Adrian Kavanagh, 31st May 2011
Sinn Fein emerged from General Election 2011 with the strongest ever performance in a Dail general election in the party’s history, or at least since the early 1920s, winning 10% of the vote and 14 seats in Dail Eireann. But what scope has the party got to make further gains in the next general election?
The 2007 General Election, while a bad one for the party in that it lost one seat in the Dublin South West constituency (which Sean Crowe regained in 2011), was also notable in terms of how unlucky the party was in terms of translating votes into seats (in large part reflecting the party’s difficulties in gaining vote transfers from other parties, but also reflecting the party’s tendency to poll especially well in 3-seat constituencies, which prove harder to win for smaller parties). Though the party won 6.9% of the vote (well in excess of the Green Party’s vote share, despite the Greens winning 6 seats in 2011) which should have entitled them to between 11 and 12 seats in the Dail on proportional terms, Sinn Fein only won 4 seats in the 2007 contest with a number of narrow losses in constituencies such as Dublin North West and the Donegal constituencies (all of these being three-seat constituencies). In 2011 a relatively relatively small 3% national swing to Sinn Fein produced a disproportionate level of seats gain by the party (10 seats, or a 6.0% gain) mainly because this small percentage swing was sufficient to turn these 2007 narrow misses into seat gains and mainly due to the changed political context in many constituencies arising from the collapse in Fianna Fail support which created an opportunity space for Sinn Fein to make further gains.
The map above illustrates the potential for further gains by Sinn Fein in the 25 constituencies where Sinn Fein candidates missed out on seats (or a second seat as in the case of Cyavan-Monaghan), excluding the constituencies where Sinn Fein won seats or those constituencies that Sinn Fein failed to contest (Clare, Dublin North, Dun Laoghaire, Kerry South, Limerick).
In a number of these constituencies Sinn Fein will have significant ground to make up to be in the running for seat gains, but there are some constituencies where a relatively small swing to Sinn Fein could see them make gains at the expense of the parties/candidates who took the last seats in these constituencies in 2011. In all, Sinn Fein could make gains in eight constituencies (as highlighted in yellow shading on the map) with a swing to the party of 2%, or less, from the party/candidate who won the final seat in these. Interestingly, while the Labour Party are perceived as being most vulnerable to the further development of Sinn Fein support in the Republic of Ireland, Labour does not figure amongst the parties vulnerable to Sinn Fein gains in these eight constituencies. Instead, a good number of these potential Sinn Fein gains (five) would be at the expense of Fine Gael, with independent-held seats involved in two of these cases and a Fianna Fail-held seat in the other remaining case. Should Sinn Fein manage to take these seats, the overall seat tally by party nationally would be readjusted as follows: Fine Gael 71, Labour 37, Sinn Fein 22, Fianna Fail 19, United Left Alliance 4, Independents 13. Perhaps the striking factor of this analysis lies in the fact that had Sinn Fein could well have emerged as the third largest party in the state (ahead of Fianna Fail) at the recent general election had their support levels been higher by 2%, or less, in a handful of Dail constituencies.
On the other hand, it is also worth noting that Sinn Fein won a number of their seats by rather narrow margins the February 2011 elections and Sinn Fein seats in consituencies such as Cork East, Sligo-North Leitrim and Dublin South Central would be vulnerable at the next election, especially in the face of a Fianna Fail renaissance, or even a demi-renaissance, as noted in the previous post.