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…)

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