While it brags about Irish unity, the party is facing trouble with voters given its pro-immigration stance

Published: 31 January 2024

On the one hand, Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Fein president and leader of the opposition in the Republic of Ireland, is triumphant. This week, predicting the imminent elevation of her vice president, Michelle O’Neill, to be first minister of Northern Ireland, she declared that it would mean Irish unity was “within touching distance”.

On the other, she is staying very quiet about some serious, unexpected challenges facing her party.

With the next Irish general election due by March 2025, McDonald has been confidently predicting that Sinn Fein will soon be in government north and south of the border, prompting a border poll in which people of both jurisdictions will vote yes to end partition, and everyone will live happily ever after.

Never mind that, to the clear-minded, it is obvious that an awful lot of people in the South are not interested in Northerners of any politics, are happy with their country as it is, don’t want to import new tensions or make concessions to Unionists, and, when the chips were down, would vote against unity.

Sinn Fein now faces a wider problem. As the electorate of the Republic has become increasingly exercised about mass immigration, the party is splitting over what line to take.

Until now, strategic decisions in Sinn Fein have been taken smoothly. The party is intensely secretive in its practices. Leaders and policies are imposed and dissenters generally find themselves capitulating or leaving.

The desire for power had produced a coherent political strategy: all sacred cows other than a united 32 counties and support for Palestinians could be slaughtered if it was deemed necessary to maintain Sinn Fein’s progressive image, which included its traditional enthusiasm for immigrants and asylum seekers.

And the general view was that, unlike their oppressors, the racist Brits, the Irish knew what it was to have to leave your country and so embraced immigrants with a spirit not unlike that of Angela Merkel. Their generosity was such that even Ukrainian refugees (100,000 at one stage) in other European countries flocked to Ireland.

That the mainstream media in Ireland is dominated by Guardianista types who avoid airing views of which they disapprove had certainly helped Sinn Fein. There was almost no national coverage until very recently of protests about hotels being requisitioned to house asylum seekers in little towns all over the country. And like the riots that broke out in Dublin, when they were covered, they were blamed on the far-Right, who at that point hardly existed.

But anyone who cared to look could see that this was absurd: as a local in the small town of Roscrea, which had attracted obloquy for trying to stop its only hotel being filled with asylum seekers, put it: “We’re putting up with people coming into this town for years and we never had a bother. And now they’re calling us Nazis. The truth is being twisted.” Some Sinn Fein politicians are defying HQ to join these protests.

Until recently, Sinn Fein had been soaring in the polls and the votes of the young – who know little of the bloody history of the IRA – had seemed securely in the bag. But in spite of the party’s irresponsible promises of a housing bonanza, that support has begun to slip.

Last Sunday, the reliable Red C poll showed Sinn Fein suffering a drop of another 4 per cent, which took its rating to the lowest point since the last General Election. At its height, it had been 35 per cent; now it is down to 25 per cent. This has not been to the benefit of the governing parties: Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael and Micheál Martin’s Fianna Fail are steady at 20 per cent and 17 per cent respectively. Red C found that 66 per cent think Ireland has taken in too many refugees, anti-immigrant independents are gaining, and interest is being shown in tiny Right-wing parties like Ireland First.

How will Sinn Fein attempt to reverse this trend? It upped its rhetorical attacks on Israel, only to be outflanked by rivals on the far Left. McDonald even came under attack for not boycotting the St Patrick’s Day reception in the White House, but she needs to keep Joe Biden sweet, given Irish-America provided the party with close to a million dollars last year.

Poor Mary Lou. So little time: so many circles to square.

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