Sinn Fein at a crossroads

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A very poor performance by Sinn Fein in the 26 County Presidential election is causing alarm within the party over its political leadership and direction.

Sinn Fein’s share of the vote dropped sharply as Liadh Ni Riada secured just 6% of ballots counted, compared with 14% for Martin McGuinness in 2011. Ni Riada finished fourth, behind Michael D Higgins, Peter Casey and Sean Gallagher, and polled as low as 3% in east Galway and south Dublin.

Mary Lou McDonald, who replaced Gerry Adams in February, defended her decision to contest the election, the first in seven years, rather than giving Michael D Higgins a second term without challenge.

But the Dublin Central TD’s plan to capitalise on her party’s recent campaign in favour of abortion -- the single most divisive issue in Irish politics -- failed when hoped-for new supporters failed to materialise. Instead, a tranche of conservative-minded supporters looks to have jumped ship, perhaps for good.

The candidacy of Liadh Ni Riada, a fluent Irish speaker steeped in Gaelic culture, had potential. Ms Ni Riada had hoped to start a debate on Irish reunification, but that was compromised early on by her vow to wear a poppy, a symbol of the British Army and its worst atrocities in Ireland.

A number of factors have been put forward by the Sinn Fein’s leadership for the loss of almost two-thirds of its support. None have mentioned its goal of converting the organisation from a radical republican movement into a centre-left partner in a coalition government, which is at the heart of its current crisis.

On social media, a new wave of Sinn Fein ‘dissidents’ have expressed their frustration over the leadership’s direction, as well as revelations that certain party figures are earning salaries far greatly than previously disclosed.

Despite the electoral setback, the party leadership continues to accelerate away from its republican roots.

Questioned about her party’s poor performance by one television reporter, Ms McDonald dismissed his concerns while wearing a scarf inexplicably bedecked in poppies. She also posed for photographs this week with the former RUC chief Drew Harris, notorious in the north of Ireland for his role in covering up state killings.

Sinn Fein has long dismissed internal dissent as “growing pains” resulting from its efforts to rebuild the party across the island, but a contraction now appears far more likely. If last week’s performance was repeated in a general election, the party could lose up to two-thirds of its seats in the Dublin parliament.

A number of Sinn Fein supporters said they voted for Peter Casey, who grabbed headlines with his derogatory comments aobut Travellers and social welfare recipients, shocking liberals but winning the attention of many.

If the party is to avoid a prolonged contraction, it will be hoping that that is merely an act of protest -- out of boredom, as some commentators have suggested. One hopeful indication is that the large personal vote for President Higgins is unlikely to be a factor in future elections.

But the question for Sinn Fein’s elected representatives remains: are they willing to risk another election with Mary Lou McDonald still in charge?

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