I was talking to a man recently and the topic of the recent election came up. “Young people want to move on” he said. “They want something more than just the old extremes of orange and green. They’re more interested in real change with parties like Alliance – parties of the centre.”
I bit my tongue from telling him that he clearly had allowed the mainstream media’s interpretation of the election to enter his head and take control. But I’m glad I kept schtum, because (i) I quite like him and wouldn’t have wanted to fall out; and (ii) there was a grain of truth in what he said.
Football and politics are very different but there are things they have in common. When a new manager takes over a team, it frequently happens that the team get a lift, begins to win games, begin to believe in themselves. The latest example of that was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with Manchester United – suddenly after his arrival the team came alive and stared winning game after game. Only then… It ran out of steam. The novelty factor dimmed and Man U began losing games.
Even before the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Féin were, for a range of reasons, a party on the rise. After the Agreement, they blossomed north and south and soon were, when you combined north and south, the biggest party in Ireland. You could call their over-taking of the SDLP part of the peace dividend, or maybe that the SDLP had lost the plot, but soon Sinn Féin north and south were adding to their seat total with virtually every election. When they did fall back in the south, from having five TDs to four, they quickly recoverd and more than doubled their seats next time out.
But at the last election, the party that appeared unstoppable was stopped. Their number of MEPs was halved from four to two, their number of councillors throughout the twenty-six counties were just about halved. What happened?
Quite a few Sinn Féin politicians are struggling to come up with the answer to that. It may be that the unique factor, the thing that made Sinn Féin more than just another party, has lost its novelty shine. Then there’s the Green surge throughout Europe, which showed south of the border. In the north, you had people who were disillusioned with the DUP’s actions but still weren’t ready to vote for Sinn Féin.
So cui bono- who gains? The Alliance Party. Not nationalist, but not unionist either. Ten years ago voters who’d have penciled their X for the DUP have had a look at and listen to Robin Swann, and decided his party was staggering out of the last chance saloon and towards the sound of gunfire. So they went Alliance.
And then there’s been the Sinn Féin leadership change. Mary Lou’s hand on the tiller should have given Sinn Féin a boost. But it didn’t work that way. This was Ole Gunner Soljar in reverse – the new manager has overseen a set-back, not a boost.
So now what? Will Sinn Féin be able to reverse out of the rubble and recover the lost ground? The last time their epitaph was written I took a tempting bet and pocketed £1000. Not this time. But I’m still confident Sinn Féin will make up a lot or conceivably all of the lost ground in the next election.
It’s a bit like the Kerry farmer who used begin the day by hitting his donkey a whack on the head with a stick. “What are you doing that for?” he was asked. “Yerrah, before we start the day I do be needin’ to get his attention” the farmer explained.
It’s safe to say the electorate have got Sinn Féin’s full attention.