Why Sinn Fein’s glass remains half-full

The Sinn Fein Ard Fheis is over for another year and the pundits have had their say on the state of the party, north and south. Some would appear to suggest the party is down and out whilst others detect indications that the party has made strategic shifts in its southern approach which could yield returns in the forthcoming Euro and local elections.
There are significant issues which the Sinn Fein leadership have to face up to as a matter of urgency in order to further the party’s political and electoral objectives in the short and medium term. Eoin O’Broin has made reference to shortcomings in the party’s approach and others- most notably a number of prominent Irish language activists– have vocally berated the party for failing to deliver forward movement on issues affecting that lobby in the Six Counties. I have also articulated on Slugger a fairly critical narrative of where the party finds itself in the North at this juncture.
But I can’t help but locate a strong whiff of wishful thinking in much of the doom-laden commentary on the position of Sinn Fein today across the country.I have always found it amusing to observe anti-republicans whip themselves into believing that Sinn Fein is finally facing its comeuppance, on the verge of being tossed to the electoral margins where no doubt they believe the party belongs. I like Kensei’s reference to “media creating reality” on an earlier thread because it fairly accurately depicts a lot of what passes for punditry regarding the position of Sinn Fein.

Let’s take stock for a moment. The party is the second largest in the Six Counties and, in spite of what I’ve labelled as a sluggish performance in the northern institutions to date, remains literally streets ahead of the SDLP in the battle for supremacy within northern nationalism. As Brian Walker quite perceptibly noted on an earlier thread, for all the pundit-led critiques of Gerry Adams’ interview performances, he retains the capacity to appear presidential and has no equal within northern nationalist politics in terms of stature, save for possibly Martin McGuinness. Incidentally, Adams’ poll ratings in the south are consistently good, suggesting that were the party to succeed in building a profile for an alternative leader in the South, then Adams would make a great groom to complement the poll ratings.

Those who would allege that he fails to convince the viewer of his mastery of policy areas should remember that only in the parallel universe inhabited by party hacks, psephologists and pundits is this really a major concern. Bertie Ahern grew a reputation as the stumbling, mumbling and somewhat shifty Northsider (ably assisted by Mario Rosenstock ) which did him no electoral harm and the former Commander in Chief of the world’s most powerful nation served two terms in spite of rarely appearing to have a mastery of language, never mind policy. What people do look for is a coterie of backroom staff to fill in the knowledge gaps for leaders, and it is in this regard that a fairer criticism of Sinn Fein (and most of the northern parties) could be labelled.

The electoral setback suffered by Sinn Fein in the 2005 Leinster House elections still saw the party retain four seats and just miss out on another couple in Donegal. Criticisms directed at the party’s failure to capitalise on disaffection with the government to date ignore the fact that Sinn Fein is a minor player in the South, and it would be foolish for the party- nor critics- to forget that the electoral and political spectrum it seeks to occupy is a crowded and fiercely contested plane which will restrict its potential for growth for the foreseeable future.

It is very rare that new political movements emerge to claim a permanent place on the electorally significant spectrum in any state given that such an occurrence is usually an indictment of the failure of the existing party’s to fill the gap. At various times in the State’s history Clann na Poblachta, Clann na Talmhan,the Workers Party/ Democratic Left and the Progressive Democrats did so, but each was eventually swallowed up by the others or withered on the political vine. The almost unparalleled electoral success of Fianna Fail in a western European context owes a lot to the party’s capacity to adapt policies and maintain its populist appeal, greatly assisted by its historical roots in the republican tradition.

That Sinn Fein appears to have established firm electoral roots in the state (now standing as the fourth largest party in the state) is a considerable achievement for the party not least because Sinn Fein as a parliament-oriented political movement remains a work in progress, all of which augurs well for the party’s potential ability to further develop its appeal as it addresses the shortcomings in its political/ legislative approach to date, both north and south.

The party needs to show signs of a Capital recovery in this year’s local and European election, though I would not agree with pundits who suggest a failure to retain the Dublin Euro seat would be a disaster for the party. In one sense, the elevation of Mary Lou McDonald internally to the Vice President position suggests that the party leadership is acutely aware of the necessity of developing a Dail leadership which can break into the mainstream political conversation in the State and articulate signature party policies in a manner that can grow the party’s appeal beyond its electoral base and begin to bring the type of electoral advances that can further elevate the party’s stature across the state.

McDonald’s stunning success in claiming a seat for the party in 2004 did not ultimately land her a Dail seat, which suggests that the demands of the position do not necessarily assist her in seeking to develop a profile in a local urban constituency. Ironically, a decent electoral showing for McDonald which falls short of retaining the seat would leave her with a couple of years to develop a strong political and electoral base in the target Dail constituency, availing of media opportunities as the party’s Vice President (and likely developing de facto ‘leader’ in the South) to build a profile.
In this regard, the party’s panel of European candidates suggests it realises the direction that must be taken at this juncture to unlock the party’s potential. Across the state’s four constituencies it has selected young and articulate candidates with a clear eye to developing their personal and party profiles ahead of the next Dail elections.

Republican leaders are often credited (rightly or wrongly) with an ability to plan for the long-term. As the numbers stack up for a Fine Gael/ Labour coalition, Sinn Fein would do worse than to begin planning for the onset of a Fianna Fail/ Sinn Fein coalition in 2017. By my reckoning, Conor Murphy, Pearse Doherty and Mary Lou McDonald will by that stage be the front line face of a National Sinn Fein firmly embedded in the body politic of the country, north and south (calm down, I’ve pulled those names out just to paint a picture…)

  • Mark McGregor

    party hacks, psephologists

    Come on Chris, you couldn’t have described us any better during an extended period and by god didn’t it get that job done. ;0)

  • DC

    All very well but it still took over 150 days to settle on a form of words over a future date to devolve policing.

    Can’t imagine people in the republic will find much in that to admire. Real politics in real time? Hardly, but some nice contrived grievances.

  • Quagmire

    SF are strong in the north and growing with every election. In the south they are on 9% – 10% which is decent enough considering the Greens are on about 4% which is enough to see them in Government. I believe that the last election was one to soon for the shinners but I have no doubt that with the passage of time they will continue to grow and become less transfer repellent for a younger electorate who don’t have the same emotional attachment to FF and FG. The shinners are in this for the long haul, like it or not, and they are now establishing the foundations for long term, All-Ireland political success.

  • joeCanuck

    Who was it that said it was a waste of time making predictions, especially about the future?

  • Danny

    “Sinn Fein[sic]”

    I find it funny (and somewhat pathetic) that this blogger is unable/unwilling to spell the name of the party in question correctly.

    Sinn Féin….my thoroughly anglicised friend. Sinn FÉIN.

  • George

    Incidentally, Adams’ poll ratings in the south are consistently good, suggesting that were the party to succeed in building a profile for an alternative leader in the South, then Adams would make a great groom to complement the poll ratings.

    No they are not, I really don’t know where you get that idea from.

    In last November’s TNS mrbi poll Adams saw his satisfaction rating plummet 12 points to 33% and this month it dropped further to 32%, touching his lowest ever satisfaction rating.

    Adams touched a mighty 60% a few years back.

    There has been a serious disconnect between Adams and southern voters and I see no way back for him.

    McDonald, to her credit, has established a resonance of her own and Adams if anything will drag her down, not complement her.

  • picador

    Fianna Fail/ Sinn Fein coalition in 2017

    Sure we’ll be living in a united Ireland utopia by then. The water will be sweet and clean. Cellulite and beer-bellies will have been consigned to history and everybody will be having great sex.

    Anyhow, I though Fianna Fáil were finished. What about this great re-alignment of Irish politics that’s going to take place?

  • kensei

    picador

    Anyhow, I though Fianna Fáil were finished. What about this great re-alignment of Irish politics that’s going to take place?

    Rule 1. Never proclaim a political party dead until they’ve disbanded and even then act cautiously

    Rule 2. Stakes do for vampires. Silver bullets kill werewolves. A bucket of water will melt a witch. There is no known permanent antidote to Fianna Fáil.

  • Dave

    I agree with George’s prognosis.

    In addition, if you read how SF hacks judge their success, it is all entirely self-serving in that it reflects only on gains for SF but does not measure that success by what the party has achieved for those it purports to serve.

  • picador

    kensei,

    I don’t seriously think that Fianna Fáil are finished. If things are going to get as rough as people say I can’t see people forgiving them for a long, long time. That’s all.

  • borderline

    Well anybody who isn’t FF is on the up south of the border so I wouldn’t get too excited just yet.

    What I have noticed though is that the Shinners candidates for local elections are of a steadily increasing calibre. Younger, female, and less egotistic. They espouse the upcoming values of tomorrow’s Ireland: personal honesty, accountability, fairness.

    If they can remember that Irish people at heart are nationalists, not republicans, are pro-Europe and not keen on immigration, are conservative on moral issues and suspicious of socialism, they might do very well.

    With half of FF TDs destined to lose a general election if it were called tomorrow, one won’t be called tomorrow.

    But the local elections are looming. And that is where SF can replace FF.

    They need to have more cumainn, more members and more councillors. FF cumainn are old, tired, disenfranchised and disillusioned. A typical FF meeting looks like a UUP one with less neckties but more farting.

    They are there for the taking.

  • Ógra FF remains easily the largest political youth organisation on the island. FF possesses an electoral machine that wiped the floor with all comers at the last election. Now clearly FF are in deep trouble at the minute, but I suspect strongly that as with the DUP and PSF in the past, people who intend to vote for them would not admit it to pollsters at the minute.

    PSF need an electoral alliance to push their number of seats up significantly. I can’t see Labour agreeing to that for precisely those reasons. Maybe the election after next, though things may change.

    As for Chris’ post, interesting that in his eyes the ultimate goal remains an alliance for government with FF. I hope anyway who takes the left rhetoric seriously is reading that.

  • Seymour Major

    I have read most (but admittedly not all) of the comments on the previous 3 threads discussing Sinn Féin and I think it is fair to say that there has been little debate on the Party’s future position in the North.

    The starting point for analysis is undoubtedly the elections in March 2007 but making comments like “growing with every election” is selective propaganda. The Assembly elections were nearly two years ago. It really does not help to try and get a handle of where it really is because so much water has passed under the bridge since then. If we had opinion polls, that would certainly help, but we dont.

    I dont believe that what is going on in the 26 counties is likely to have any bearing on matters here for some time, except to the extent that some politicians may wish to highlight some of their stated policy positions in the South

    The most significant events since the 2007 elections are
    (1) The long executive meeting boycott
    (2) The negotiations which ended the boycott yielding no concessions to advance Sinn Féin’s position.
    (3) the ending of the eleven plus without anything to replace it and no temporary revival of it pending further negotiation.

    How do we know that any of the above 3 events have not damaged Sinn Féin? We dont. However,

    (a) in relation to event No. 1, is in not correct that Sinn Féin must have perceived that they were being damaged by it, otherwise they would not have ended it without significant concessions?

    (b) In relation to event No. 3, with Parents of P6 children likely to be directly affected by some chaos on the ground, is this not likely to be a continuous source of damage to their position?

    Alternatively,

    (c) Do Sinn Sinn Féin supporters think that their party “walks on water”?

    (d) Do they believe that no matter how badly their party performs in office, they can continue their electoral advance unchecked?

    Answers on a comment please

  • cynic

    Ah Chris, so we have moved on from a United Ireland by 2016 to SF in a power sharing coalition in The Republic by 2017.

    By that stage most of the current leadership will be off fishing, playing with grandchildren or watching Countdown in their armchairs every day. Perhaps no bad thing.

  • fair_deal

    “I can’t help but locate a strong whiff of wishful thinking in much of the doom-laden commentary on the position of Sinn Fein today across the country.”

    Indeed, the polls, mood or decisions may not be going SF’s way but only when there is a vote drops can the problems be said to be real and not among the commentariat.

    The last RoI election wasn’t a decline but standstill result. However it looked worse because of the big predictions SF made. The vagaries of PR also played something of a role as SF are often last seat battlers the PR cookie didn’t crumble their way as much the second time out (see it just doesn’t happen to Diane Dodds 😉 )

  • Scaramoosh

    “Criticisms directed at the party’s failure to capitalise on disaffection with the government to date ignore the fact that Sinn Fein is a minor player in the South, and it would be foolish for the party- nor critics- to forget that the electoral and political spectrum it seeks to occupy is a crowded and fiercely contested plane which will restrict its potential for growth for the foreseeable future.”

    What sort of self-defeating marketing strategy is this – to seek out a crowded plane, that will restrict its potential for growth for the foreseeable future.

    I would have thought that in order to achieve said growth, they would need to differentiate themselves, and to present themselves as a unique propostion vis a vis the problems that are currently impacting the country.

    Your thesis underlines my own assumption, that this is a party that is strangled by historical baggage, such that it does not know where it actually fits on the political spectrum; never mind, where it wants to fit.

    A new dispensation requires new thinking, and the offloading of all baggage. New faces alone will not do it.

  • It was Sammy Mc Nally what done it

    Chris,

    This is the 4th thread on more-or-less-the-same-topic – admittedly the other 3 were ‘half empties’.

    I’m more of a half full man myself – but the arguments are exactly the same.

    Repetition, Repetition, Repetition, Repetition.

  • borderline

    Ógra FF is indeed a large organization and a wide one but there is no depth to it.

    This is because, like FF, Ógra FF doesn’t stand for anything. Except perhaps ‘a better Ireland’, whatever the fuck that is.

    Folk join it at college because it is a social networking organisation. Get to know Johnny, he’s on Timmy’s staff, they say he might stand himself some day, you never know, his dad’s a developer blah blah fucking blah.

    No depth. There for the taking.

  • veritas

    garibaldy who are PSF?

    Again why all the references to the past? Are you and your buddies in the Workers Party referred to as the Republican clubs? No they aren`t neither are they referred to as the Officials even if the Official IRA are still a fully armed terrorist grouping!

    Shouldn`t all armed thugs disarm, shouldn`t all drug dealing thugs face justice and this applies to the workers part/official ira/group b thugs!

    You sound as sad, demented and as bitter as that sad Protestant bigot who pollutes this site.

    Garibaldy do the Official ira/group b exist?

  • Earnan

    At one point in the history of the 26 counties a party called Sinn Fein held every seat in the Dail.

    This “Sinn Fein” resembles that Sinn Fein about as much as the Republican Party of today resmebles Lincolns party

  • latcheeco

    Chris,
    Did you really cite George W. as evidence of how everything could turn out grand? 🙂
    All the mystics are reminiscent of a talk given by the stoops and onionists at QUBSU in the early nineties after WB fell to Hendron. It was courageously entitled “The decline and further decline of SF.” No doubt they’re still waiting anxiously.
    All the same, the ball does seem, if not to have completely burst, at least to be losing air.