Sinn Fein seems well under way with its latest round of town hall meetings. These meetings have attracted a considerable amount of derision in the past. In this mutli media age the idea of a meeting in a provincial town does seem quaint and indeed slightly foolish. In addition from an organisation like Sinn Fein which seems to brook no internal dissent the idea of meetings seems silly. The presumption is that they will be completely stage managed and indeed pointless.I would submit, however, that these meetings are extremely useful and may well be quite important in driving the republican movement forwards. An organisation like SF which is still as much a movement as a political party may well find these events extremely useful. It allows the grass roots to feel that they are still influencing the direction of travel of the organisation. It also allows the leadership, who will still retain very considerable control of the meetings, to imply that they are listening to the concerns of those not in positions of influence within the organisation. The meetings may, in reality, have some genuine effect in telling the SF leadership where their supporters feel they are and where indeed they should be going. SF, I am sure, remember that the SDLP grew out of the civil rights movement and has now become in no way a movement but instead the at times rather marginalised South Down and Londonderry Party. That is a fate I am sure Adams, McGuinness and the others are very aware of and determined to ensure will not befall the republican movement.
The republican grass roots may well be a little unsure of the way ahead now. I am sure the chuckle coalition caused some raised eyebrows in their ranks but the apoplectic rage it cause amongst many unionists may well have made them feel that it could not all be bad and indicated that they were indeed doing “alright” in spite of a lack of progress on most republican touchstone issues. In the new regime with a much less friendly attitude from Robinson, seemingly popular with many DUPers, and still little progress on their issues, the republican grass roots may be a little unsure. As such, town hall meetings may well help reassure and indeed may be a useful way to pick up some inkling of how their people are thinking.
The other interesting question which these town hall meeting raises is are they related to preparing the ground for another major event such as an end to the Army Council but that is another topic for another day.