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?

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  • The Third Policeman

    Well I’m not one for political horiscopes and futuring, but I think the extent to which SF members are accepting the fact that the election was a failure is promising for the party. Its far better for them to get such a devestating blow at this level, and root out complacency now. If they had won, say 6 or 7 seats in the election they still wouldn’t have gotten into government but would have went into the next election in 5 years time with the same problems, perhapes magnified even more with the passing of time.

    Far better that the Arthur Morgans of the party should begin to talk now of clawing back by their fingernails. Noone does underestimated like Sinn Fein.

    In my opinion the best thing they could do now is bump Gerry upstairs, ceremonial President of the party sort of thing. He may have been hopeless on RTE but by and large people still like him. So keep him about but out of the way a bit. Have a southern leader and a northern leader. Yes its partitionist but so what? They’d still be an all-Ireland party, just one with a more realistic approach. You don’t beat cancer by ignoring it.

  • The first thing the SF leadership should do is stop falsely prattling on about their need to organize in Two States, As what Adams means by this is not that SF organizes in the RoI and UK, but in the north and south. Thus what he is doing is giving the mockney statelet it the north the same status as the ROI. Far from being a State the north is not even a democracy as most people in the RoI and the wider world understand the term.

    OK SF organizes in to two political jurisdictions, but then so do the Greens and a number of other party’s. It is no big deal, but to call the north a state is to give it a status it does not merit and in the process creates problems for SF in the south.

    We can see from the latest statements from SF leaders that they still intend to continue with their move to the centre-right. The real battle within SF in the coming period will be whether the SF left can see off the leadership and pull it into line.

    Of course the real problem in the recent southern election was not that Adams performed badly on TV, as bad as that was, but his refusal to stand for office in the RoI election, and his own and his clique willingness to change party policy on the hoof. Which all but pointed out to the electorate that they were not to be trusted as they did not even honour their own party program..

  • Frank Sinistra


    I agree with a lot of what you say.

    After some initially interesting contributions from the progressive left within SF, Justin Moran, Eoin O’Broin etc., their analysis seems to be settling on a centrist fix.

    Analysis of failings that focus on a managerialist economics/social issues, parish pump politics at constituency level and presentation don’t seem like fertile ground to me. FF/FG already battle it out on the managerial side and FF own the parish pump.

    A left focus capitalising on the failed growth of the broader left of LP and Greens could have given SF the space to become a dominant left voice in Irish politics. Ground that is wide open as the Greens cosy up to FF and the Labour party already damaged by links to FG also drift further to a centrist driven quick fix approach.

    But as they are essentially trapped in managerial politics in the north through the collective Executive it shouldn’t be a surprise that this approach drips through to southern analysis.

    Seems to be a case of seeking popular policies rather than seeking to make their own policies popular. Left wing politics are going to experience a prolonged ice-age the way things are going with the LP, Greens and SF but it will leave a clear field for any party willing to fill the gap.

  • The Dubliner

    “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.”

    So that rules out Irish unity by 2016. In 2017, 23 years after the PIRA ceasefire, PSF’s “republican strategy” will have advanced by no more than securing harmonised spiels from its own members. Some strategist there.

    His own poor TV performance is too simplistic an explanation for his party’s failure. People understood that it would be criminally irresponsible to give any degree of control to economic policies to a party whose leaders (and chief devisers of its economic policy) had no understanding to economics whatsoever. While Adams was obviously content to perform such surgery, sans all qualifications, and with no regard to the damage his party would do to Ireland, the public didn’t think that handing a scalpel to a lobotomised ape made good sense.

    The poor they sell out everything they claimed to stand for in their ambition for power for its own sake (the vanity of the powerseeker), the more the public will hold them in contempt. They are finished south of the border, but they can’t admit it north of the border without admitting that they led their supporters down a cu-de-sac where the only endgame is to help administer British rule in Her Majesty’s executive.

  • parcifal

    Republicans have bruised knees but it doesn’t stop us trying to get back off the floor and even if we can’t walk for a while, we can crawl.

    Dubliner the endgame you refer to is a cul-de-sac.
    But if you haven’t the vision to see a United Ireland in your life-time, don’t blame the rest of us for having a go.
    Easy to sit and sneer from the sidelines, Yes?

  • Turgon

    The Dubliner,
    “They are finished south of the border”
    I hope so but I will wait an election or two before celebrating.

    I have tended to regard you as a slighly less daft republican but can you not see that those mythical persuadable unionists are turned off from a united Ireland by SF probably more than by anything else (if they actually exist).

  • It was a very interesting account (did you say it was in the Irish Times, on Saturday?) of a party that is making a serious effort to come to terms with their disappointing result. Other parties seeking the SF vote should be worried by the pledge to start again from the bottom up.

    But my main concern is that any other party that might seek to organise in both jurisdictions will face the same issues. They need to be fully conversant with policy in each state, find unifying ideological factors in their policy outlook which can cover differences between the states while at the same time making valid policy proposals for each (e.g. health care) and have a leadership structure which provides equal credibility in both jurisdictions. Not easy, but not impossible either, so watch this space.

  • parcifal

    Turgon very kind of you,
    I’m actually a-mad-as-a-hatter republican, though I do take your point re: SF.

    As I said before: for the war, a draw.
    SF & DUP have created conditions where equality can flourish. But as to bringing down the peace walls, there’s another way, beyong the reach of SF. So I’m here to defend SF per se.

    However its what we got now in Office
    Its tiresome to slag em off, as its tiresome to slag off DUP.
    Most come here for to grind an axe.. which is as useless as the darkness into which they peer.

  • parcifal

    oops NOT here to defend SF per se.
    pays to hit the preview button

  • dublinsfsupporter

    The party needs to be installing a leader from the 26 counties while leaving the Deputy First Minister to be de fact leader in the six counties. Gerry Adams has been a good leader but the time is soon for a new leader from the 26 counties, who is a TD.

  • Mick Fealty


    “…any other party that might seek to organise in both jurisdictions will face the same issues.”

    I think this is true. But it is also possible that those parties considering a serious attempt at the same trick are in a position to learn directly from Sinn Fein’s mistakes. The question is: are Sinn Fein?

    For all manner of practical reasons, the Republican movement consolidated power in the northern command of the IRA in the early to mid eighties: a legacy that has translated unambiguously and directly into in the politics only era. However, in the context of the Republic’s recent election, this long established and profoundly asymmetrical arrangement came across as a northern tail wagging the southern dog.

    The northern party appears to have transformed itself into a non military concern largely at the behest of a strong, centralist leadership: a proposition that was popularly accepted on the basis of the ‘inevitability of unification’ argument (aka 2016). Such ‘promises’ were also popularly underwritten by a record of continuous election success over the past twenty odd years.

    It’s hard to see how, what is on the scale of the whole movement, a relatively minor setback like this will negatively affect the northern heartland. But if the party were to take a leaf out of the (admittedly much smaller) Green copy book, they might be considering more of a looser cross border federation, rather than persisting with the tighter centralist arrangements of the past.

    In which case each might be freer to find their own true valence within their respective polities, and to work strategically out of that reality rather than having to waste energy (and credibility) in upholding the polite fiction that the two parties are functionally one. Though I suspect this looser arrangement could cause more problems internally than the leadership considers it worth.

  • Garibaldy

    Mick F,

    I’m not so sure that a party can’t organise across the border, provided it has a clear vision of what it seeks to achieve in terms of how society should look. That vision gives a coherence that transcends borders.

    The problem for PSF is that it lacks just that vision. Its sole vision is power. Hence it tying itself in knots over things like taxation, and not just at the last election (e.g.corporation tax and privitisation over a number of years). Perhaps this is because they are chasing a middle class vote in the north as the medium to growth, and a left vote in the south to achieve the same. While they chase these two different constituencies the incoherence is inevitable.

    Mick Hall,

    The PSF left is an illusion. There are some isolated leftist activists – particularly in places like the international department – but where are these notionally large group of people when it comes to the power structures or public representatives? Perhaps Eoin O’Broin, but clearly he fails to carry weight with much of the membership, never mind the leadership, otherwise his magazine wouldn’t have been a disaster.

    Around 10 years ago lots of supporters of PSF at QUB were leftists. Where are they now? How left wing are they now? Perhaps Chris can help you with an answer.

  • Mick

    The trouble with a cross border federated structure is that you have to recognise the border, in other words in the case of SF face up to what is happening anyway in the party, as you describe. And also face up to the different political culture and choices that exist in each jurisdiction, and develop strategy accordingly.

    I need to think more about federated structures in general – the Greens’ arrangement appeals but I wonder how it works in practice. Smaller areas such as NI coudl be marginalised in larger debates.


    Agree a party can develop a clear vision that transcends borders – IMO it helps if it’s part of an international movement as are the Greens and Labour.

  • saveus

    Jesus Christ this is the most depressing piece I have read in relation to the need to modernise and restructure SF across Ireland

    “the formidable Belfast-based chair of the party in Northern Ireland, Declan Kearney”

    to me this clearly signals more of the same and indicates no intention to develop a radical, leftist revolutionary movement but rather a centrist tightly controlled reactionary organisation.My understanding is that this man is totally unpopular with nearly all non-military activists in Dublin and was central to the re-organisation of thast area two years ago which resulted in people like Justin Moran being sidelined and eventually ended up with the great election result we just had in the capital.

    This in itself bodes poorly for the organisation as the behaviour of the organisation requires as much change as the organisation itself, until this is recognised republicans should brace themselves for further setbacks. The sooner pseudo- intellectuals like kearney are consigned to history the better for the struggle

  • kensei

    SF need leadership that is simultaneously tight and loose. Loose, because they need to push forward different personalities and differing policies (often even if the underlying ideology is the same. conditions would result in differing policies) in the different jurisdictions. Tight, because without unified direction and a strong leadership, the drift towards effectively being two different parties is inevitable.

    That means local parties need to have more independence and that there are clear leaders within each jurisdiction. But they in turn have to be clearly lower down than the central leadership, which has to provide direction, be a bridge between the various parts of the part and be able to impose discipline.

    There are federalist structures that could achieve that, probably, but so could configurations far short of that. An organisational structure that looks like a bit like a corporation – after all designed to work cross borders – looks to me to be the most effective.

  • I’ve been following the debate in An Phoblacht over this as an outsider if you will (Though was delighted to see they published a letter from me) with a great deal of fascination. I can’t think of another party that would air their dirty laundry so to speak in as public a manner as this and for the future of the party, it bodes well. Whether it’s just the leadership allowing people to blow off steam is another thing, but for a weekly paper the debate has been going on for a long time.

    I disagree slightly with a suggestion in one of the posts that the analysis from the various contributors has moved to the centre. Only three of well over a dozen contributions backed the leadership or defended the party’s ludicrous shift to the right.

    Some were more vigorous in their attacks on the leadership strategy than others, but the overwhelming majority attacked it. I was a bit surprised to see Declan Kearney referred to as ‘formidable’. His article, strongly defending the leadership was a masterpiece in how to say nothing meaningful while using rhetorically revolutionary and faux intellectual language. The politics were pretty poor as well. At one point he claims that the party succeeded in Clare because it was politically strong there, but failed in Dublin because it wasn’t.

  • “For all manner of practical reasons, the Republican movement consolidated power in the northern command of the IRA in the early to mid eighties: a legacy that has translated unambiguously and directly into in the politics only era. However, in the context of the Republic’s recent election, this long established and profoundly asymmetrical arrangement came across as a northern tail wagging the southern dog.”

    Mick F
    In my view whilst there may have seemed to be practical reasons to move the leadership north, in reality this single act was the worst decision the PRM ever took as it played right into the UK States wish to portray the conflict as being internal to the north. This single act took out from underneath the Provos the all Ireland context of the conflict; and to this day as you write, they are rowing against the tide to regain it. [Booby Storey would be serving his movement far better if he had looked closely at just how this decision came about and who first suggested this change in the first place.]

    Declan Kearney is a very able and articulate man, but he is also Adam’s man, as was demonstrated when he was sent around the north when the PSNI kerfuffle erupted. His job is to keep the lid on and the membership in line.

    It is true the left within SF are not that powerful, but it is still a fact that the party program is progressive and on the left. Thus it is the leadership who will have to argue for change or if past practice is anything to go by use sleight of hand to change it. Also the whole raison d’etre of SF have been that of a radical party since the 1980s and that is how the majority of the membership like it.

    Thus I believe the very future of SF depends on its left gaining the upper hand in the debate over where to position the party. To achieve this they will need to defeat Adams party bureaucracy, not easy but doable.

    Adams weakness is he is unable to come out and say we should move to the centre, not least because the recent RoI general election showed clearly there is simply not any space on that ground for a new party to move onto.

    Interesting times ahead for SF; and unless the party membership positions it on the correct political ground, Dubliner may well have a point.

  • DC

    The farcical performance of Adams during the RTÉ debate was IMO key to it all.

    I’ll give you an example:

    Adams stated that he wanted to Patten-ise the Gardai.

    Okay, lets unpick this.

    Firstly, why would the Irish electorate want an implementation plan devised and led on by a former Tory (Governor of Hong Kong!!). Really please, mention Patten – think Tory colonial rule.

    Secondly, Sinn Fein in the North have played no key role in the Pattenising process, apart from working to displace political expression of violence towards any new police service.

    Thirdly, Patten is explicitly a northern policy directive with northern-based implementation proposals framed against the backdrop of ethnic-conflict. It’s Northern through and through.

    Fourthly, why the high-sky are Sinn Fein running about commending Patten to the Southern electorate for all of those above reasons?

    It’s like telling us all how to suck eggs. Very poor policy and poor performance.

    Finally, if Gerry Adams had ran in the South and bombed out, given the results it looks as though he would have, then should this have happened would it not have compromised his leadership position – to the point of resignation.

    Is there any chance that those such war veterans will piss off out of seemingly impenetrable positions and let in new republican blood to allow thought to ferment.

    As Mick says: “On the face of it, not a lot of opportunity for bottom up development there then?”

    The 90’s were a time of unionist disgruntlement over harsh realities, the early part of the 21st century is having the same effect on republicans, whose spin seems to have worn-out now that sugar coated concessions from both governments have disappeared along with the community violence.

  • CTN

    Some very good insight displayed by DC, Mickhall, FL, The Dub and saveus.

    Saveus- are you in the shinners?

    There is no doubt that this character Kearney is both an Adams man and a strategic buffoon.

    He can’t read the game and would be best served by moving aside, taking his dogma with him and handing over the reigns to someone less myopic.

    Unfortunately under the stewardship of the McGuinness/Adams autocracy this types of democratic progression is forbidden.

    The provos in Dublin may be currently under something of a “russian evolution” whereby an under fire Adams delegates power to some outside or bordering on his circle “Mensheveks” to appease the left flank and preserve party unity.

    This may not be suffice and could still result in DSF losing Mary Lou and a few less well known co-opted councillors in ’09;- meaning further personnel changes would have to take place with the McGuinness/Adams axis possibly having to give way earlier than they would have hoped to be replaced by more bolshy type shinners….

  • The Dubliner

    “But if you haven’t the vision to see a United Ireland in your life-time, don’t blame the rest of us for having a go.
    Easy to sit and sneer from the sidelines, Yes?” parcifal

    Hardly, as Adams himself pointed out: ‘Bertie got the bounce.’ Now why was that? It is because mainstream Irish republicanism – as opposed to dissident republican groups such as PSF – is the dynamic that will deliver a united Ireland by pluralism and by respect and accomodation with the other main tradition on this island. Adams, being a slow learner, only took a quarter century of organising the murder of members of the British/Unionist community before he and his fellow travellers figured that one out.

  • CTN

    Dub- It takes Adams to be woken out of it by Catholic Church leaders and subsequently tucked into bed by active republicans to know what time it is and even then he ends up destroyed by nobodies like Michael McDowell.

    He is an out and out dodo just like his pal McGuinness, their record speaks for itself….