Towards a politics that bears scansion across borders?

Mark Hennessey had a fascinating piece on the ruminations, within Sinn Fein and without, on the party’s failure to move forward in last election. Past experience would seem to bear Gerry Adams out when he says that “anyone who is trying to write off Sinn Féin in the South, or on the island, is making a very, very big mistake.” That said, there is much for the party to worry about if it is to make its all island aspiration more than just another idle exercise in futuring.Interestingly, criticism of the party leader still rumbles on:

During two much-criticised RTÉ television appearances, Adams seemed out of touch with opinion in the Republic, and poorly informed on the economy.

“We don’t need to be overly defensive about Adams,” says Louth TD Arthur Morgan, in his Williamson’s Place constituency office in Dundalk. “Adams is big enough to take criticism, and he has been criticised, as I am sure you have seen, by party members. That is fine, too. We dust ourselves down. We learn the lessons and we improve.”

However, the damage done by Adams was serious, even if he himself believes that the debate with Pat Rabbitte, Michael McDowell and Trevor Sargent was not as significant as others argue.

Instead, Adams believes that Bertie Ahern was the one to gain from the euphoria surrounding the Sinn Féin/Democratic Unionist Party deal, rather than Sinn Féin. “There was a bounce out of the peace process, but Bertie got it. It was quite clear: the Westminster address, the Battle of the Boyne ceremony, engaging with Ian Paisley, the Stormont opening,” the party’s president says by telephone from the US.

BUT THAT HAD not been the case early in the campaign. Labour became concerned when, in polling after the Stormont deal, Adams’s ratings with voters soared. “It was incredible,” says one senior Labour strategist. “In working-class areas, people were saying that Adams was different to everyone else. In middle-class areas, the voters had lost the language they had to criticise Sinn Féin.” But, following the TV displays, the voters’ mood changed: “For the first time, Sinn Féin went to doors only to find that voters were saying, ‘janey, your man let you down’.”

Though the programme had 560,000 viewers, its “viral damage” spread wider. “People went into pubs and heard that Adams had done badly. That creates its own reality,” the Labour strategist concludes. For some, Adams’s performance in the four-way debate, and subsequently on RTÉ’s Six One, crystallised for them the view that Sinn Féin is still a Northern-dominated party.

AndMorgan has some interesting thoughts:

Arthur Morgan expresses publicly the feeling shared more quietly by many others in the party: that Sinn Féin, on the back of a succession of victories, had become cocky. “I am wondering if there was an element of complacency in the organisation given that we have won a good election after a good election after a good election for literally decades now,” he says. “I think we need to address that. We are not going to bounce back. We are going to claw our way back by our fingernails, inch by inch politically, right across this State.”

More intriguingly and to the point of the party’s real dilemma. How, as a single party operating in two separate states, do you draw them together when: national and external pressures are constantly forcing them to diversify; and you are operating in a shared polity, with a (potentially, at least) powerful partner who wants to steer the boat in the opposite direction. However in one respect, Sinn Fein was much slower than the DUP to adopt an all island policy: a single rating for Corporation Tax.

On the policy front, Sinn Féin’s message to the electorate was confused, with late changes to its corporation-tax policy dropping previous proposals that the tax should increase from 12.5 percent to 17.5 per cent. Though Adams argues now that he had been pushing for a change for “20 months”, he still called for the higher rate in his February 2006 ardfheis speech, while Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin was still pushing the message last November.

The plan to impose a 50 per cent tax rate on all income earned above €100,000 went the same way, though Sinn Féin, unlike Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour, told voters that they would not cut taxes. The changes, though the detail may have passed voters by, sent out a message that Sinn Féin was trimming its sails to get into government – an uncomfortable message for some southern rank-and-file members.

In any event, Sinn Féin’s tax and economic message did not satisfy the political zeitgeist – one in which voters want better public services, but are not prepared to pay more for them.

As mentioned before on Slugger, the questions arising are far from trivial, particularly if you believe that policy detail is important, if not to the mass of the populus, then to those intermediaries within the media and other institutions whose remit is to examine the political seriousness of any given party by its application to detail, and who in turn help shape the general public perception.

However the party’s strategy seems less focused on address policy gaps enforced by political realities of partition than rolling out a new party system:

FOR NOW, SINN Féin intends to regroup in the Republic, and implement the reorganisation drawn up last year by the formidable Belfast-based chair of the party in Northern Ireland, Declan Kearney. Under the original plan, the reorganisation should have been enforced before the election, but was put off as the party struggled to cope with the workload caused by the Northern talks. “That’s kicking in now. That is being rolled out now. It will seek, in a systematic, almost forensic way, to build the party strategically, ward by ward, parish by parish,” says Adams.

No one should doubt the determination of Sinn Fein to gain political success in the south as they have in Northern Ireland. But they will have to do it without the fair wind of the peace process that once blew so strongly at their back. Indeed, if there has been a widespread complacency within the movement it may have much to do with the strength of that positive media wind. As we reported in the footnotes of A Long Peace back in May 2003, the party was inclined to perform expedient flip flops, confident that no one would notice:

Mitchel McLaughlin before the census: ‘I believe that the census will confirm the pro-union population is shrinking to the extent that for the first time it will represent less than 50%. It is understandable that unionists are nervous and unsure about the future given the demographic trend will not prevent it.’ And after: ‘I don’t know of anyone who was arguing that these census figures would actually provide the evidence that constitutional change was about to happen tomorrow.’ ‘Protestants Drop Below 50%, Sinn Fein claim’, Chris Thornton, Belfast Telegraph, 16 December 2002 and Mitchel McLaughlin, UTV News, 19 December 2002.

Had that same somersault been performed in front of a southern media audience, he might not have fared so well. Few official commentators have come as close as party activist and blogger Chris Gaskin at Balrog in stating the problem openly and honestly as it stands. As he puts it, ‘fur coat and no knickers’ may do it in the north where incumbency is more or less guaranteed for the next one and possibly two election cycles. In the south it just won’t cut it.

After following a peace strategy formulated in the midst of a nasty low level war, Adams’ wartime cabinet needs to take some time out to strategise for the more unpredictable (and possibly unpalatable) needs of a genuinely long term peace. Something that will require a lot more than a little bit of tinkering here and there.

The party will need continue to think big and to act small. It cannot credibly jettison its all island ambitions, but it needs to develop approaches to politics that bear scansion across the border. To do that, it also needs to stand for something more than constitutional issue, and in a space that has not already been snatched by one or other of its southern competitors.

In this age of internet/satellite/cable consumers of Irish politics know no borders. Accordingly, in the last southern election, the party’s trans-border contradictions were on show like never before.

At the very least, whatever solution the party patches for future use, it should seek to give their representatives the freedom (and the confidence) to speak to a self evident party strategy, and engage all the necessary audiences north and south, unionists and nationalists, without the sense that they are also saying something else to a secondary audience. Or, worse, that everything they do say is subject to sudden changes arbitrarily imposed from the leadership downwards.

Adds: It’s a contradiction that doesn’t seem to have gone away. Adams again:

“What we are trying to do is quite unprecedented, which is to build electoral support in both states. There are two different realities and they have been for some time. We have a southern leadership, or we have a southern dimension to our national leadership. We have to build their public profile,” he said.

“One of the things that we will be rolling out within the party, which was in line before the election, is a five to 10 year plan which we will put together in the summer, and into the autumn,” he added.

The plan would place “everyone on the same hymn sheet over the next five, to 10 years”, said Mr Adams, speaking by telephone during a visit to the US.

On the face of it, not a lot of opportunity for bottom up development there then?

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty