27th November 2023

Corporate Ireland, Sinn Féin, and cognitive dissonance

When it comes to Sinn Féin, many business leaders appear to be experiencing what performance psychologists refer to as cognitive dissonance—the mental conflict that arises when our beliefs and behaviours do not align.  

In such circumstances, the human mind has an uncanny way of playing tricks on itself. To ease the discomfort of contradictory thoughts, it downplays the importance of what is giving rise to the conflict, even when the evidence is clear.  

Mindset misfit 

In moments of crisis for example, it can often be striking how those at the centre of the crisis delay or avoid confronting it, thus prolonging the problem. They do so not out of any badness, rather their mind struggles to correlate with what is confronting it. It’s human.      

When it comes to politics, the tendency to selectively absorb information that aligns with one’s political beliefs while dismissing or simply ignoring information that contradicts those beliefs is nothing new. However, in an ever-changing political landscape, with digital algorithms creating echo chambers of preferred opinion, cognitive dissonance is increasingly apparent. Our minds seek to keep our political beliefs in harmony, even when faced with compelling, consistent evidence that conflicts with these beliefs.  

We are human after all. We consume politics sporadically and in different ways, often through mediums obsessed by the process, pageantry and personalities of the political bubble.   

It goes some way to explaining the mindset of those who appear to struggle with the concept of Sinn Féin leading the next Irish government. I continue to be struck by just how often I encounter this among smart people and all levels.  

Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald and Vice President Michelle O'Neill (Photo: PRESSEYE)

The Sinn Féin puzzle 

The result of the last general election and every single opinion poll in the intervening three-year period is consistently signalling one thing—Mary Lou McDonald looks set to be the next Taoiseach with her Sinn Féin colleagues in leading Cabinet positions.   

Dispassionate analysis of the evidence is unequivocal. In the 2020 general election, Sinn Féin received the most first-preference votes. On 24.5% of the popular vote, it won 37 seats, just one less than Fianna Fáil and two more than Fine Gael. It is widely accepted that in fielding too few candidates, Sinn Féin failed to capitalise on campaign momentum, leaving 10 to 15 extra seats behind them.  

In the intervening three years, Sinn Féin is consistently showing support levels exceeding its 2020 result. Opinion poll numbers indicate support in the early thirties in percentage terms, reaching as high as 36% at one juncture.  

Its support extends far deeper than just younger voters. In a recent opinion poll, Sinn Féin ranked 10 points ahead of both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael among the ABC1 demographic. This voting cohort tend to have higher incomes, hold third-level qualifications and occupy managerial roles. With the exception of two demographics—over 65s and farmers—Sinn Féin ranks highest. 

Over the same period, its two main rivals—Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael—are flatlining.  

Three years. A consistent trend. Yet, why do many continue to disbelieve?  

Perhaps for some, decades of governments comprising the big two of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael makes imaging a government not led by either inconceivable. Perhaps for others, the Sinn Féin journey from guns to government is too much of a stretch. Or perhaps corporate leaders simply have not given the matter sufficient consideration.  

Whatever it may be, a lot can happen between now and the next election. As every election shows, campaigns matter and votes can swing. In the intense scrutiny of an election campaign when, for the first time, Sinn Féin will be the hunted rather than the hunter, the robustness of its pitch and solidity of its support will be tested. But right now, and allowing for the most recent electoral boundary review, Sinn Féin is on course to win between 60 and 70 seats at the next election. Such a result puts Sinn Féin in government, commandingly so. It can afford to leak support and still be the largest party, making government formation unlikely without its say so. 

Where that result leaves corporate Ireland will be fascinating. 

Sinn Féin received the most first-preference votes in GE2020 (Photo: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie)

Corporate complexity  

Many business people and pragmatic in nature, prepared to play the hand they are dealt and see where it gets them. Others, are uncomfortable with the unknown, preferring certainty and familiarity.  

It is perfectly acceptable to have a political leaning in one particular direction. One’s personal and professional views need not necessarily align. However, if that leaning is clouding professional judgement, it is an altogether different matter, particularly if three in every 10 of your colleagues do not share your view.  

No matter how unexpected it may be to deal with an elected office holder who you never envisaged holding power, that politician has a democratic mandate to decide on matters which may materially affect your interests. Therefore, you have a choice—risk being hemmed-in by the comfort zone of familiarity or enhance your options by engaging broadly without delay.  

We are now just a little more than 12-months (maximum) out from the next general election. The backdrop of that election is starting to crystalise, with increasing evidence that the public as a whole, not just segments of it, are viewing things differently.  

At such a time, leaders in cognitive dissonance mode are vulnerable ones. Advisors who only see what they want to are ineffective ones. All the while, the clock is ticking.  

While cognitive dissonance is a perfectly natural human tendency, the performance psychologists say the first thing you have got to do is be aware of it. When it comes to Sinn Féin, are you? 

Dan founded 360 to deliver intelligent communications as a service. Since 2011, he has cultivated a diverse and skilled team of professionals who share his vision, ethos, and passion for redefining and reshaping PR. Dan works in close partnership with some of Ireland and Europe’s leading CEOs and senior executives to build their organisations’ communications cultures and equip them with the tools to succeed in fast-changing political, commercial, and social landscapes. Previously, Dan was a senior government and political advisor during Bertie Ahern’s term as Taoiseach and communications director for the Irish Tax Institute.

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