Sinn Fein’s delay tactics in north cost it bounce in south…

So much of what occured after the Belfast Agreement is so hidden from open scrutiny that it is often a case of paying your money and take your choice of who was responsible for who ultimately collapsed the outworking of that deal. Republicans blame unionists, and vice versa. However, much as it looked as though David Trimble paid the political price at the Assembly election of November 2003, Ed Moloney speculates that last Thursday Sinn Fein may just have antied up its whack in terms of its ambition in the south:

Gerry Adams and his colleagues could have sealed a deal with the former Unionist leader David Trimble long before the 2002 election in the Republic. All that was required was a sufficiently persuasive concession on IRA decommissioning – a list of weapons put beyond use, for instance – and Trimble would probably have survived. A powersharing government would thus have been in place for the 2002 poll and Sinn Féin well positioned to market itself as an experienced party of responsible government to Southern voters by the time of the 2007 election.

But the party leadership decided otherwise. The decommissioning issue was strung out for many more years even though an IRA Convention in 1999 had given the group’s leadership the go-ahead to dispose of weaponry as they thought fit. The effect, and very possibly the intention, was to polarise Northern politics even further. David Trimble became isolated from his electorate and was eclipsed by Ian Paisley’s DUP while the SDLP shrank in the shadow of Sinn Féin.

The result was that Sinn Féin became the largest nationalist party in the North. Any analysis of this period must therefore examine the possibility that this was deliberately contrived, that the Provo leadership delayed decommissioning in order to foster Sinn Féin’s electoral growth.

But there were other consequences. Refusal to fully decommission meant that the war had not been totally ended and that the IRA was still operational long after its sell-by date. From that came the Northern Bank robbery of some £26.5 million (€39 million) in December 2004 and then a few weeks later the grisly cover-up of the unauthorised IRA murder of Robert McCartney in Belfast.

The evidence that these two events were a tipping point in Sinn Féin’s standing with the Republic’s electorate is compelling. Before the Northern Bank/McCartney murder, opinion polls showed that Sinn Féin was supported by about 12 per cent of the electorate while Gerry Adams’s personal approval rating stood at 51 per cent, only two points behind Bertie Ahern. By March 2005, Sinn Féin’s support had fallen to about 8-9 per cent while Adams’s standing had dipped to 39 points.

Sinn Féin’s support and that for Gerry Adams never recovered from the Northern Bank/McCartney episodes.

The completion of IRA decommissioning didn’t reverse the trend in the Republic’s opinion polls, nor did the July 2005 “end of war” statement by the IRA or even the creation of a powersharing government with Ian Paisley. It was all too late, the Republic’s voters had been sickened. In the event Sinn Féin won a meagre 6.9 per cent of the vote in last week’s election, evidence that the pollsters had read the electorate’s mind pretty well.

Whilst, as he goes on to point out, it is impossble to know whether an early deal would have made a significant difference to Sinn Fein’s fate south of the border, the poll trends strongly suggest that the events of 2005 had a determental effect on its actual performance last week. Being stuck outside the machinery of government also gave them little opportunity to close the credibility deficit in its economic policy.

Ultimately, he argues, the procrastination of the IRA may have consolidated Sinn Fein’s power in the economic walled garden of Northern Ireland, but it also cost it any bounce it may realistically have expected in the Republic. However, Moloney suggests that the loss of forward momentum on such a talismanic issue may prove more problematic internally than with its public profile with voters:

Until last week Sinn Féin’s image was of an infallible, irresistible political behemoth which gobbled up or trampled everyone in its way. The image was created and sustained by a dizzying and seemingly endless series of electoral successes, stretching back nearly a decade and a half. But that too was the party’s weakness. Like a shark, Sinn Féin always needed to be moving forward, ever a threat to those around it; staying still or going backwards could be fatal. It will be interesting to watch how the DUP now interacts with Sinn Féin in the Belfast Executive or whether the SDLP’s battered morale is boosted by this result.

As with the party so with its leadership, especially Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams. His ability to take the Provisional movement down a road of disarmament and huge ideological compromise was largely due to an almost mystical faith in his strategic foresight on the part of a substantial section of the Sinn Féin and IRA grassroots. Their faith, until now, had been justified by a remarkably successful track record in both the military and political fields. How they respond now to this, his first major failure, will be the story to watch in the coming months [emphasis added].

Indeed.

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  • The most glaring error in Moloney’s piece is to ignore the fact that while Sinn Féin’s vote had dropped in opinion polls throughout 2005/06, it had been steadily increasing during the last two months running up to the election campaign, hitting 10 and 11 percent, with Adams’ satisfaction ratings hitting 58%.

    I do think the failure of the Adams strategy in the election, a strategy imposed over the objections of Sinn Féin members in the South if you believe this week’s commentary in Phoenix, has exposed him, and the party.

    But that failure was not down to procrastinations in the Peace Process. Most Southern voters honestly couldn’t care less so long as the violence has stopped. It was down to a badly run national campaign, appearing too eager to go in with Fianna Fáil, diabolical media performances by Adams and the bizarre decision to cripple their own economic policy in the first week of the election campaign.

  • carlosblancos

    I do think that percpetion in the Republic following the bank robbery and McCartney definetly sapped some support for SF.

    But the real reason for failure, as Frank pointed out above, was bad campaign, bad media performances, eagerness to coalesce, crazy economics AND also the rush to FF/FG and trampling of the middle. We must remember that ALL the smaller parties did bad, something Moloney hasn’t mentioned.

    Bizarrely I also think Mary Lou might have been too middle class for Dublin Central. never mind the fact she was parachuted in. She’s clearly a Southsider, and I’m still not sure if that works in a constituency which still has no mega affluent areas, and, crucially, is on the North side of the City.

    Nice to seem them getting a beating all the same.

  • Frank,

    In fact, I think that rise in the rate of the last two months was part of what led a lot of us (party insiders included) to falsely conclude that this was going to be SF’s election. If you take the average poll rating between 02 and 07, you get something closer to the actual result. It is difficult to not to conclude that the traumatic events of 2005 are what disrupted that average.

    And as Adam points out at Election.com, it may also have added negative equity to SF’s credentials on the Peace Process.

    BTW, I do agree on the relative unimportance of NI in the Republic; yet it is critical to the SF narrative. ’05 may have done nothing more than ‘contaminate the brand’. In a democratic competition where you have few enough alternatives with which to engage the audience, that can be enough.

  • Frank is correct, plus Adams hopes of turning SF into a mass party in the south were unrealistic beyond belief, the only hope for a party such as SF is to punch above its weight electorally and to do this it must attach itself to core constituency. If anyo thing it is the Irish LP that SF should be emulating not FF, as it will never attract the middle classes in any great numbers.

    As the LP moves to the centre/right Adams should have been in there hovering up its WC support base by taking on the LP head on. Instead he aimed at a section of the MC electorate, with the likes of Mary Lou at the fore. This strategy was always going to end in failure as people like me have been saying for some time, for the simply reason SF terrifies the MC who as I said above are never going to vote for it in any numbers.

    Once SF began to cut back on its socialistic program they were doomed even amongst those who could be its core support base.

  • George

    I don’t think bounce had anything to do with it. I’m with Mick Hall on this one. The only area open for Sinn Féin in the Republic is the one currently occupied by Labour, the Socialists, Greens and myriad of independents.

    They could earn anything from 10 to 20 seats there in the long run but I could never see them breaking out of that range as they won’t ever attract enough of the middle-class vote.

    The problem I see for Sinn Féin in the long run is that north of the border they have a growing number of middle-class voters to sate so will have to sit firmly in the centre on issues up there.

    How can they push a strong left-of-centre agenda to put clear water between themselves and Fianna Fáil in one jurisdiction while looking to be more like Fianna Fáil in the other one?

  • punter

    The point about 05 is that had they chosen another course, as Moloney paints, going into government, earning the credibility they were borrowing on this time around (remember, they still haven’t even been in government yet), and thereby avoiding the disasters of the Northern Bank and McCartney cover-up, perhaps their strategic gaining of southern seats would have occured and they would then be in a better position to obtain their ultimate goal.

    As it is, Moloney is arguing that because they over-reached themselves up north, dragging things out, that didn’t occur. So they ended up going into this election hobbled by their poor choices, and running a poor campaign didn’t help.

    So while Adams’ leadership is being questioned due to this failure, Moloney is arguing that one of the questions being asked will go deeper than the immediate surface issues with the recent campaign, and will be looking into the overall arc of the implementation of the Adamsite strategy. And the answers may not be favourable to the Adams leadership clique.

    Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

  • Adams’ leadership is only in question if you assume that the South is equally or more important to SF than the North. But remember, in thirty years of ‘armed struggle’ the South was only ever a giant quartermastering area used in support of the real action in the ‘theatre of war’.

    Politically, that’s how it has always panned out for the Shinners too given the vast differences in their support either side of the border. This was the election that might have changed that, but it didn’t.

    So, Adams’ brand might be tarnished in the South but he remains supremely popular among those he needs to remain popular among in the North; and in Republican areas of Belfast he continues to be a cross between a rockstar and a demigod. Unless you think the Shinners are willing to put 85% vote-shares in the New Lodge and New Barnsley at risk for a few votes in Cabra and Castleknock, Adams ain’t going nowhere, at least if Shinners have half the wit they’re said to.

  • Niall

    There’s definitely an element of “peace fatigue” in SF’s poor performance down south.

    In 2002 the GFA was still fresh in people’s minds and I think the North was on people’s radars a lot more than it is now. There was certainly more goodwill and leeway towards Adams and Co than there is now, which might have bolstered their performance along with the protest vote they acquired.

    I don’t think the party did itself any favours by dragging out decommissioning. SF had just entered in powersharing in the north a few weeks prior to the election but really didn’t have any practical results to show for it. If they had went in two years ago they could have demonstrated practical examples of why they should be trusted in government.

    While it’s true that all the smaller parties fared poorly, it was widely expected that the PDs would be demolished. Sinn Fein, on the other hand, were expected to clean up. The Greens remained static but came close (70 votes) to robbing another SF seat in Dublin. So blaming a squeeze on the smaller parties for SF’s poor performance overlooks the inherenet problems the party has in the Republic.

  • Sammy, very hard to argue with this:

    Unless you think the Shinners are willing to put 85% vote-shares in the New Lodge and New Barnsley at risk for a few votes in Cabra and Castleknock, Adams ain’t going nowhere.

  • páid

    Don’t forget lads that the terms middle-class and working-class mean diddleysquat in most parts of Ireland.
    That’s why Labour never got anywhere.

    Don’t copy them.

  • Gerry Lvs Castro

    Breaking into govt in a modern, capitalist democracy is an extremely tough ask, and now that the southern electorate have tasted real prosperity, they’re not about to throw it away. To put it more crudely, they’re going to go with the party most likely to feed their wallets.
    In this respect, SF are about 10 years too late in going for their ‘big breakthrough.’
    Realistically, it’s going to take either a major seachange in southern thinking or a collapse of the traditional left parties to give SF any chance.

    If only they’d hung onto all those weapons, they could have gone for an armed coup, giving everyone the opportunity to hail them as the rightful govt of Ireland. Damn.

  • IJP

    Frank‘s right.

    North in “not the centre of universe (or even the centre of Ireland)” shock!

  • CTN

    The most important factor in Dublin is that the shinners have lost 70% of their members since the elections in ’04.

    This trend is set to continue with the Eirigi campaigns group formed by Dublin SF’s leading lights now becoming an All Ireland political party.

    Adams diktat re the ecomonic policy change, his taking of the grassroots for granted re coalition and then those spectacular own goals in the media will make him much less popular in southern SF.

    I don’t know whether or not those died in the wool republicans would still come out and vote SF in the same numbers in New & Turf Lodge under a new leader but given the resentment at the british presence after so much collusion it is possible…

  • prolefodder

    Some of the SF loss has to do with the successful re-branding of FF as ‘The Republican Party’ – you can see how the latter has increased in font size of the last number of elections, a deliberate and typicvally ‘cute hoor’; tactical by Bertie, Biffo et al to bring Gerry and the boys home and strangle them in the long grass when it suits at election time. Adams was truly awful in the RTE debate between the leaders of Labour, Greens, PDs and SF – really showed how focused/trapped he (SF?) are on a ‘norn iron’/United Ireland agenda which simply has lost its traction in the South. Banding on about ‘equality’ and ‘rights’ may (still) have some resonance in the North, but the ‘Celtic Tiger’?! Come on Gerry – get with the programme!! Time for a make-over for the Shinners in the South methinks…

  • CTN

    Good post prole- the probs for the provies down south is that with their main marketable commodity Adams now somewhat of a liability together with the hype of the peace process dulling under the normality that has became the St Andrews assembly, instead of having a positive high profile platform to attract the electorate’s admiration they now have a mere 4 TDs- one vulnerable, one very vulnerable, a shrinking disillusioned membership, together with loser’s tag.

    Policy shifts re the economy will see more turbulence and resignations.

    The inevitable makeover itself will produce problems of its own, see the expose in the latest Phoenix mag re Adams’ interventions surrounding ecomonic policies….

  • Garibaldy

    The dragging out of decommissioning was essential to the growth of PSF in the south. As I’ve being saying for a while, to get elected in the south you need to be on TV, and guns on the Tv every night for years enabled PSF to punch well above their weight in those terms, and was exactly the reason that the process dragged on so long. The importance of the McCartney/Bank robbery episodes were that it made decomissioning and standing down essential, and made PSF exactly what it was in the south – a minor party with little to say.

    The 5 PSF TDs were a disaster and a joke in the Dail. They failed miserably to act as a coherent, effective group articulating an alternative vision of Irish society.

    The reason for this? PSF has never had such a vision beyond a united Ireland. Anyone who ever thought that the occasional socialist rhetoric – toned down remember when it suited – was anything more was deluding themselves. And more than that, many of those claiming to be socialists who gave any support to an organisation that not only murdered many workers for their religion but based its entire politics on communalism rather than uniting the workers don’t deserve the name and should be ashamed of themselves (see Eirigi for example).

    The motor of PSF growth in both the north and south has been the lower middle class. That vital section of society that can tip the balance one way or the other, and that is most populist. And in several rural areas some of their continue to vote for PSF – but in Dublin they have returned to FF.

    PSF and FF are both parties chasing the lower middle class. In the north, PSF has won that battle. It never stood a chance of doing so in the south.

  • CT

    Dublin is the most vital constituency for the shinners Gar- with their vote well down there the Adams juggernaut will jacknife if it does not recover.

    You mentioned Eirigi- their importance to the impending doom of SF in Dublin is not to be understated, more so in terms of leeching members rather than voters in the immediate term.

    It was actually FG that took the shinners out in DSW and headed them off in the 2 Donegal constituencies, Labour who are only 69 votes behind with the experienced Eric Byrne in Dublin SC- who will now be prioritised by Rabbitte- especially after O’Snodaigh (the sitting SF TD) has lost two of his most high profile candidates down to resignation and then it was FF in general who damaged the provies the most but the other two parties and the new Eirigi are also huge headaches for the grizz..

  • CTN

    apologies for the typo 3rd line from the bottom “candidates” should read councillors

  • Niall

    “The dragging out of decommissioning was essential to the growth of PSF in the south.”

    It’s true that SF got a disproportionate amount of publicity due to decommissioning, but ultimately this tactic backfired as the recent election has shown. The dragging out of the process tried people’s patience and squandered a lot of goodwill.

    When they did decommission the majority response was not ‘fair play to them’ but ‘why did it take them so long?’

  • CT

    “and the new Eirigi are also huge headaches for the grizz..”

    No come on CT…!! Virtually nobody has heard of these people. Their use of PO BOX Numbers says all that needs to be said about this self-proclaimed ‘campaign group’…

    If you are seriosuly insinuating that a single person in SF is losing even a minute’s sleep about them, then you are living in Disneyland…

    For Eirifi, read RSF, etc… etc…

  • Garibaldy

    Niall,

    Don’t think it backfired in so far as without it they would never have been able to have five TDs elected in the first place. I agree though that they got the timing wrong (2002 might have been the optimum time for announcing the standing down).

  • Garibaldy

    I agree with MacSwiney on Eirigi. From what I’ve seen on Indymedia, it looks a lot like it’s dominated a bunch of naive young people who might equally have ended up in things like the SWP. I think the fact that their first big push was handing out laminated copies of the Proclamation says a lot about their ability to address the issues that matter.

  • DK

    An eirigi’s other campaign was for a jailed real IRA man…. says it all.

  • Brian Descarttas

    To be honest I think people can take all these grandiose pronouncements after the fact with a pinch of salt..all these so-called journalists who are either working to a fairly clear agenda or are just trying to make a name for themselves telling us in hindsight that they know how to interpret the election results in such a way that it tells them exactly what’s going on in the minds of the public at large, I think it is risible nonsense. Barely a week before the election most of the media were telling us that FF were dead and buried because their opinion polls said so. Then on the monday they changed their minds because of another poll. I don’t recall anyone predicting that the PDs were going to be wiped out yet now they’re all geniuses with hindsight, they understand exactly what the irish electorate were trying to communicate through their voting patterns blah blah blah.

    My advice to everyone is to ignore all this. It’s complete horseshit. And as for the Shinners, if you think all the armchair republicans out there have officially hung up their pipes and slippers, I wouldn’t bet on it just yet.

    The simple unpalatable truth (in my humble opinion) is that, despite what many in the print and broadcast media may say, we are still quite backward and conservative, at least politically, ini this country. People still vote along civil war lines or if not, they vote the way their parents tell them to, which is nothing but 2nd generation civil war voting. If somebody tries to argue that this is not the case, just ask them to explain why it is that the idea of a centre coalition between the 2 main parties is never given consideration. Admittedly a lot of people vote with their wallets nowadays too but again, they are influenced by the kind of demented loony rhetoric that if we were ever to elect an alternative government, our economy would run aground overnight, which is nonsensical rubbish, spouted by hysterical fanatics who are harbouring generations-old prejudices which date back to…yes, you’ve guessed it, the civil war.

  • “The 5 PSF TDs were a disaster and a joke in the Dail. They failed miserably to act as a coherent, effective group articulating an alternative vision of Irish society.”

    Garibaldy

    I do not feel the five SF TDs were a joke nor a disaster, they were the type of solid, second rank politicians that can be found in all of the Party’s that sit in the Dail, and it should be remembered that the reason most became TD’s in the first place was because they worked away as SF Republicans in their home areas at a time when selling Republican News alone made the Garda Síochána believe they had a public duty to give any shiner a slap etc.

    The fact is as you correctly write the SF TDs ” failed miserably to act [in the Dail] as a coherent, effective group articulating an alternative vision of Irish society.” But this was only to be expected, taking into account their limitations as national politicians.

    In their defense the blame for this failure must lay with the SF leadership, as they had the means and manpower to send a support team to the Dail which could have advised and encouraged the SF TDs to work as a coherent group etc. That this did not occur is yet another thing SFs membership should include in their post election inquest.

    On the question of the necessity of being on TV if a small party is to win a seat, recent history proves this to be untrue. In the main the five SF TDs were first elected by carrying out hard constituency work prior to their election. This was especially true of the Dublin TD Crowe and indeed most of the Five. What has occurred in recent years is that Adams and M McG have been blinded and their ego massaged by the magic of the media.

    Thus Adams clique changed the Party’s strategy to a degree, for example by replacing as a candidate a hard working constituency activist with Mary Lou, who mainly relied on media coverage for her public profile. Which is about as clear an example of this mistake as one can get.

  • Garibaldy

    Mick Hall,

    I agree that hard work (or at least the illusion of it in many cases) is necessary to get elected, but without the media profile PSF would never had made the leap from local councillors to TDs. After all, the media blitz from the peace process began in 1993 or so, and built enormously from 1998 onwards. Lots of candidates work hard on the ground, but the leap to TD status involves profile, and the southern PSF candidates had it handed to them on a plate by developments in the north. Was one of the mistakes of the last campaign not using Gerry Adams all the time and neglecting the profile of the locals?

    As for articulating a vision of society, I don’t think this is the fault of the candidates, whatever their merits or deficiencies – PSF simply lacks such a vision. And I would say cannot produce such a vision due to the nature of the party itself – the only fundamental principle it has is a united Ireland, now allied to getting as good a deal as possible for Catholics in the north as possible.

    It is a populist party containing elements from across the left/right spectrum. Although the leftish element has occasionally achieved some influence, the core of the party and especially is interested only in achieving growth whatever it takes. Witness the outcry from the contributors here over the need to revamp economic policy. People like Eirigi can delude themselves that there is a mass groundswell of genuine left feeling in PSF that Adams has squashed that is now about to burst forth, but nothing in the history of PSF – especially in its northern heartlands – suggests otherwise.

  • Garibaldy

    It is clear from your last post that our differences are minor on this matter, it was just that whilst I believe it is true a bad workman should not blame her/his tools, when their employer has failed to train them in there use they have every right to complain.

    I am not sure the comrades within eirigi have any real confidence that a groundswell of left opinion still exists within SF, after all the lack of it was the main reason why some of them left that Party.

    Although much like I, they may live in hope as they understand the enormous sacrifices thousands of Provisional militants have made down the years; and to accept that it was all for nothing is more than many of us can take. I suppose the real question we Left Republicans need to ask ourselves is whether Irish Republicanism is far to blunt an instrument to complete a national revolution worthy of the name.

    Comradely regards.

  • CTN

    Hi macswiney, unfortunately for DSF the people who formed Eirigi were DSF’s hardest grafters- again I stress its not what Eirigi do, say, or stand for that is SF’s problem but that they are leeching those priceless grafters who carried the weight of DSF’s electoral growth through constant canvassing, demonstrations and campaigning etc.

    In a recent conversation I had with a DSF member they reckoned DSF is in big trouble and the ongoing resignations and defections to Eirigi are hurting it more than ever.

    Purely as an observer and a non-political activist, I don’t have a personal interest from the fall out and have no intention to mislead anyone about the nature of the threat from Eirigi to SF nationally or DSF locally.

  • lib2016

    Yez aren’t still arguing over this? A massive setback is followed by no well known resignations but instead a grim determination to do better next time.

    And next time may not be very far away if either the Mahon Tribunal manages to pin down FF or the mathematics comes apart in any of a dozen different ways. They’re seriously discussing relying on Beverley’s vote only she’s next door to being made bankrupt!

    Eirigi couldn’t move on from ‘chip on the shoulder’ politics and they don’t even have Joe Higgins as a glorious example of purity and faith any more. Tough shit!

    Personally I’m glad that the opportunity for government in the South didn’t happen yet as it is too soon in my opinion but desert the party and the leadership who brought us this far, farther than I would have thought possible only a decade ago? As the man said ‘Nevair! Nevair! Nevair!’

  • CTN

    Fair play, I like a man with optimism and spirit.

    I am here to speculate not argue, however it is more a case that a massive setback was pre-empted by resignations & as Eirigi share the same socialist republican platform as the shinners it makes them attractive to those disgruntled at grizzs’ latest flop.

    I dunno lib what with Ester Uzell doin well in Dublin SE and Mary Lou carrying a black eye into the Euro’s, I’d safely say the grizz & co are worried about holdin what they have in Dublin after the Crow flew from the Dail….