Monday, May 22, 2006


Sinn Féin's young guns the key?

The following piece is from an article in the Sunday Independent. Since it requires registration to view it, I've reproduced the article in full. Tell us what you think of it:

Two Facts. First, 50 per cent of our population is under the age of 25. Second, Sinn Fein is the fastest growing party among younger voters, despite Fine Gael's little burst in the polls last week. Put together, they make for a worrying combination - particularly for the political establishment.

Admittedly, not all of those under 25 are eligible to vote, nor are they inclined to do so (only one out of three will, according to some estimates). It does, though, set a worrying precedent. When it comes to younger voters, Sinn Fein has been ruthlessly efficient in exploiting the limitations of mainstream parties, particularly, those in opposition.

Fine Gael and Labour speak of the mood for change, yet they offer none. There are no major differences in policy between the alternative and real governments. "We'll do the same - only better," hardly constitutes an alternative, but that's what's being offered.

The consensus among the mainstream parties, on almost everything, plays into Sinn Fein's hands. While Sinn Fein's policies are often off the wall - their desire to significantly increase corporation tax for example - they are, nonetheless, a break with the consensus. This allows Sinn Fein to claim that they are the only party offering real change - even if the policies themselves are ludicrous. What's going to appeal to younger voters - radical change or more of the same?

Sinn Fein is increasingly able to present itself as the party of the working classes, in contrast to Labour, which appears increasingly like the party of middle-class guilt. Sinn Fein is more visible in the community, making a concerted effort to connect with people - and young people in particular.

It seems that one of Sinn Fein's latest strategies to appeal to younger voters is to ingratiate themselves with them where most young Irish people do their ingratiating - the pub. Buying the odd drink creates goodwill - which could conceivably be replicated at the polling booth.

The age profile of Sinn Fein candidates also works in their favour - with young candidates such as Pearse Doherty (who is under 30), they have a clear advantage over the mainstream parties. The Labour Party's sitting TDs, for example, will have an average age of 59 when the election happens as expected in summer 2007. It stands to reason that a 20-year-old is more likely to vote for a 28-year-old, rather than somebody who remembers where they were when they heard John F Kennedy was shot.

The constant criticism of Sinn Fein by the mainstream parties could actually be benefiting Sinn Fein - particularly with younger voters. When younger voters (who are disillusioned with the establishment parties) see this, it creates the opposite to the desired effect.

"If they're being criticised by them, well they must be doing something right," seems to be the impression this criticism generates.

In the last general election in North Kerry, Martin Ferris was trailing in the polls, yet, after a Prime Time "debate" where he was rounded upon by the representatives of the mainstream parties, he topped the poll.

The establishment parties need to spend less time trying to convince people why they shouldn't vote for Sinn Fein and more time convincing them why they should vote for them. Take the Labour Party, there's a smugness and conceitedness about the Labour Party under Pat Rabbitte - not exactly qualities that are going to appeal to younger voters. At their party conference in DCU, they told us that they were "preparing for government" - this despite the fact that they have yet to convince enough people to vote for them.

Pat Rabbitte has done more to convince the British far right of his kudos, than he has the left-leaning voters. The right praised him for his stance on immigration - "There are 40 million Poles after all". This leaves the door wide open for Sinn Fein to exploit. And exploit it they have.

While the rise in support for Sinn Fein among younger voters can be attributed to the failings of the more established parties, one can't ignore Sinn Fein's past as being part of its appeal. The whiff of sulphur is undoubtedly an attraction to impressionable young voters. Sinn Fein knows this and is quite willing to exploit it - its shops stock T-shirts extolling: "IRA - The Undefeated Army".

Sinn Fein will continue to rise, unless the mainstream parties realise that the problem lies with them and their failure to capture the imagination of the public - blindly criticising Sinn Fein won't win votes.

Damian Stack

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