Bad Science

Posted: April 12, 2013 in Sinn Féin

RTÉ kicked off their coverage of the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis today with a preview piece on Morning Edition exploring the state of the party in advance of the Castlebar conference.

Micheál Lehane provided a package with interviews from DCU political scientist Jane Suiter and myself.

The package was balanced offering both complimentary and critical views of the party’s recent development.  The general tone was that Sinn Féin is doing well in the Dáil but could do better in elections.

Next up was an in studio interview in which Keelin Shanley asked DCU political scientist Eoin O’Malley to give his take on the current state of Sinn Féin. At this point things rapidly went down hill.

O’Malley made four main points. Sinn Féin did ‘badly’ in the Meath East by-election; Gerry Adams is a deeply unpopular political leader in the south and is holding back the party’s growth; the party is pursuing different policy agendas north and south; and the party’s left wing socio-economic agenda is secondary to its nationalism.

Before responding to each of these claims it is important to stress that O’Malley was on the show as a political scientist. This means that the knowledge he was being asked to impart was of a different order to that of a journalist or political commentator.

Such academic knowledge is meant to be more than just opinion. It makes a claim of superiority based on analysis and expertise.

So were O’Malley’s comments an example of academic analysis and expertise or were they just misinformed opinion based on his own political prejudices.

Sinn Féin’s performance in the Meath East by-election has been described by some as good. For others it was just OK. But the suggestion that it was bad is hard to sustain.

A bad election is when you lose seats and vote share. Sinn Féin increased our share of the vote by 4% and moved into third place, significantly outpolling Labour.

It would be perfectly legitimate to ask why the party did not do better, particularly given the level of anti government feeling amongst the electorate.

Meath East is a historically weak constituency for the party, organisationally and electorally. Darren O’Rourke was a strong but virtually unknown candidate. The campaign was just three weeks long. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael had strong brand name candidates with long standing involvement in the constituency.

Given these factors 13% for a first time candidate in a constituency where Sinn Féin has little presence is pretty positive. Could it have been better? Of course. Can you credibly suggest that it was a ‘poor performance’? Hardly.

The Meath East election also demonstrates an important reality about southern Irish politics, which any political scientist worth their credentials should know.

To do well in an election you need a strong local organisation and a well-known candidate. High profile political leaders, strong Dáil performers and public hostility towards the sitting government can create the conditions for electoral growth. But that growth can only be realised if you have the personnel on the ground in the constituency to deliver the votes.

Building a party organisation, constituency by constituency takes effort and time. Translating this into votes and seats takes even longer. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of electoral history, and the fate of parties such as Clan na Poblachta, the Workers Party or the Progressive Democrats, would know this.

The idea that statewide opinion poll ratings should automatically translate into real votes in a real election is naive at best. It is certainly not an argument one would expect to hear from a political scientist versed in Irish electoral history.

Regardless O’Malley argued that it was a bad election for Sinn Féin. When asked why he pointed to the unpopularity of Gerry Adams.

Of course there are many voters who do not like Gerry. But is he really any less popular than the leaders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

In his first electoral outing in the South during the 2011 general election Gerry was elected on the first count with an impressive 22% of the vote. His percentage share of the vote compares well with that scored by both Pearse Doherty and Mary Lou McDonald.

In the last three Irish Times Ipsos/MRBI leadership satisfaction polls Gerry ran close to both Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin. All three have held the top slot in at least one of the polls and all three have seen their individual score decline.

Party leaders stand down when their parties are doing badly. To the contrary Sinn Féin is experiencing a period of electoral growth.  Whether Sinn Féin would have greater success with another leader is a matter of conjecture. What we do know is that there is no evidence to suggest that the rate of growth is being held back because Gerry is party president.

O’Malley’s views of Sinn Féin’s policy agenda is a poorly informed as is his reading of our electoral fortunes. Despite claiming that we are implementing different agendas north and south he failed to offer a single example.

Sinn Féin opposes austerity and promotes demand led job growth, socio-economic equality and political reform, north and south. We are actively promoting a border poll for Irish unity in both jurisdictions.

We blocked the introduction of water charges in the Executive as we are opposing them in the south. We are actively opposing the Tory Welfare Reform Bill in the Assembly as we are Joan Burton’s welfare ‘reforms’ in the Dáil.

And in contrast to the Fine Gael Labour government in Dublin, we continue to mobilise the limited powers available to Stormont to limit the negative impact of London’s reduction in the block grant on the poorest in society.

Beyond the economy our positions on marriage equality, abortion and local government reform –to name three currently in the media- are consistent on both sides of the border.

The difference between north and south is not Sinn Féin’s policy agenda but the nature of the two institutions, the powers they possess and the political contexts in which they operate.

In the south, even within the Troika programme, the government has considerable choice available in fiscal and public expenditure policy. In the north the budget is determined by London, limiting the ability of the Assembly to pursue policy alternatives.

Sinn Féin’s demand for the transfer of full fiscal powers to the Assembly is not only motivated by a desire to reduce London’s influence in Ireland, but also to increase the options available to the Assembly in order to pursue an alternative to austerity.

How well Sinn Féin’s manages to pursue a single policy agenda in two different institutional, fiscal and political contexts is an important and legitimate question. But to suggest that we are pursuing two different agendas north and south simply isn’t true.

At the core of Sinn Féin’s political project is a vision of a new republic in a reunified island governed through the values of liberty, equality and solidarity.

Nationalism is a key ideological resource of that project, but it is neither the sole nor the principle source. For O’Malley to suggest that our aspiration for a new republic is secondary to our desire for national reunification simply demonstrates how little he understands about the aims and objectives of our party.

Of course everyone is entitled to her or his opinion. But opinions can be misinformed. When they are they lose much of their legitimacy.

O’Malley is a professional political scientist. His job is to study and understand the world of politics. When he speaks he does so with an authority that comes with his profession.

His views of Sinn Féin as articulated on Morning Edition have little basis in fact. They are an example of what Ben Goldacre would call ‘bad science’.

Rather than being based on analysis and expertise they appear to be informed by his middle class liberalism and his distaste for nationalism.

The real irony is that the kind of Ireland in which I understand Eoin O’Malley would like to live –pluralist, tolerant, democratic and fair- is one more likely to be realised with a Sinn Féin government than with the current or previous administrations, as any delegate at this years Ard Fheis would tell you.

  1. You’re right that I approached the task of analysing Sinn Féin’s performance as a political scientist and that I should therefore be judged on that basis. Obviously what I said on the programme is not a full analysis (I can just respond to the questions I was asked).

    To prepare for my appearance I did some analysis of INES data from 2011, and it was on these analyses my comments were largely based. On the question of the Meath East result, my analysis stems from the idea that mid-term bye-elections are second order elections which give people the opportunity to send a message. In Europe second order elections are notable for low turnout, the support that small ‘extreme’ or protest parties receive increased support that they didn’t necessarily get at the first order elections (i.e. general elections).

    So we have certain expectations:
    1. That small and protest parties will do better that they will in the subsequent general election.
    2. That government parties will do badly

    This would indicate that Sinn Féin should have done very well. Add to this the fact that Fianna Fáil is an opposition party that can’t really oppose. You could say that this was an election set up for Sinn Féin to at least be a serious challenger, if not win outright.

    Ok the candidate didn’t help, but Eoin Holmes seemed to me the most articulate candidate, but it didn’t do Labour much good. You say Sinn Féin is organisationally weak in Meath East, and I’ll take your word for that. But it is not for geographic reasons that SF might do badly there. It has seats in the other adjacent constituencies to the north, east and west. And in the Presidential election the party didn’t do that much worse in Meath East (11.6%) than it did in Meath West (14.7%).

    I was asked whether the leadership was the problem, and I said it might be. The INES data show that he was by far the most unpopular of the party leaders in 2011 (and only marginally more popular than Brian Cowen, the then Taoiseach). This is based on a question that is more valid than opinion polls in Ireland use (which asks about performance rather than popularity). It also shows that Sinn Féin is seriously disliked by a large proportion of the Irish people.

    You said in your clip that Sinn Féin prefers to look to build slowly, which the party has been doing in the last 20 years (though sometimes I suspect it moves a bit too slowly for the party’s leadership – I suspect this was the rationale for the party leader’s move south of the border). Building slowly is probably a sensible long term strategy, and as I said to Keelin Shanley (I’m not sure whether it was on or off camera) Sinn Féin is unlikely to disappear in the way DL, the PDs etc. have.

    I’d disagree that people support Sinn Féin because it offers an alternative. Sinn Féin is primarily driven (in the south) by opposition to anything unpopular rather than offering an alternative. It is a strategy that Haughey used in the 1980s. But what is Sinn Féin? For people like you it’s a radical Marxist party that offers a socially liberal and economically authoritarian alternative to some of the other parties. But in the North the policies the party have implemented in government have not been of that ilk (which is fair enough, the party is in government and has to face economic realities), and we can see (again from an analysis of INES) most rural Sinn Féin supporters are social conservatives and economic supportive of petit bourgeois policies.

    We can see the Ard Comhairle’s attempt to bridge these in their motions on the Ard Fheis’s clár, which often strike a middle ground between other motions (look at that on abortion for instance).

    All parties have divisions but Sinn Féin has cleavages between north and south and town and country. Irish nationalism (or anti-British sentiment) is the main thing that holds these groups together.

  2. CJ says:

    “Sinn Féin is primarily driven (in the south) by opposition to anything unpopular rather than offering an alternative.”

    That’s some deep analysis there.

    And this made me LOL: “a radical Marxist party”.

    It would make one question the quality of Political Science at DCU.

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