Why the Sinn Fein critique needs to evolve beyond attacking Adams

I have been to a few year end review panels over the past month and one thing that I have heard repeated time and again is that Sinn Fein have had a good year. Think about this for a moment, the party President was questioned by the PSNI and there were two very difficult Spotlight programmes for the party to face and the end result is, they are up nearly 4% on average than they were last year. You have to ask yourself, why?

In years gone by the strategy if you wanted to take on Sinn Fein was relatively easy you either cited the IRA or you went for Gerry Adams as the leader. Whilst ten years ago and approach like this had some currency, as we go into 2015 this is now redundant and in many ways counter-productive.
Let’s take the Sunday Independent for example and the constant critiques of Sinn Fein. Now, I have zero problems with honest policy analysis and hard questions and it’s true that some Shinners are thin skinned when it comes to criticism. However, since October there has been a marked change in attitude in how the party has approached the newspaper.

Instead of ignoring the critiques, they now use them as a way to show how Adams is taking on the establishment. The typical line is “the Indo is against us lads, we’re doing something right” or “they fear our rise.” These lines and many others are used to motivate the party base and create a sense amongst alienated voters that the Irish establishment, whom they argue, screwed the country, are out to stop Sinn Fein.

I have always believed that when your criticisms are being used by your opponents to their advantage you really need to take stock and think, is this really working?

The constant focus on Gerry Adams is something that fuels this misguided view that if you take down Adams, you take down Sinn Fein. It really is not that simple. Due to the environment Adams operated under in the 80s and 90s, Sinn Fein have always had another deck of cards in reserve should anything happen to its leadership. In the past it was Pat Doherty, Martin McGuinness and Bairbre de Brún , today it’s John O’Dowd, Mary-Lou McDonald and Pearse Doherty.

Sinn Fein know Adams won’t be around forever and the focus on him is used by the party to solidify the view that the establishment really fear Adams and that he will be one to take them into government. The huge critiques do Adams so much good, I am surprised he doesn’t put these columnists on his Christmas card list.

New Narrative?

The way to take on a party like Sinn Fein is through a process of policy deconstruction. This is a different process from attacking a belief outright. You take the premise of a policy, question how realistic the premise is and then go from there and play through a number of scenarios.

Take the border poll for example; ask a Sinn Fein politician if now is the best time to have a border poll? You will get yes as an answer. However, once you challenge the premise of this argument the rest of the policy falls apart as you ask “your healthcare plan is what, you education system is what, will it be a federal Ireland?”

Challenging the premise of the policy is important in almost any effective political take down of any position.

If you can sow seeds of doubt in people about how rational a policy is, then it is incredibly likely that the rest of the policy will fall apart.

For those looking for a way to take on Sinn Fein, challenge the premise, raise the doubts and have an alternative. Rinse and repeat.

This isn’t sexy, but the constant emphasis on Adams is not working or achieving in goals.

Sinn Fein has evolved as a party; it has become part of the Irish political mainstream. As they evolve the critique of their party has to as well, you cannot fight a 21st century party, with what is essentially a 20th century critique



David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs