Sinn Fein’s intractable two nation problem…

There is no easy way in Ireland to guage the effect of a party conferences on public opinion. For small parties like Sinn Fein, which rarely get a chance to break past the bigger beasts who take the full attention of big media, such effects are critical. The focus of the party’s Ard Fheis (live blogged here), we were told, would certainly be on the future, and on the south. But amongst the big ticket performers Northern Ireland and the DUP featured front and centre. According to Mark Hennessey, this opportunity to pitch to a southern audience eager for change fell substantially short of the mark, not least because:

…the details that came were patchy and failed to convince, and certainly failed to differentiate the party from the clutter of noise amongst the Opposition.

The party has two problems. One they are always happy to speak about (Partition), but usually in terms of it being Someone else’s problem. The other they are much more cautious about, not least because it implies a generational shift in the leadership of the party is necessary; what character of leadership will win success on two sides of the border.

Having exploited the split polity of the island for many years often by playing one set of publics off the other, Sinn Fein is now failing to translate the strength of its power north of the border into something intelligable and compelling for audiences in the Republic. It’s a big ask. Short of the Ba’ath party in the middle east there is little evidence that it has been done elsewhere.

Although the IRA has decommissioned its weapons, the political narrative that once sustained it – ie that the partition of the island was imposed externally and would have to be dismantled through external negotiation primarily with the British government in London – still delimits the orthodoxy of mainstream party thinking.

The Belfast Agreement effectively ‘Ulsterised’ the problem of partition. As Paul Arthur argued in Special Relationships (back in 2000), the party officially accepted that the question of unification has shifted from an exogenous to an endogenous one. In other words, partition is now Northern Irish nationalism’s problem alone. It alone must come up with the road map and put it into practice.

Then there is the disconsonance between the Northern Irish leadership, and its southern ambitions. In 2007 Adams was played as what the party clearly believed to be a trumph card. The result was sobering.

By far the most compelling speech on the subject came from a young Donegal councillor called Padraig MacLochlainn. A parliamentary candidate last time out, MacLochlainn’s instinct is to turn an ideological bent into a pratical (and local) manifesto:

I live in the Inishowen peninsula right on the border. I have seen the negative and debilitating impact of partition at first hand. I have seen cancer patients travelling hundreds of miles when they could have had those services on their doorstep. I have seen investment agencies compete rather than cooperate and ultimately fail us on either side of the border. I have seen our services taken away and economic prosperity pass us by again and again. Partition has been a profound injustice to the people of the border counties but it has also failed all the people of this island.

That is as succinct and eloquent a description of the way in which one Irish county above all others has been penalised by the nearly 90 year old border. But it is a measure of the party’s overall problems that his own party’s minister for Regional Development, Conor Murphy, was compelled, in the same week as the party’s Ard Fheis to refuse to support for a cross border ferry serving Padraig’s own Inishowen, “because it conveys vehicles from one jurisdiction to another“.

Such conflict of interest in a single political party is underscored by a generational gap between the two men. Murphy is an old northern IRA man; MacLochlainn is part of what Irish economist David McWilliams calls the Pope’s Children generation; Ireland’s much later version (those born in the 70s as opposed to the 50s and 60s) of the baby boomers.

The new generation’s preoccupations are primarily economic and social and concerned with the future. They are much less likely to be engaged with the beggar-thy-neighbour exigencies of the past that drive unionist as well as nationalist politics north of the border. MacLochlainn is a good match for that generation, but his party’s leadership hails from another era, and a very different place.

Gerry Adams has been party President for coming up to 23 years, ever since he masterminded a bloodless coup by a group of northerners against the previous southern leadership. Under his leadership Sinn Fein has moved from absentionism to a ballot box and Armalite strategy and finally through the Peace Process years to electoral success in Northern Ireland.

Having elevated their one MEP in the Republic, Mary Lou McDonald to the role of party Vice President (the previous incumbent held the post for 20 years), they will hope she can pull off the seemingly impossible and win in a Dublin constituency that has lost one of its seats. Recent polls suggest the party’s support is stagnating in the south; even as voter confidence in the government parties is flat lining.

That the party was stranded in the posh southern suburbs of Dublin whilst 100,000 citizens took to the streets to protest the Irish government’s proposed pensions levy may have been sheer bad luck. But the impression given is of a party’s whose political instincts are becoming marginal to the concerns of the majority of those in the south they seek to represent.

In truth the party of rebellion is now a party of government. It is a reality that seems to trouble the party far more than its inveterate Unionist enemies in Stormont. And one that the party’s President Gerry Adams seems either unwilling or unable to confront. But until and unless he or his successor does; the party seem set to continue largely like a fiercer version of the SDLP. And as a northern party only.

Adds: You can see the problem illustrated in this interview with Gerry Adams on RTE at the weekend…

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