It’s been an odd year for Sinn Fein. Last Friday saw their perennial president play a bit part in two separate political end of the pier shows in two jurisdictions. First joking about ‘Endapendents’ and ‘Shergar’ at Leinster House, then quietly slipping off to Belfast.
On his way into the Belfast count centre, his supporters had to be prompted into their customary ‘hail-to-the-chief’ cheer. Perhaps it was his long absence from the business of Northern Irish politics, or just that there seemed so little to cheer.
2016 was the year Mr Adams had invited the Irish people to ‘join the rising’, promising northern journalists (the southern ones were broadly more sceptical) that they would be in power on both sides of the border.
The rise that came in February was not the one his supporters had been expecting. And when it came to last Thursday the rising became a falling. Not a large one, for sure. But unlike the dead cat bouncette of 2011, this represented an actual 3% fall in the vote.
There were some successes. Getting two home in Upper Bann gave the party’s number crunchers a few light headed moments during the day, but they’ll be pleased with the result. A straight swap in East Londonderry at least brings in new, younger and female talent.
Grist to the STV mill for a party treading water when the tide is no longer at its back. For Sinn Fein 2016 wasn’t meant to be like this. If larger than normal crowds at Easter demonstrations in Belfast, Derry and Newry heartened activists, it didn’t show at the polls.
The irony is that in Northern Ireland at least, as much as the media cannot stand the social conservatives of the DUP, they have largely bought into the insurgent themes of the official Sinn Fein narrative.
But we’ve been here before. Several times. One difference from previous times is that unlike the party in the south the northern leadership is ageing. Another is that, again unlike the south, they actually have been in government, with not a lot to show.
Both the party’s own manifesto and the Fresh Start agreement – from which it appears to have been drawn – are deeply conservative documents, which contain very little that is visibly or palpably Republican or nationalist in flavour.
It’s public spokesmen, from the deputy First Minster to the columnist Jim Gibney in today’s Irish News can and are taking some solace from the fact they are not failing as badly as their nationalist rivals in the SDLP.
However, that’s for the optics. Those party spokesmen I met at the weekend acknowledge the party has work to do. Delivery is the touchstone word in the studios. But delivery has turned up in the wash up to every election since 2007. It has yet to emerge.
Some of the spin in the southern newspapers (who by and large had their minds and their best resources focused resolutely on the Return of Enda) often exaggerated what amounted to the loss of just one seat: largely I suspect for the want of anything better to say.
There wasn’t any real change this time, and there was barely any last time. Nor, it seems to me, were there any serious plans to expand the domestic northern vote for nationalism. The leadership has been immersed in the southern campaign, since late 2009.
The organisation is fine, the membership is fine, the money is fine and the leadership remains as unassailable as ever. The problem is that the n-word, ie the narrative, isn’t in such good shape.
It’s not just the southern slip in February this year, nor the slip in their northern position to an opposing coalition that barely existed in 2011. Such was the weight of expectation about the party that something has stopped fizzing around Sinn Fein.
Despite suggestions to the contrary, the party will not lead the opposition in the 32nd Dail, whilst in the north it is charged with carrying forth (possibly as the only nationalists) a PfG that reeks of the DUP’s deeply cautious approach to public sector finance.
The jarring note lies in the contradictions between the story the party has telling about the certainty of its future success as Ireland’s only slightly constitutional party and the other less compelling one that’s come to pass.
With an aging leadership, it is not only in obvious need of rejuvenation: it also needs to find a brand new story to tell.