THE performance of Sinn Féin was the story of the election in Clare, with Violet Anne Wynne winning the party’s first seat here for a century, as the county’s two longest serving TDs fell from grace.
En route to the Falls Hotel on Sunday morning everyone heard the same information on the radio programmes; exit polls showed it was going to be a great election for Sinn Féin.
As the early tallies came in they showed that the Sinn Féin surge was putting Ms Wynne close to the top and despite having heard the national story, there was still huge surprise around the count centre.
“I heard Sinn Féin were doing well, but I really didn’t think it’d happen here,” said one woman involved in compiling the tallies. Many other people around the count centre were making similar comments.
How could anyone have seen it coming? Just last May she won a mere 385 first preferences in the local elections. It wasn’t like she had much of a campaign behind her; she was only selected as the party’s candidate three weeks out from polling day.
However the strength of the swing towards Sinn Féin meant that her own lack of personal profile made precisely no difference. Clare was going to elect a Sinn Féin TD no matter what. Ms Wynne only put up 20 posters, but this was not a personal vote.
The tallies, although more unreliable this time than usual, showed that Ms Wynne was winning votes all over the county. Word went around the count centre that she had won most number ones in Miltown Malbay. She took most votes from a box in Kilkishen, despite strong candidates like Timmy Dooley, Michael McNamara and Cathal Crowe all being based in East Clare.
There is always strong support for Sinn Féin in Shannon, but the scale of it for a candidate at the far side of the county was still surprising. The tally for one box at St Conaire’s had her taking 209 votes, with Cathal Crowe second on just 52.
The first count confirmed the strength of her performance; she topped the poll with 8,987 first preferences.
It was only on the eighth count, that she went into second place, and that was ultimately where she finished on 11,903 votes, only behind Michael McNamara on 12,205. These were the only two to reach the 11,900 quota- none of the Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael candidates managed it.
There is no doubt that the Wynne victory has come about on the back of party rather than personal support, which makes it particularly significant and it shows a pretty seismic change in Clare politics.
One Sinn Féin candidate, with very little profile, won just under 9,000 first preferences, while the first two seats in the county were won by people with no association with either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, who have dominated Clare for so long. There is no guarantee that voters will return to the two established parties at some point in the future in the numbers they once did.
The murder of Paul Quinn and the Sinn Féin position the Special Criminal Court were matters raised with Mary Lou McDonald in the week leading up to the vote, but people in Clare as in other constituencies weren’t discouraged from voting for Sinn Féin in eye watering numbers.
The Sinn Féin victory in Clare is even more stunning when one thinks about the party’s previous lack of success here and the missteps that were made prior to the ballot.
While Sinn Féin’s support has surged in the Republic since the IRA ceased violence, you wouldn’t have noticed it in the Banner.
It took until 2014 for Clare to elect its first Sinn Féin county councillor since the 1970s, when Mike McKee won a seat in the Shannon Municipal District.
He was set to run for the party in the general election alongside Noeleen Moran, and would have been seen as the party’s best hope, but illness struck, and while Mr McKee retained his seat in the May 2019 local election, he passed away later in the year.
It seemed that the Sinn Féin chance of a seat was gone, but many felt their prospects got even worse in January, when a disgruntled Ms Moran, who stood for the party in 2016, said she wouldn’t let her name go forward for selection. Ms Moran would have at least had some more recognition, having won more than 4,000 first preferences four years ago.
But ultimately it made no difference whatsoever, huge sections of the Clare electorate were going to give their vote to anyone running under the Sinn Féin banner.
At the moment many Clare voters are not troubled by Sinn Féin’s support for the Provisional IRA’s campaign of violence from the late 60s to the 1990s, while their message on issues of the day like housing, health and pensions is more attractive to them than what is offered by the established parties of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
Whether the Sinn Féin support can be sustained is unknowable, but their rise shows that things have changed and may continue to change in Clare politics.