Sinn Féin is suffering in the polls, so credit to Mary Lou McDonald for her party’s solid support of migrants
Mary Lou McDonald’s poster was defaced, with the word “traitor” scrawled across the top at a protest in East Wall in the heart of her Dublin Central constituency.
essie Ellis’s office in Ballymun in Dublin had a group of black-clad protesters outside it at night. Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire’s office in Togher in Cork had a daytime picket outside it.
Notably, there are three senior Cabinet ministers based in his Cork South Central constituency – Tánaiste Micheál Martin, Finance Minister Michael McGrath and Enterprise Minister Simon Coveney. Yet, it’s the opposition party getting the backlash in working-class areas, rather than the government ministers.
Among some elements of the electorate, there is clearly a view that Sinn Féin should be taking a firmer stance on the housing of immigrants seeking protection. Clearly, they didn’t read the fine print of the party policy.
For the past 20 years, Sinn Féin’s brand of narrow nationalist, populist, Eurosceptic, anti-establishment politics has grown steadily in support. That didn’t leave space in fertile working-class areas for a right-wing party to emerge.
But at no point did Sinn Féin declare themselves to be anti-immigrant or willing to abandon the country’s international commitments towards the asylum process.
The tension within the base is reflected in opinion polls where Sinn Féin voters are firmly the strongest of the main parties in terms of anti-immigrant views. This is not some attempt to cast Sinn Féin as anti-immigrant. It’s simply the picture presented by the polling statistics.
Yesterday’s Ireland Thinks poll in the Sunday Independent showed that agreement with the view that the country has taken in too many refugees in the past year peaks among supporters of Independents and Aontú.
“Sinn Féin supporters are not far behind: 61pc of them believe Ireland has taken in too many refugees, larger than the proportion in the overall population,” wrote Kevin Cunningham of Ireland Thinks.
“The Sinn Féin voter base can be described as a Venn diagram consisting of younger people and working-class people who coalesce on left-wing economic positions.
“While younger people take the more liberal position on immigration, Sinn Féin’s older working-class vote is more likely to hold more negative views towards refugees.
“The necessity to combine these two voter blocs – young people and working-class voters – is the central challenge for left-wing political parties, and one that undoubtedly is giving Sinn Féin, who declined in support again in this month’s poll, a major cause for concern.
“Quite often these two voter blocs have broken apart due to how this particular issue has played out.”
Red C’s poll in the Sunday Business Post last weekend also suggested anti-refugee sentiment goes further than a small minority.
“Levels of disagreement are highest among those in society who are more under pressure, those with less income in more deprived areas, the less well educated, and, crucially, those that currently plan to vote for Sinn Féin,” Red C’s Richard Colwell noted.
The crossover with concerns about migration is not of Sinn Féin’s making, but it does present a political problem for McDonald to manage.
To be absolutely fair to Sinn Féin, the party has held the line firmly on immigration policies. Sinn Féin has never said we should close the borders or not house those seeking asylum.
The party has also expressed firm support for the use of modular housing to accommodate those seeking refuge here.
Now, let’s not get too carried away – Sinn Féin is not falling over with suggestions of locations around the country for modular housing.
Nor is the party coming up with lists of viable places to put refugees. A bit like their climate-change policies, Sinn Féin is all in favour in principle, just weak in practice. But where individual party members have appeared to stray, the party hierarchy has either reined them back in – or at least ensured there is no repeat.
When a Sinn Féin councillor claimed the planning process for modular housing was “possibly unconstitutional and potentially undemocratic”, he was told to pull the comments.
And a few of their TDs have voiced concerns about modular housing for refugees in their areas, which appears contrary to party policy.
Sinn Féin TD Patricia Ryan sent letters to more than 500 homes in Kildare warning of potential “significant conflict” between locals and Ukrainian refugees due to move into modular homes there.
Her colleague Paul Donnelly warned a proposed site for modular homes for refugees in west Dublin was unsuitable and the plans “would have the potential to cause serious divisions in our community”.
Micheál Martin took a swipe at Sinn Féin last year, accusing McDonald of “playing both sides” on Ukrainian refugees.
McDonald has consistently been saying the Government’s failures on the accommodation of Ukrainian refugees mirrors its general failures on housing.
The Sinn Féin leader is treading a delicate line again between criticising the Government, while not engaging in anything that can be described as stoking ill-feeling towards immigrants.
Yesterday, she spoke about people needing to have a clear-headed view in apportioning blame over housing, which does not lie at “the feet of any refugee or anybody seeking asylum in this country”.
And she made it clear she has no time whatsoever for right-wing fringe elements who are stoking up ill-feeling, who she describes as a “very, very dangerous, abusive, and sometimes violent minority that want to come in and think they can take advantage of communities in a negative way”.
McDonald is also big on criticising the Government for a lack of consultation, which is a lazy target as consultation invariably results in opposition.
When hitting the Government’s inadequacies on housing on two fronts, it’s not a big leap to get into the narrative of “we should be housing our own first”.
But McDonald has not gone there at all. Her position has been responsible.
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