…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.
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 dont 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.
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 Feins 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..
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty