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Growing unease in Sinn Féin over Mary Lou McDonald’s leadership after poor election results

Sinn Féin members are openly questioning the party’s leader and the strategy pursued in the local elections as support collapsed

Few things in life are certain but one maxim stands for Sinn Féin: questioning the party leader’s position is usually off-limits for members.

Even after the disastrous 2019 local and European elections, the strategic failure of the 2020 general election and misreading the room for the recent family and care referendums, questions from journalists about Mary Lou McDonald’s leadership were met with stony and defiant silences.

That is until now.

If Sinn Féin strategists were hoping to conduct their 2024 election postmortem in private, they might be seriously disappointed. The party is struggling to contain the fallout from the local and European elections and, for the first time, McDonald’s leadership is on the table as an item for discussion.

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One party figure, asked if such conversations were happening, said: “Oh yes – those discussions absolutely are happening.”

The party figure said there were two schools of thought within Sinn Féin: one which would happily replace McDonald with someone such as Pearse Doherty or Matt Carthy, and another which believes she is not the problem. The second camp place the blame for this election failure on unelected party advisers who make decisions on policy and strategy and simply pass the edict down to the membership.

“We don’t sharpen our knives in public. You have to have your ear to the ground if you want to know what’s happening here,” a source said, referring to the conversations around McDonald’s leadership.

There is a growing sense of a disconnect between the national Sinn Féin structures and the reality of life on the ground for the grassroots.

For the first time in a long time, the inner tensions that have been simmering away in Sinn Féin show signs of boiling over into the public domain.

Sinn Féin councillor John Hearne, who consistently commands a strong vote and whose local popularity helped the party buck the national trend in Waterford, doesn’t hold back when asked what went wrong.

“Armchair generals don’t win elections; soldiers do, not some guy in a back room. We need to get out of these back rooms, with officers’ boards meeting behind closed doors. We need to get back to hard work. We were trying to be all things to all people. People thought we were spoofing,” Hearne told The Irish Times.

He said the party was “trying to be new Fianna Fáil” and was drifting away from its core values.

“People nearly thought we were in government and perception is everything in politics,” Hearne said.

“We need to get back to basics. We need to get back to our republican ethos.”

Hearne said that in the last few years, some senior party members appeared to be “doing a lap on the pitch” as if Sinn Féin had succeeded in entering government.

He did not hold back on candidate strategy either. When McDonald launched her local election campaign, she said she couldn’t walk the length of her own shadow without meeting someone who told her to run more candidates and that she had made sure not to make that mistake this time. But the tide was out for Sinn Féin, and the extra faces on the ticket splintered their vote.

“In some areas, people were being run within a stone’s throw of each other which was nuts,” Hearne said.

It’s a view shared by other councillors.

In Clondalkin, Sinn Féin councillor William Carey felt that the party “clearly” fielded too many candidates and “that diluted our draw in the community”.

“It confused some people as candidates were running in particular areas. We have to have an honest assessment of what happened and we need to look at that in the cold light of day,” Carey said. “I think our strategy was wrong.”

In another part of the country, one strategist openly admitted that they knew two months ago that too many candidates were being run in these elections. They said it became evident on the doors at an early stage that the support was not there to secure the election of hundreds of candidates, but that it was too late. To slim down the tickets would be a show of weakness at a crucial moment, they said.

Some canvassers reported practical problems; when new faces (and often first-time candidates) were parachuted on to the tickets, it did not come with an increase in resources. As a consequence, canvassing teams had to split up into smaller groups to cover more candidates.

“People were being stretched to their very limits,” said one local organiser.

Sources say Sinn Féin will move quickly with its internal review, holding small meetings around the country and feeding the outcome of those frank conversations back to the party hierarchy.

Issues which TDs identify include a vagueness around Sinn Féin policies, a fatigue around the change message, pressure from the far-right and an issue with fleeing younger voters.

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