Election could provide catalyst for change


The elections last weekend are being seen to have had major implications for politics in Ireland and Britain, not least for Sinn Féin.

Two out of three MEPs elected in the North are anti-Brexit, and are in favour of keeping the Six Counties within the EU Customs Union. However, the turnout was low, suggesting that a widespread northern disillusionment with politics is unlikely to end any time soon.

The result marks another serious reversal for the UUP, which is losing its identity as the moderate unionist party to Alliance. Meanwhile the SDLP, although its vote largely held up, is no safer in terms of surviving as a stand-alone party. The gamble by party leader Colum Eastwood failed to pay off as voters endorsed Alliance as the best bet for a second anti-Brexit seat, leaving him looking like a serial loser.

But Sinn Féin’s first preferences fell by 30,000 compared with the 2014 Euro election, mirroring the decline in the local electons earlier in the month. Despite the lower turnout, it suggests that the party’s traditional support base has become exhausted by policy flip-flops.

But the bigger problems for the party are in the south, where Sinn Féin’s vote suffered a serious collapse in the local elections. The party’s share of the vote fell by twelve points, or half its support, in Dublin. It fell nine points in Cork, with other significant losses in Limerick and Galway, where it has been wiped out. There were also very poor results in rural areas, most heavily in places where party structures have been in disarray or councillors have resigned.

The local elections were intended as the foundation for Sinn Féin’s entry into government following a general election, but that seems far away now. While the party suffered a huge setback in the Presidental election last year, last weekend’s elections have added to fears that it has now permanently lost touch with its republican grassroots. Some of that support obviously went to new republican party Aontú, but also to the radical-left Independents 4 Change, as well as to some of its old councillors, six of whom were re-elected as independents.

Meanwhile, Britain has seen the collapse of normal politics. In the European elections, the Brexit Party led by former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, first registered just three months ago, has largely wiped out the Labour and Conservative parties which have been around for hundreds of years. The Liberal Democrats were not far behind and a new poll actually has them as the biggest party in Britain, pushing the Tories and Labour into third and fourth place.

In Scotland, Scottish nationalists almost swept the board and are now full steam ahead for a second independence referendum next year.

Whoever wins the Tory leadership election next month will likely be to the right of the party and will be inclined to keep the Brexiteers onside. If that happens, a crash Brexit, and very possibly an independent Scotland, is on the cards.

The possible good news for Sinn Féin here is that with Brexit certain to dominate the political agenda here once again, whoever is party leader will have the opportunity to rebuild around a traditional republican message and get the party back on track. Will they do that?

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