Eighty years later Sinn Fein belatedly attempts Dev’s transformation

Great piece by Harry McGee in the Irish Times which raises some critical questions that may be exercising Sinn Fein delegates in Castlebar today..

Sinn Féin is not experiencing a New Departure, rather a long drawn-out process of change – mainstreaming, as we inelegantly describe it.

As evidenced by the rapid growth of Fianna Fáil from 1926, a large swathe of the population shared its vision, believed as it did that the party was pursuing a reasonable programme based on existing conditions. The party emerged during a period of great flux and volatility in the aftermath of the Civil War, where all political parties were grappling as they tried to identify a new State. In addition, by setting out its Corú (and by accepting the oath) de Valera’s breakaways were giving validation to the new State (without stating it) and doing the same with conviction.

You cannot really say the same for Sinn Féin now. Values change and evolve over time, and what seemed reasonable in 1926 might not sound so reasonable now. In addition, Sinn Féin’s increasing incursion into representative politics (in the South) comes 90 years after Independence, with questions of identity and definition long settled in the South. And has Sinn Féin truly given validation to the State with that kind of conviction?

He usefully notes that the consensus in Leinster House that Gerry Adams is little more than a liability misses his iconic value as a rally to his supporters (he is also, currently Ireland’s only ‘Alpha Male-in-Chief’, something that traditionally has allowed past political leaders to make a strong appeal to the wider Irish people…

He also notes that policy is a weak point (something Micheal Martin has not been slow to capitalise upon)… Yet that is large a problem (in the Republic at least) of capacity… McGee finishes, for me, with the real weak point in the south, that is the party’s long term aim to replace Fianna Fail as the main republican party on the island…

Towards a New Republic is the theme of this weekend’s conference. More accurately, it is towards a new Sinn Féin. A lot of its younger members have no memory of its violent past, yet that remains the predominant image of the party. Jaws still dropped when they heard Gerry Adams, seemingly without irony, say of Margaret Thatcher: “Here in Ireland her espousal of old draconian militaristic policies prolonged the war and led to great suffering.”

There was a rare old shouting match between the pots and the kettles after that one.

Still, the party is on a long-term upward trajectory. It’s not even, or all that quick – as the Meath East byelection and the flatline election of 2007 remind us. Will the aspiration of a united Ireland fade as it did for Fianna Fáil? Will the party’s self-styled brand of pragmatic realistic left-wing republicanism be enough to allow it capture the citadel in the South as it did in the North? Its main problem is that Fianna Fáil is still there, and it did all that 87 years ago.

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  • aquifer

    Irish separatism can be a project to safeguard a cultural identity, but as the scale of modern economies has become global, the case for a separate island economy is dead, and the claim of British ‘oppression’ futile.

    There is an economic case for closer integration on the island, but the way Sinn Fein joined a campaign of armed murder and blackmail with Irish Gaelic and Catholic culture makes it less likely that Unionists will co-operate on Sinn Fein’s terms.

    There may be an opening for a party championing the interests of the working poor and small farmers North and South, but if ‘re-integration of the national territory’ without the expulsion of protestants is a priority, it would be better if some other party did this.

    Like Labour, but with more brains.

    In a global economy brains must be bought and guns are cheap. Lets hope the other Dail parties keep political funding in place.

  • Ruarai

    (SF’s) main problem is that Fianna Fáil is still there, and it did all that 87 years ago.

    No, I don’t think so. SF cannot replace FF as a republican party since SF is the republican party and FF is a 26 county party. Whatever fuelled FF’s rise and dominance it was hardly its republican project. Identifying what did fuel its rise and what of this remains relevant and replicable represents SF’s real pathfinding opportunity.

    So what did (and still, in some respects, does) account for FF popularity, if not its “republican” ideology?

    The answer, in my view, is tantalizing for SF: Local Candidates’ presence.

    It’s not ideology at all (if anything cutehoorism is the ability to shun conviction politics) – it’s local, parochial presence.

    That’s a tall order for SF (or any party) but it’s also do-able, over time.

    SF didn’t win the north from the SDLP based on ideological arguments. SF won the nationalist electorate in the north not through argument but through grassroots cultivation and hard graft: by being there, running candidate after candidate, particularly local candidates, on the ground.

    The real challenge/opportunity/threat for SF in the south lies not with building voting blocs but in building branches. Build the branches and the voters will come.

    Now, whether they’ve left it too late to do that south (it effectively took a lifetime project north) is a more interesting question.