Sinn Féin: strong party caught in a weak position?

There is little doubt that many of Sinn Féin’s political opponents contintue to underestimate the health of the party’s core support, and perhaps overestimate the extent of its current difficulties. Even the apparently bad news of the latest Irish Times survey of party poltical support in the Republic contain some grounds for optimism amongst the 2000 delegates assembling in Dublin for the party’s annual Ard Fheis.True Gerry Adams drop in the popularity ratings is dramatic, but this is largely the result of a loss in the tacit support of voters in other parties. Given the collective mauling the party’s small beleaguered grouping in the Dail has received at the hands of every big party, it would have been surprising had it come out much better that this. He’s still not fallen to the numbers that Enda Kenny was pulling in when he first succeeded Michael Noonan at the head of Fine Gael.

Then there’s a three point drop in the party’s national support. Well, whatever about the fact it’s a drop, it’s still above their performance in the 2002 election. In other words, it’s a notional drop in a figure as yet untested by elections. Though with a +/- 3% margin of error, party workers will not be reading this as anything but an added incentive to get out the vote in the deprived inner city areas where their vote is highest.

To all intents and purposes, the 1/3 million who vote Sinn Fein on the island may well continue to do so, despite the adverse climate conditions the party is currently enduring.

Another misconception is that the party’s success is built on a local climate of fear created by the IRA. But for the most part it is based on hard work and vigourous engagement with the problems of real people. It’s a recipe that the DUP (with far fewer active members) has replicated in Unionist communities. Many will argue, and with some considerable justification, that Sinn Féin deserves its lead over its politically moderate rival the SDLP, if for no other reason than it has worked hard for every vote.

However the ghost at this weekend’s feast has got to be the McCartney affair. It has already brought suspicion on people within the party.

Perhaps Dennis Murray captured the nub of the problem when he descibed the underlying delemma confronting Sinn Fein and the IRA on the BBC’s flagship 10 O’Clock News last night:

A couple of things have come home to roost. One is the inherent contradition of the twin track strategy that they’ve had from the early 1980s. That is perfectly doable (no matter what you may think of it morally) when you don’t have many votes.

It is not doable when you have already been involved in the government of Northern Ireland and perhaps on the verge of joining a coalition government in the Republic. You just can’t be in government and not support your police force!

Whilst readers of the latest poll figures may be keen to put their own ‘spin’ on what it means, in reality we won’t be able to see any longer term trends until the next time out. In the meantime, with various unpredictable hares set off and now running, it’s hard to see how the party can turn the present tide quickly.

It’s hard to see how a party as successful and politically adept as Sinn Féin will not find its way out of this particularly negative political cycle. But the question of policing, justice, law and order is one it will have to return to before it can reasonably expect release.