Sinn Fein struggling with the cold white hand of partitition?

Shane Harrison has a very timely short essay on the problems faced by Sinn Fein in the wake of a poor performance in the Republic. In essence the border is breaking its 32 county project in two

…the party’s share of the vote in the local elections was marginally down on five years ago; it lost councillors in Dublin and Wexford and the deputy leader, Mary Lou McDonald, failed to retain her Dublin European seat. Not only that, she finished fifth behind Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party and Fianna Fail’s Eoin Ryan. Dubliners preferred a passionate Trotsky-ite to an Adams-ite.

He continues:

It’s clear that the tide that went out on the party in the 2007 general election has not come back in. It is difficult to avoid the partitionist conclusion that for many voters in the Republic, a Sinn Fein led by Gerry Adams is perceived as predominantly a Northern Ireland party and one which, despite the peace process, has Troubles baggage. That perception will only change over time.

And this, it seems to me, is a critical insight on the problem facing any party which pursues power in two separate jurisdictions:

…while Sinn Fein’s main policy is opposition to the border, the reality of partition also seems to work against the party at another level. It’s not always easy to square being in opposition in one jurisdiction and in government in the other.

Eamon Gilmore’s Labour – alone among the Dail parties and free from the responsibilities of government – felt able to oppose some of the government’s measures introduced to stabilise the Irish banking crisis last Autumn. Sinn Fein, mindful of its executive role in Northern Ireland and despite murmuring from some activists south of the border, supported the coalition along with Fine Gael, the main opposition party.

And the final dilemma:

For Sinn Fein to become more relevant south of the border, it has to resonate more with the everyday lives and concerns of ordinary people, and it has to get the likes of Mary-Lou McDonald, Senator Pearse Doherty and Toireasa Ferris elected to the Dail, while also retaining their existing seats. Based on this week’s results, that may be easier said than done.

It’s not that long ago that Sinn Fein was confidently looking forward to the centenary of 1916 and being in government both north and south of the border. It’s still possible; after all there are seven years until then. And while a lot of work has been done on that particular project, there’s a lot more to do.

It’s worth mentioning in passing Liam Clarke’s piece in the Sunday Times in which he muses whether it is getting close to time for Gerry Adams, the last of the long term party leaders in Irish politics, to stand down and take early retirement:

Democratic politics is a cruel trade. Support is fickle — a leader who loses his touch or gathers too much historical baggage is dumped. Those who have served their purpose can be sent sliding down the greasy poll if they don’t have the sense to jump first.

Last year Ian Paisley timed his departure right and got the gold-watch treatment as soon as he performed his last service to the DUP by establishing a power-sharing administration. He was lucky to get such a good send-off. If you hang about too long, support can evaporate in a heartbeat. Other political leaders have been slung over the side with a minimum of ceremony as soon as they dipped in the polls. That was the fate of John Major and Margaret Thatcher, of David Trimble in the Ulster Unionists and Alan Dukes of Fine Gael, to mention just a few.

He concludes:

Now that decommissioning is over, Adams and other veterans of the IRA years are obstacles to coalition. They have too much to cover up; no other party with any sense can risk touching them with a bargepole. Despite their past services to Sinn Fein, they have become a drag on its progress. Sinn Fein’s biggest step forward would be to gain a place in government on both sides of the border. That would give them the advantage over the DUP in the north and allow them to claim that they are in fact, as well as in theory, a party that embodies Irish unity.

Despite their blushes, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are eyeing up the Shinners as possible partners if the numbers after the next general election stack up that way. The question is whether Sinn Fein is prepared to do what is necessary to gain acceptance from the southern political elite. It will involve not only the decisive breaking of links with its IRA past, but also the retirement of Adams and other leaders of his vintage.

I suspect that if a party as implacably opposed to Sinn Fein as the DUP can be brought round to share power with them no party in the south would be adverse under the right conditions. Under the right conditions. The party’s more fundamental problem is not with future parties in government, but with the voters. And the truth is that either on the ground or in the air, the people of the south prefer their real time politics to speak with indigenous voices..

  • kensei

    The Higgins vote is a dead end vote for a party interested in wider change. The article is 100% spot on that SF are hurting in Dublin because they have forced to become more practical and more realistic. Those type of left groups have achieved nothing and never will, and if they threaten to the true believers will cut them in two for the stench of compromise. The same forces have helped make SF electable in places where they never had anythign before. In the short term, it is going to be helpful in terms of Dail seats but if they want to move forward properly they need to be prepared to move back in places for a bit.

    The far left vote in Dublin has moved on and it ain’t coming back. Chasing it is precisely the wrong thing to do. They need to focus on holding where they are and overcoming transfer repellence.

    And the truth is that either on the ground or in the air, the people of the south prefer their real time politics to speak with indigenous voices..

    Not just indigneous to the South, Mick, indigneous to whichever bit of the South they are in. I fancy a drop in form Dublin would nto fly particularly well in Cork.

  • RG Cuan

    Liam Clarke is spot on with his point about Adams & co. moving on. The sooner they open the door for the younger generation (some of which are quite pleasing to the eye, and that always helps!), the sooner Sinn Féin will become more transfer-friendly etc. in the south.

    And as Mick says, if the DUP can share power with Sinn Féin, I’m sure the southern parties would if it came down to being in government or not being in government.

  • If Sinn Féin want to carve out a distinctive niche on bread and butter issues, it seems to me they could do worse than look at some of the work being done by the Fabian Society on the economics of democratic republicanism.

  • Dublin voter

    “I fancy a drop in from Dublin wouldn’t fly particularly well in Cork.”

    I would have thought the same Kensei. But the Socialist Party councillor who topped the poll in Cork city is a Dub! I always thought that only worked one way i.e. culchies coming up to Dublin and getting elected to represent Dublin constituencies. But Cork being so metropolitan as to elect a Dub is progress.
    And isn’t your Minister for Education from Mayo? … and you are very welcome to keep her!

  • dublinsinnfeinsupporter

    Election recap:

    In the two Dublin by elections Sinn Féin INCREASED vote share.

    In the LOCAL elections, Sinn Féin MAINTAINED its number of countillors.

    In the 26 county Euro elections, Sinn Féin INCREASED vote share.

    In the 6 county Euro election, Sinn Féin TOPPED THE POLL.

    This was a successful election for Sinn Féin.

  • DC

    Be not surprised, Gerry Adams has been acting the Cock for quite a long while.

  • Mick Fealty

    Ahem, I wondered when you would should show up again DSFS… 😉

  • DC

    oh….wrong browser tab…

  • John O’Connell

    Dubliners preferred a passionate Trotsky-ite to an Adams-ite.

    This proves that when it came to the cruch Dubs wouldn’t turn to Sinn Fein for even their protest vote for that is all that Joe Higgins was in the end.

    He has no clue as to where society is going (even if he is a good guy) in these volatile times.

    Politically Sinn Fein were neither chosen as a vehicle for protest, which is all that their party represents, or as an alternative to mainstream political parties. Therefore Sinn Fein have no role in the south and are not really an all Ireland party in the purest sense of the phrase.

    The truth runs something like this – things are too serious to send out a signal that we’d bring in Sinn Fein – a shallow patroitic tradition whose leader is to all intents and purposes ignorant on the economy – to simply wave a flag at it just like he does north of the border. Therefore the truth must be that until Sinn Fein cast out Gerry Adams and the baggage of the Troubles they will never penetrate the south.

    Until southerners see Sinn Fein as good guys on the side of the people and not as bad guys fighting a sectarian war in the north with the gun or the ballot box, they will fail to see the relevance of them to their state.

    So Sinn Fein as Sinn Fein have no future.

  • dunreavynomore

    Seems that Christy Burke has resigned from S.F. citing a lack of support or ‘watered down support’ from the central party. No big surprise as it’s ‘Mary Lou or nothing’ now adys and the likes of Christy are not ‘suitable’ for sinn féin nua. RTE text.

  • John O’Connell

    Of course, as any one with any sense is saying, for Sinn Fein to win the South, they must first lose the North.

    Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Pat Doherty must go for Sinn Fein to have any real chance of penetrating the south.

    In other words, as I say, Sinn Fein as Sinn Fein have no future.

  • dunreavynomore

    S.F. being more ‘practical and realistic in Dublin’ is doubtful. Again according to RTE text Christy Burke said S.F’s failure to back Dublin City’s estimates was another problem for him; the interesting thing about this is that Meehal martin of F.F attacked Mary Lou on Questions and Answers last night saying that on councils ‘S.F. never support anything, never take responsibility’ and here is Christy backing him up. S.F need to stick by their roots but must also become willing to help councils run without waiting to control them first.

  • dunreavynomore

    excuse my stupidity in not realising there allready is a Thread On Cllr christy Burke.

  • Otto Jaffe

    Are Sinn Fein fans of the Fabian society Tom? Would the SDLP be a more receptive audience for your bourgeois reformism?

  • CS Parnell

    Surely the issue here is republicanism. Fianna Fail rejected it as any sort of basis for the future of Ireland in the late 1950s when they decided to integrate the economy more closely with the UK and then with Europe and later the world.

    In the North there is no real economic debate at all – nothing beyond “themuns get more than us the b*****d Fenians/Huns/Orangies/Taigs”. So the fact the SF’s political programme – such as withdrawal from the EU – is a joke just doesn’t get any air time.

    Dumping Gerry for some jackeen isn’t going to fix that.

  • Nordie Northsider

    Left-wing voters chose to ignore Sinn Fein because they sense that the socialistic murmurings don’t really come from the heart. You don’t hear as much left-wing rhetoric from the party’s spokespeople in Donegal or Monaghan.

    I’m sure that there are many genuine socialists in Sinn Fein but the party leadership simply blundered its way into the left of Southern politics, sensing that it was the only vacancy left for them. The leftward stance has given Sinn Fein a foothold here, but at the expense of transfers and with the danger of being outflanked by people with a more credible socialist background.

    Sinn Fein don’t have much time left. The history of small parties in the Republic is consistent: if the electorate smell weakness they’ll kill you.

  • CS Parnell

    Actually, I cannot let this moment pass without a little bit of triumphalism. For over a decade now the bien pensants have been telling us Labour were finished and Sinn Fein were destined to be the third party of the state.

    Now it seems like Fianna Fail are well on their way to that place and Labour has a leader who dreams the dream of Spring – an taoiseach.

    So, f**k you Gerry, f**k you Marty, and f**k you Mary Lou

  • John O’Connell

    Sinn Fein don’t have much time left. The history of small parties in the Republic is consistent: if the electorate smell weakness they’ll kill you.

    I agree, Nordie Northsider. That’s how it looks from the North too. Too much time has elapsed now in Sinn Fein’s struggle for political credibility in the South. They have missed the boat. When they had the chance in the 1990’s, they blew it by seeming to begrudgingly give us peace, decommisissing, and an end to killings like Robert McCartney’s and Paul Quinn’s.

    Many of the things that kept Sinn Fein strong in the North killed them off in the Republic like playing politics with decommissioning. They were cute hoors up here but down there they were suspected of being an evil conspiracy.

    So it’s too late for them now. It’s all over in the south, and it won’t be long before things start to go pear shaped in the North. They’re just about hanging together here as it stands. Wait to see what happens when Gerry Adams loosens his grip on the party as he has to do now.

  • Otto Jaffe,

    The Fabians are not Marxists, but then I don’t think Sinn Féin are, predominantly, either. In any case there is plenty of competition for that particular franchise in Dublin, as we have just seen.

    The Fabians are generally interpreted as centralising social democrats, and their current interest in democratic republicanism has been seen as something of a departure from this:

    When he spoke in London a while back, Gerry Adams talked about Sinn Féin as part of an international republican tradition. Eoin Ó Broin’s recent book looked to people like Tom Paine and the Levellers as antecedents of Irish republicanism.

    I think this is recognisably the same tradition that the Fabians are talking about, and their emphasis on the role of civil society comes uncannily close to a description of Irish republicanism as it has been practised at its best.

    Irish republicans have good reason to be wary of foreign intellectual fads, but what makes this latest fad worth engaging with is that it reflects British left intellectuals moving to a place where in many respects Irish republicans already are.

    A lot of this thinking is relevant to developing a substantive economic policy based on distinctive republican principles, rather than simply a balancing act between conventional nationalist politics and conventional socialist economics.

    CS Parnell might find the Fabians views on the EU of interest. It suggests that there is more than one republican approach to Europe possible:

    And Otto, if you want to see a really ‘bourgeois reformist’ take on democratic republicanism, I suggest you check out some of the recent writing from Richard Reeves at Demos, which makes the Fabians look like raging Bolsheviks:

    “It is striking that it overwhelmingly non-metropolitan, working class MPs and ministers who understand the role of Labour as being about giving people power, rather than hoarding it to a paternlist, centralising state: Blears, Blunkett, Milburn, Reid, Cruddas. Labour’s crisis is not just one of leadership, but of animating philosophy. Her departure is a further sign of how far Labour has drifted away from its radical, republican roots.”

    That was a bit much even for me.

  • Eurocrat

    There is a confusion on this thread between (R)epublicanism and (r)epublicanism. The Fabian Society’s democratic republicanism is wholeheartedly different to SF Republicanism and that difference must be acknowledged.

    I think SF have been teetering on the brink for a while now in Southern politics. The last Dail elections were a thunderbolt to the heart of SF that they have never really recovered from. The elections this time round were much of the same, very little progress made and in made a backwards step in losing councillors and their MEP in Dublin.

    I think many in SF expected to gain considerably at the last Dail elections when they were riding high after devolution in the North. Their expected success just did not happen and it remains to be seen whether they will make any serious breakthough in the future. I certainly would not write them off but it seems that their is very little political space for them in the South.

    Many SF in my opinion mistakingly equated their role in the successful NO campaign against Lisbon with support for SF. These elections have hammered this point home as I believe SF felt that their role in Lisbon1 would act as a platform for them in this election. It simply has not happened.

    I will be following Lisbon2 closely and watching SF role in this even closer. But an expected YES vote will effectly put SF unto the political shelf in the South for the time being at least.

    I honesly dont think that SF can do anything about their predicament. Many see them as a ‘Northern’ party with no real credibility. Importantly though there just is not any political space for them in the South. Republican politics are dominated by FF while left politics are dominated by a strong Labour Party and a very credible Socialist Party, who have several council seats and now an MEP.

    There simply is no room for SF in southern politics.

  • Worth mentioning that ‘The Dub’ who walked the local election in Cork City North Central is also the only representative of any party who knocks on doors and canvasses/leaflets houses when there isn’t an election on.

    Regardless of party he’s far and away the most visible local pol in that district.

  • barnshee

    Partition is essential for the survival of SF

    Imagine a nightmare where in the absence of a border , the end of the assembly and the number of reps to the Dail about say 80

    On recent turnouts this would give 40 to Unionists of various hues 20 to SF 15 to SDLP and 5 to the rest.

    Add to that the appearance of the various soldiers of destiny etc competing for the “catholic republican vote” and in the words of JIM “It adds up to a lot of P45s”

    Wrap the flag round me lads I have big salary and expenses to defend– not the tricolour you stupid fucker the union jack

  • There is a confusion on this thread between (R)epublicanism and (r)epublicanism. The Fabian Society’s democratic republicanism is wholeheartedly different to SF Republicanism and that difference must be acknowledged.

    What do you think the difference consists in, Eurocrat? My reading of Eoin Ó Broin’s book is that it is in part an attempt to deny that distinction.

    Part of Sinn Féin’s north/south problem I think is that a (r)epublican ethos has fundamentally different implications than they are used to in a state was which is itself institutionally republican.

    For example, southerners would be much more exercised about TD expenses (if they were published) than northern nationalists were about Westminster expenses, because of the sense of ownership they feel over the state.

    Maybe its the inability to pursue (r)epublican politics in a UK context that created (R)epublican politics?

  • Erasmus

    Here is some plain speaking for all you shinners serious about making inroads into the south.
    I gave T. Ferris my no 15 in Ireland South ( there were 15 candidates). However I am in no way unsympathetic towards N.I. nationalism and I view the Myers/Edwards/Harris school of southern journalism with as much enthusiasm as I would a bad case of relapsing malaria. And I actually would have preferred to see Mary Lou get in ahead of that anachronistic Trot windbag, Joe Higgins.
    There is one misconception that needs to be nailed: that the southern electorate are intrinsically nordiephobic. Austin Currie came through comfortably in election after election before falling in the *general* FG massacre of 2002. In my euro constituency former Alliance leader, John Cushnahan, was comfortably elected over and over again. And then of course there is our great and glorious President McAleese.
    However all these people moved sticks, came down south, and stood on behalf of established mainstream parties.
    SF, in their modern incarnation, are relative newcomers on the scene.
    The infamous Adams debate of the last GE is a microcosm what has been going wrong:
    His economic illiteracy stood out like a sore thumb. It was clear his grasp of southern economics and economics in general was pretty poor. And all the outdated leftwing mumbo jumbo was a turn-off. This might not matter in the north where the assembly has restricted powers
    but would have given the shudders to southern voters electing a fully-fledged executive. *In this context* his nordieness would have been a negative rather than a positive – i.e. he came across as an outsider clueless as to the crunch issues affecting the southern electorate.
    Austin Currie was not sent in to bat in a TV debate dealing with national issues on behalf of FG until he had found his feet a bit.
    Better than Adams would have been a southern candidate who was economically well-versed. But are there SF answers to George Lee? They appear thin on the ground.
    There was also the sulphur of paramilitarism surrounding Adams (‘unambiguous support for the armed struggle’ etc.). This aspect of SF’s past is actually a serious factor in the south. It is worth pointing out that insofar as the south sustained casualties during the Troubles they were, in terms of their origin, about 40% republican and 60% loyalist – all the security force casualties being inflicted by republican paramilitaries. In this context T. Ferris’s equivocation re the McCabe murder probably cost her a seat. And relatively recent events like the McCartney murder and the Northern Bank robbery keep this dimension resonant.
    Again one relevant distinction vis-a-vis the north must be made here: SF ministers in an ROI government would have executive leverage over the judiciary, armed forces etc. The idea of a shadowy *private* armed force lurking in the background would give most thinking southern electors cold feet.
    Three things need to happen here:
    The dissolution of the army council.
    The putting out to pasture of the old guard whose fizoggs conjure up all these negative associations.
    Leading on from the second there would have to be a repudiation of the dark side of SF’s recent past. A new SF leader effectively should be a Kruschev to Gerry’s Stalin in terms of the former’s famous denunciation of the latter. this could be spun not as a new departure but as a return to historic roots: ‘let’s get this party back to what it was at the time of its foundation’.
    Cue, southern campaigns being run by economically literate southern candidates, with occasional cameos from baggage-free northern associates.
    In this case SF’s all-Ireland dimension, marking it out from the bland melange of indistinguishable southern mainstream parties, would morph into a plus rather than a minus.
    All this may sound forbidding but, as Neil Kinnock realised in the 90’s, a party may have to slay some of it sacred cows in order to survive.
    Here’s to the ongoing sanitisation of Sinn Féin.

  • Erasmus

    Have spotted a typo. Should read ‘This could be spun’.

  • Mack

    Erasmus – I concur. The only thing I’d add is that every party that has travelled this road before has rebranded.

    How many in Dublin knew or cared that Proinsias de Rossa was interned in Curragh Camp from 1956 until 1959 for his part in the IRA Border Campaign (according to Wikipedia), but that Mary Lou had never been involved? Proinsias managed to get elected when the party he served was still called Sinn Fein (Sinn Fein The Workers Party), but they rebranded that year. Proinsias de Rossa with all his baggage was a shoe-in, Mary Lou, obstentably with none struggled.

  • Dublin Exile

    Its not just a ‘southern’ thing. In the Inishowen electoral area which was increased from a 6 to a 7 seater, a Labour candidate was elected for the first time ever, and this in the bailiwick of Padraig MacLochlainn, the SF euro candidate, who was supposed to bring in a second SF seat pretty easily. i.e. those who wanted to vote for a ‘left’ candidate voted or transferred to Labour rather than SF.

    The problem for SF is that most people still associate it with the tribalism and violence of the past and dont want to go near them.

  • puca

    Good point Erasmus. I think that SFs success up until ’07 had a lot to do with southerners support for the peace process and less to do with the political positions of SF. People voted for SF as a way to encourage them in the belief that there was a political future for them beyond the armed struggle. Now that a point of no return has been reached people approach SF more critically and they don’t stand up too well. Their strategy of a soft left exterior with a conservative core has seen them outflanked on the left and not taken seriously by conservative working and middle class voters. Adams incoherence on anything beyond the constitutional stuff allowed people to move on from them in the south and as long as they continue without any critical ideas on the economy and with a northern leadership associated with machiavelianism they have no future.

  • oldruss

    Is it possible that the reluctance of the part of left-leaning southern voters to embrace Sinn Fein is grounded in a self-satisfication with the status quo, that is, with a 26 county state that doesn’t include the 6 counties of Ulster that were partitioned off in 1920? If Sinn Fein’s core mission is a united Ireland, is that, in and of itself, off-putting for the southern vote? Did not decades pass when Catholics in the north were getting the sh*t kicked out of them, and southerners made the sign of the cross and mumbled softly to themselves, “God bless those poor b*stards, Thank God that’s not us.”

  • puca

    Southern indifference on the national question is nothing new. People vote in what they see as their own interests. The 6 has been exterior to that concern and while there has been a high level of solidarity/disgust at times for whats been happening, ultimately the peace process and the political ‘normalisation’ of the north has reinforced the southern view that a united Ireland is less important than political stability and peace. SFs journey has codified that even for soft republicans. On the national question SF have not developed compelling arguments about why unification is in anyones interest.

  • Eurocrat

    Wise words do you speak oldruss. In the Southern left movement there has been the emergence of a new generation of young Europeans who are not concerned much about actual Irish Affairs and are concerned more so in European issues (Generation YES- Lisbon Treaty, etc).

    I personally find this disappointing but it explains to some extent why the voters vote for 26 county left parties and not a 32 county one like SF (that is of course assuming that SF is actually a leftist party).

  • Gael gan Náire

    “Sinn Fein struggling with the cold white hand of partitition?”

    Isn’t that the raison d’etre of the party?

  • 6countyprod

    I must say I really appreciated a great many of the comments on this thread, especially those from Erasmus and Puca. Very enlightening indeed. Wish we could be a civil about our issues up north!

  • Erasmus

    Mack, interesting point about De Rossa. This echoes a point that is often made that FF, FG, Clann Na Poblachta had their origins in some sort of IRA/SF Fein combo. But we are not comparing like with like.The PIRA reached depths of ruthlessness ( viz Jean McConville, Patsy Gillespie etc.) which would have been completely out of the question with any previous incarnation of the organisation. By the standards of outfits of this nature the pre- 1969 versions were relatively clean fighters. Indeed there were literally only about a handful of fatalities during the campaign in which P. De Rossa was involved.

  • puca

    Erasmus, thats true of the 50s campaign. It was minor and focussed on border stuff with the security forces and appropriating weapons. It never became a drawn out campaign resulting in mass civilian casualties. But Ive just been reading Earnie O Malleys book on the civil war (The Singing Flame, its very good) and there was a lot of savagery in those days. It was not uncommon for prisoners to be tortured and or murdered. Indeed the free state murdered prisoners without any hearing in revenge for republican attacks. The difference between that and the most recent phase of political violence was that the terror tactics used by the free state and the IRA were less focussed on the civilian population and more on each other. But there is a strong tradition of ruthlessness and terrorism in all of the groups that participated in and emerged from the civil war.

  • Packy McBooner

    “Indeed there were literally only about a handful of fatalities during the campaign in which P. De Rossa was involved.”

    Good overall analysis. let’s not forget that de Rossa won a libel case saying he was never in OIRA and that the time he spent in North Korea with Sean Super Dollar Garland was meaningless.