealthy, the banking elite and the developers… anger at children made homeless and our elderly citizens and sick relatives languishing on hospital trolleys… anger at the witholding of state pensions to workers who have earned them.”
I wrote also of the “anger at the Fianna Fail Leader Micheál Martin’s shrill political paranoia and hysterical ranting against Sinn Féin ...” and his insistence that “Sinn Féin is not fit to be in government.”
All of this, and much more in recent decades, has seen a gradual process of realignment of electoral politics taking place in the southern state. This has been most evident in the diminishing vote of the two conservative parties who in the past could have expected to pick up over three quarters of the total vote. That share has been in decline for the last 30 years and this week Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael secured less than half (44%) of the total vote.
In my column last week I pointed out that this process of realignment “has been slow and hesitant at times but that’s the way change happens. You work away, arguing, advocating, debating, organising and campaigning. At times with little visible results. Sometimes with setbacks or distractions. But you keep at it strategically, energetically, patiently and intelligently. You keep sowing seeds of resistance and hope and republican values. Seeds to grow alternative democratic dispensations. Egalitarian ideas. You never give up. You focus on the future. You believe. Then all of a sudden a tipping point emerges. Or a series of tipping points. The seeds grow. They flourish. They burst into flower. This election looks like being such an event.”
And it was. And it is. I hesitated before publishing the above. What if the vote didn’t come out? What if the weather was too bad? What if …? But sometimes the pessimism of the intellect is superseded by the optimism of the will, and the certainty of instinct. So I’m delighted to say I told you so but while I expected Sinn Fein to do better than the usual naysayers and begrudgers were predicting I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by the strength of the vote. Why the increase for Sinn Fein at this time? In short, because people want change – real change. And they increasingly see Sinn Féin as the best vehicle for this.
For our part Sinn Féin spent the recent months analyzing the failures of the Presidential election and our local government and European elections. We had an honest and thorough conversation which identified the flaws and the gaps and we then set about plugging them.
As Mary Lou has said, we learned our lesson. We re-engaged with our base. The Ard Fheis was the first evidence of a refocused Sinn Féin. The by-elections, especially the election of Mark Ward in Dublin Mid West and the near election of Tommy Gould in Cork North Central were the first sign of recovery. John Finucane’s election was another positive, as was the end of unionism’s electoral majority and the establishment of the Northern Assembly.
Our general election campaign in the South was very well run. Everyone was on message. The benefits of our outstanding Front Bench team on Finance, Health, Housing, the Environment and other issues alongside a strong team of TDs and Seanadóirí was visible everywhere. Mary Lou has played a blinder. We set the agenda.
In Louth I told our activists that people, our voters, have the right to be critical of us. We need to listen to them and we need to have the confidence in ourselves to do that. If we did that I was certain that we would get Imelda Munster and Ruairí Ó Murchú elected. And we did. With style. Comhgairdeas Imelda agus Ruairí.
The party also produced a manifesto for the future that is radical, costed and deliverable. A manifesto for Irish Unity, with solutions to the crises in health and housing, childcare and the environment and for rural Ireland. A manifesto which clearly captured the imagination and the hope of many.
Sinn Féin’s success in 2020 has to be set in the context of the party’s strategy development over many years; the systematic building of political strength to advance our national objectives; the building of capacity and organizational structure within the party; and the recognition that republicans have to have a long headed view and that we have to be united and cohesive if we are to achieve our objectives.
The outworking of our electoral progress was most obvious in the North following the hunger strike elections intervention in 1981. We now have 7 MPs, 105 Councilors, and 27 MLAs. Michelle O’Neill is the Joint First Minister.
This expansion of the party was less obvious in the South. But careful strategic planning has also witnessed an upward trend in support in that part of the island. The general election results for the last twenty three years are evidence of this.
· In 1997 Sinn Fein took 2.5% or 44,901. We won 1 seat.
· In 2002 we took 6.5% or 121,020 votes. We won 5 seats.
· In 2007 we took 6.9% or 143,410 votes. We won 4 seats.
· In 2011 we took 9.9% or 220,661 votes. We won 14 seats.
· In 2016 we took 13.8% or 295,319 votes. We won 23 seats.
· In 2020 we took 24.5% or 535,595 votes. We won 37 seats.
And we can win more in the future if we stay on course. Extra candidates would have left us the largest number of TDs in the Dáil. Hindsight is a great person to have at a meeting.
And there you have it. Of course the most important issue is to use our political strength for the peoples’ benefit and to advance our cause.
The focus now is on whether Sinn Féin can find a pathway into government. To achieve this we need a Programme fora Government for Change. It’s all about strategy. Knowing what you want to achieve. And mapping out a plan to get you there. We are currently in the national liberation phase of Ireland’s long struggle for freedom. We also have to right the economic and social inequities insofar as that can be done during the period of transition to a New Republic. Our manifesto is clear evidence that we can do both.
So, we are with Connolly again - with the national and social elements of the struggle in primary focus.
This election is a tipping point. Mary Lou has begun the work of speaking to other party leaders about agreeing a programme for government. The political landscape on the island of Ireland has changed.