Sinn Fein President, Mary Lou McDonald addressed her party in Dublin this evening. The Opposition Leader free from the 2019 electoral setbacks and is now a leader who could look with optimism about where the party stands in the polls and make a bid for the position of Taoiseach. The party is pitching itself as the main vehicle for change, but falls short of ruling out a potential coalition with her main rivals. For the talk about Sinn Fein being a deeply ideological party, they have shown their ability to be pragmatic and move when required.
The prominence of law and order issues at this conference shows they are targeting voters that just two or three elections ago would have been seen as off limits to them. Also and this has been happening for years, the focus is more and more drifting South. More than 54% of the combined parliamentary party is now based in the Republic and that trend if the polls keep moving on their current trajectory will likely be closer to 60% after the next Irish election. Growing up during the 1990s party platforms where dominated by Northern accents, now you’ll see delegates and representatives from across the island. It isn’t all static in the North, just a handful of the class of 1998 remain within the party ranks at Stormont and that will fall after next May.
So they have all this going for them, is there no end in sight? Well as they experienced in 2009 and 2019, when Sinn Fein fall they do so hard in the South. In the North, people like Gerry Carroll and Colum Eastwood have shown that the party machine can be beaten in strong nationalist areas. At this Ard Fheis these challenges are very much in the party’s rear view mirror as happy and confident delegates filled the hall. However, I cannot help but wonder if I am sitting here two years from now watching First Minister O’Neill and Taoiseach McDonald stand on that platform and there is no sign of a border poll coming (Secretary of State refused to play ball) and the limitations on coalitions that exist on both sides of the border begin to hit home. As other parties in government have found, you campaign in poetry and you govern in prose. That optimism and energy that has gotten the party to where it is could well be dented as people become frustrated, some of which was seen in 2016.
Delegates filled with the optimism of what a Sinn Fein government could deliver are confident of victory and look well placed to achieve it. The change they want is vast, the project they are working on will take time to deliver and will require compromise. If they do it, the next election could be as big a watershed as the 1932 election which ushered in the Fianna Fail era. This is the moment for Sinn Fein, but will they seize it?
You can watch Mary Lou McDonald’s speech here.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs