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Sinn Féin playing the smart game

An Cailín Rua

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

It’s been overtaken by the threat of the Coronavirus in recent days, but hasn’t the aftermath of the general election been fascinating?
A month later, we are still no closer to forming a government, and time is ticking, with a major health crisis potentially on the cards. From outside, it’s easy for the armchair politicos among us to be impatient – “Why can’t they just get on with it?” – but the surprise outcome has left all parties struggling to adapt to a new reality, and the need to figure out how they can find their place in this new landscape without compromising either their ideals or their power.
Given the political division that is now a feature of our society, this is no small ask.
What is really astounding, however, was the reaction to Sinn Féin’s surge in success by their opponents. It has been greeted with a level of hostility and suspicion that, depending on your viewpoint is either merited, given the party’s origins and modus operandi, or alternatively, illustrates just how out of touch the establishment is with the mood of the general public.
There is little doubt that the election results were deeply disappointing for Fine Gael, and to a greater extent, Fianna Fáil. The latter were surely expecting to capitalise on their biggest rivals’ failure to address the health and housing crises and their perceived lack of empathy with the ordinary citizen, for whom the much-vaunted economic recovery is often still just an aspiration.
But the overall reaction to the result, and to the subsequent actions of Sinn Féin to mobilise their voting base has been astonishing, and begs the question, do any of these parties’ more-than-adequately paid advisors know what they are at, at all?
The response to the Sinn Féin ‘public rallies’ stands out as a textbook example of how not to win friends and influence people.
Make no mistake, Sinn Féin are proving that they are the smartest party out there now. They realised that a high proportion of ordinary voters felt disenfranchised, ignored and almost despised by an elite political establishment. This was not difficult to sense, yet during the campaign, Fine Gael either chose to ignore this or were oblivious to it, and it’s hard to decide which of these is worse. Fianna Fáil, while recognising the discontent, failed to offer a credible alternative, their own failures in government still being fresh in the minds of many.
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin, on the back of a groundswell of support, decided that the clever thing to do would be to meet the public, talk to and listen to them. Not rocket science.
It goes without saying that their motives were self-serving; in the event of a second election, the smart thing to do is engage with old and new supporters and bolster your vote, with a view to running more candidates and attaining a majority. But ordinary people felt that the party wanted to listen, to acknowledge their concerns; something so absent in politics recently that the divide between ‘them’ and ‘us’ has never been greater.
Sinn Féin have apparently managed to bridge that gap, as evidenced by the subsequent growth in party support in last weekend’s national opinion poll.
And what did the establishment parties do? And certain members of the media, whose allegiances are becoming clearer by the day?
Instead of watching, learning a thing or two and reflecting on their own deficiencies, they sneered, they disparaged, they undermined, and in some cases, compared the rallies to those held by the Nazis in Nuremberg. In doing so, they not only vilified Sinn Féin, but denigrated and insulted the many who voted for them while they were at it. An astonishing misstep, and hardly the way to win back favour.
Regardless of your opinion of Sinn Féin as a party, positive or negative, they undeniably are playing the smart game. They are going back to basics and using the basic premise of democracy to facilitate conversation, grow engagement and re-ignite a belief among large swathes of the public that engaging with the political process is a mark of a healthy democracy.
It would suit certain advisors better to sit down, shut up and start taking notes.