The last time Sinn Fein enjoyed electoral success in the south of Ireland comparable to its showing on Friday, Hitler was still a demagogue prowling on the loony fringes of political life in Munich, Mussolini was running Italy, and Coolidge was president of the United States.
In the early summer of 1927, in an election that saw the newly formed party of Fianna Fail enter the political fray for the first time, Sinn Fein won five seats, the same number it got last week. Fianna Fail, which had split from Sinn Fein in March 1926, took 44 seats, and nearly all of the older republican party’s support
In the election of 1927, Sinn Fein fought on an abstentionist basis, its candidates refusing to take seats in the Dail if elected. It proved to be the beginning of the party’s long march into the political wilderness. Its near political oblivion was relieved only by a brief resurgence in 1957, when it won four seats. The election of 2002 may well be viewed as one of the most important steps Sinn Fein has taken in its long march back to mainstream political life.
For most of the 75 years between 1927 and now, the party that once briefly commanded a majority of seats in the Dail was regarded as a political irrelevance both north and south of the border, the imposition of which it had so vehemently opposed.
Partition continued to be the reason for Sinn Fein’s existence, the central issue around which it organized. But, ironically enough, as an election issue, it never proved crucial, especially in the Irish Republic. In the campaign of 2002, it was far down on the party’s agenda. The party’s main platform was aimed at social and economic issues, to appeal to those who felt left out of the boom in Ireland’s prosperity known as the Celtic Tiger.
On the march back toward the political mainstream, Sinn Fein has disburdened itself of much of the political baggage associated with traditional republicanism. Crucially, in 1986, it voted to end the ban on its delegates taking their seats in the Dail. Eight years later, a more important step was taken when the Provisional IRA, the party’s armed wing, declared a cease-fire eventually allowing Sinn Fein to become involved in the Northern Ireland peace process. The publicity surrounding the party’s role in negotiating a settlement to the Northern Ireland crisis helped its image south of the border, where it had been slowly building a base in a handful of constituencies, especially in Dublin’s poorer districts. Partly as a result of that, it won its first Dail seat in 40 years when in 1997 Caoimhghin O Caolain got elected in Monaghan. (In 1981, during the hunger strike, two IRA prisoner candidates had won seats but they did not run under the Sinn Fein party name.)
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Sinn Fein threw more money, energy and organization into the 2002 election than into any it has fought in the south since the 1920s. Have the results given it the breakthrough it was hoping to achieve?
An increase from one to five TDs is impressive by any measure. Sinn Fein has trebled its share of the vote from just over 2 percent to 6.5. If its share of the vote is measured by the percentage of first preferences it received, it is the fourth largest party in the state. However, this translated into only five seats. In contrast, the Green Party, with only 3.8 percent of the vote, won six seats, and the Progressive Democrats, with 4 percent of the vote — a drop of .72 percent from the last election — won eight seats, thanks to the vagaries of the transferable vote system under which elections are fought in the Irish Republic. An examination of the transfers from other candidates to Sinn Fein reveal that the party still has a troubling problem. It receives far fewer of them than other parties.
For instance, ‘ngus O Snodaigh, who won in Dublin South Central thanks to some 2,000 vote transfers (among the highest of any Sinn Fein candidate) managed to acquire them only after 11 counts. Another candidate, Desmond Ellis, who was not elected in the race for Dublin North West, got only 900 transferred votes over six counts, and more than half of them came in the final count. Sean McManus, the Sinn Fein candidate for Sligo-Leitrim, polled well on the first count, with 5,100 votes, but over the course of the next two counts received only 516 transfers and was duly eliminated.
When Sinn Fein did receive transfers, it got them mostly from independents, not from the mainstream parties. In turn, many of Sinn Fein’s transfers helped elect Green Party candidates. It seems that, even after its impressive showing, Sinn Fein is still seen as a party of protest, distrusted by mainstream party supporters, and, consequently, it receives fewer of their transfers. Further evidence of this is that where there was a strong independent candidate running, Sinn Fein did not fare so well, as in Sligo-Leitrim, where Marian Harkin took the seat.
That is, in many ways Sinn Fein’s achievement in the south so far has been striking. It took the Workers’ Party, the Provisionals’ predecessors in the march from violent republicanism to constitutional politics, 17 years from the time the Official IRA called its cease-fire in 1972 to the party’s breakthrough in 1989, when it took seven Dail seats. Sinn Fein has had comparable success in eight years. But the results also show that Sinn Fein has yet to make a breakthrough in being seen as anything other than a party of protest, still somewhat on the fringes of political life in the Irish Republic.