Many people who know a great deal more about Sinn Fein than myself have commented on the Ard Fheis and such like. I thought I would try to have a look at their Northern election campaign and what I think they should do.
European elections in Northern Ireland were traditionally dominated by the fight between John Hume and Ian Paisley. As such, for SF they were never that huge an issue. Of course that changed at the last European election when they were always going to supplant the SDLP as the leading voice of nationalism / republicanism. Since they clearly were going to win they were able in Bairbre de Brún to run an only average candidate whom they needed to kick upstairs after her poor performance as health minister.
Of course this time round the position has changed a little for SF; because of the intervention of the TUV there is a chance of SF gaining the most first preference votes. In addition, however, there are some concerns regarding loss of support or at least failure to advance. This danger exists on two fronts: firstly some of the middle classes who have started or might consider starting to vote SF (for whom de Brún’s apparently non paramilitary appearance may be a help) may be put off by the Ruane education debacle. Secondly SF may loose some hard line support due to perceived failures to adequately advance the all Ireland cause. This latter loss of support may be over estimated but I do suspect it is a real problem especially in the dreary steeples of Fermanagh though thankfully for SF there are relatively few people out here (though some inhabitants of our graveyards do helpfully continue to vote).
The question then is how should SF run its campaign in order to maximise their support?
The first thing which needs to be done is distract attention away from SF’s problems and look at its successes. That is actually relatively straight forward. Gerry Adams’s interview on Hearts and Minds has been poured over in great detail on other blogs; the only part I will allude to is that he was pursing the suggestion that the DUP have moved a long way from being a party set up (according to Adams) to oppose power sharing and which Adams was congratulating for having moved so far. That sort of line is quite effective as it will undoubtedly antagonise the DUP and also probably strike a chord with SF voters. Furthermore his using quotations from the Hunger Strikers is also of course useful, such comments are always a good way of reminding people of where SF came from and suggesting that they have not forgotten their roots is a useful exercise if SF fear some slippage amongst their traditional supporters.
Adams was also fairly effective in suggesting that policing and justice would be devolved soon (helped of course by Shaun Woodward bringing forward the necessary legislation). His dismissal of the DUP veto may not cut much ice with DUP supporters but it helps imply to his own supporters (and any unionists unconvinced regarding the DUP’s trustworthiness) that behind the scenes a deal has been done. The suggestion that Gregory Campbell cannot block an Irish language act forever is in the same category. Clearly the DUP can dismiss all this but I got the impression that Adams was implying that in the future SF might take the culture ministry and try to achieve some of their agenda.
The strategy of harking back to the supposedly glorious past of the hunger strikers et al. and highlighting the way in which the DUP position has moved is, I suggest, the correct strategy for SF. SF has always known how to play the long game and few are better at it than Adams. Connecting the supposed triumphs of the past with implied confidence of future successes is, I would submit, a good idea. It takes supporters focus off the realities of the current lack of substantial progress and also diverts attention away from the relatively poor showing of SF members in Stormont.
Under the Trimble leadership of unionism when a weak ineffectual unionist leader with poor negotiating skills and the naïve idiot (Tony Blair) both gave SF far more than might be expected. SF now need to stress that few of the successes gained by them then have actually been rolled back and imply that soon a further push will be possible gaining yet further successes. Implying but not stating what these successes will be it allows supporters to create whatever fantasies they choose and allows SF to proclaim any forward movement as exactly what they had predicted would happen. SF did get over excited during Trimble and Blair’s time as things came so easily; hence, the nonsense about unity in 2016. They now need to suggest that although the train has slowed on its progress towards a united Ireland, this is only temporary and it will pick up speed presently. The tide of history is with us would be the sort of helpful slogan one might employ. When the DUP inevitably point to a lack of recent progress the tactic is simply a knowing smile and an explanation that soon concessions will restart.
It is difficult to completely gloss over the current situation at Stormont: as such, much should be made of Conor Murphy as well as Martin McGuinness since Murphy has been a bit less useless than Gildernew who has in turn (until the farm grants disaster) been much less useless than Ruane (that said Ruane makes the Maginot line look like one of the best defensive ploys of the Second World War). Having Murphy (and McGuinness) standing at various road improvements would be a good idea, especially ones with some cross border relevance like the A5. SF need to suggest competence in the current executive and Murphy is a bit more convincing than Gildernew. It goes without saying of course that keeping Ruane away from cameras is an important consideration.
Of course another useful tactic would be to indulge in a bit of worship of the past. Resurrecting the memory of the past is also an important part of what I would propose at the moment. This is important in creating the idea of a continuity of history with of course SF on the winning side.
One might regard these suggestions as negative and backwards looking and I would agree with such a criticism. However, I would suggest that in light of recent set backs a degree of retrenchment in Northern Ireland is necessary. Somewhat more positive proposals in the RoI may have some positive effect in the north. I would suggest, however, that SF may have to bide its time a little in terms of increasing its support in Northern Ireland. The apparent complete incompetence of the SDLP and the seeming failure of their attempted union with Fianna Fail gives SF a while longer to complete the destruction of the SDLP. As such gaining increasing middle class support although important is something which whilst it should not be ignored is a lesser issue this time around than insuring no slippage in the core vote.
The greatest long term danger for SF is of course disaffection amongst their core hard line support and a good campaign to minimise any increase in the grumpy garden centre Taig vote is vital: the middle classes can be collected later, preferably after Ruane has been disposed of and maybe even after Gerry and Martin have left the stage: then shiny leaders with less whiff of cordite may be able to attract these middle classes with enduring scruples for voting for a party lead by a former IRA commander and someone who was never ever in the IRA.
Another issue is topping the poll. This is very likely to happen but it is difficult to tell whether it is better to go on about it or be quiet beforehand as that may make the victory all the sweeter. Making a song and dance about it may increase the likelihood of it happening. However, not doing so can be presented as SF being mature and careful unlike the DUP who could be presented as being shrill on the subject. It also allows for crowing after the event which would take away from what I submit is an equally likely and potentially more serious long term issue for SF which would be a fall in the total nationalist percentage of the vote. I would submit that this is quite likely due to apathy and possible garden centre Taigs (of grumpy and non grumpy varieties). Hence, if SF go on about topping the poll beforehand the DUP (and others) will counter if it happens that the total nationalist vote has gone down. Hence, a victory could be slightly marred. Maybe better to wait and say little and then rub the DUP’s nose in it. Of course the nirvana scenario would be to top the poll and an increased nationalist vote. However, that is less likely and to base things on that would be to give further hostages to fortune.
Republicans are well used to playing the long game: the party which in its current manifestation initially gained electoral success during the Hunger Strikes needs no lessons in long term thinking. Briefly during the Trimble leadership and the naive idioship of Blair it may have looked as if a united Ireland was a few short years away. Instead SF has had to retrench especially after the last RoI elections. However, much as I would welcome SF’s inexorable demise I think that would be wishful thinking.