Tuesday, June 05, 2007

There was only one question on the minds of Sinn Fein activists across Ireland last week - what went wrong?

Colm Heatley:

The general election was supposed to be the breakthrough election for the party, which expected years of work cultivating its vote in the Republic to pay off.

The restoration of the Assembly in the North on May 8 was expected to boost Sinn Fein and make the party at least kingmakers in the next Dail, if not coalition partners.

For a party that has orchestrated electoral victories in the North and the Republic over the past decade, defeat and losses weren’t in the script.

But the party is now facing the reality that the vast majority of the electorate in the Republic has rejected it, even with the historic deal in the North completed.

In Belfast, the engine room of the party, Sinn Fein activists were left scratching their heads. Electoral success in the Republic is of such paramount importance to Sinn Fein’s strategy that the results of the election cannot be ignored or glossed over.

And the importance of electoral success in the Republic cannot be overstated. Entry to the Dail was what led to the split in Sinn Fein in the mid1980s, resulting in the creation of Republican Sinn Fein.

Even then, in the midst of the violence in the North, Adams had identified gaining power - or at least real influence - in the Republic as a key objective.

Since the 1990s, and certainly since 2002, when the party had its first real taste of success in politics in the Republic, the idea of Sinn Fein holding power north and south has been a lynchpin of its strategy.

Difficult issues, especially policing in the North, were partly sold to the party on the basis that electoral success beckoned in the Republic.

Some party activists complained last week that the policing debate was rushed through earlier this year with the general election in mind.

Working solely within the Stormont Assembly has limitations for Sinn Fein. The party wants to emphasise the notion that the Assembly operates in a wider all-Ireland context and there would be no better way to do that than by being in power in the Republic.

More importantly, Sinn Fein would have real power if it was in government on both sides of the border. The party had hoped that good election results would allow it to push through its proposals for speaking rights in the Dail for northern politicians, but that is now in cold storage.

As part of its strategy in the Republic, Sinn Fein has consciously portrayed itself as the ‘can do’ party and has targeted certain groups - the young, the urban poor, the marginalised - with some success. But it has not been enough to move the party beyond its current support base.

Undoubtedly one of the biggest problem areas for the party is its economic policies, which are at best confusing and, at worst, scaring off voters.

The party’s willingness to ditch its corporation tax policy just weeks before the election suggested desperation.

Privately, Sinn Fein acknowledges that getting its economic policies in order is a key priority. Economic policies were never central to Sinn Fein strategy and while the party is beginning to address its shortcomings, its commitment to left-wing policies means it will always be vulnerable to accusations that it will damage the Celtic Tiger.

The party’s failure to attract any significant numbers of transfer votes was a key factor in its failure to capture seats. Even in the North, Sinn Fein has found that attracting transfers from SDLP-inclined nationalists is still a real issue.

While Sinn Fein claims that the strong performance of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael lessened its vote in the election, it has not explained why floating voters did not give the party second or third preferences in any real numbers. The lack of transfers was a crucial factor in the failure of Mary Lou McDonald and Pearse Doherty to win seats.

The public perception of Sinn Fein as a northern party with no understanding of issues in the Republic is widespread, and was not helped by party leader Gerry Adams’ admission that he did not get around to dealing with certain issues in the Republic because of events in the North.

While Sinn Fein has won some recognition and praise for its work on the peace process, it has still to prove its credentials as a party that understands the electorate in the Republic.

Nearly all of its best-known members are from the North, so the failure of McDonald and Doherty - two fresh-faced southerners - was a blow, not just in terms of seats, but overall strategy. Sinn Fein must now try to achieve credibility on issues in the Republic such as the economy, while still putting Irish unity at the top of its agenda. It must do this as one, cohesive, all-Ireland party.

That won’t be easy. Irish unity and partition are real, live issues that affect almost all aspects of civil and political society in the North. For many in the Republic, however, Irish unity is an abstract notion, an aspiration rather than a reality of day-to-day life.

Sinn Fein has been sustained in the North by the appetite of a significant section of the population to end the existence of the state. But that is simply not the case in the Republic and the party will have to recognise that reality.

There is no single reason why Sinn Fein’s vote did not materialise, just lots of smaller ones, which need to be addressed.

Some of those reasons are within the party’s power to change - its economic policies, Adams’ performance in live debates, the public perception that it is a single issue party.

Others are outside of the Sinn Fein leadership’s control - the hostility of all the major parties to Sinn Fein being in power in the Republic, the fact that for many, the republican leadership is still ‘beyond the pale’, the fact that events such as the Northern Bank robbery and the McCartney murder are still routinely used against the party.

How then will Sinn Fein seek to get its strategy back on track in the Republic? Clues may be found in its strategy in the North since the early 1980s,when it entered local councils and gained a reputation for hard-work and exposing widespread malpractices.

Until the late 1970s, Sinn Fein was a weak party that was subservient to the IRA. But by building up local political networks and a reputation for on-the-ground work, the party had, by the 1990s, developed into probably the best organised, most sophisticated political machine in the North.

To this end, Sinn Fein will focus on the 2009 local elections as an opportunity to significantly strengthen its party machine in the Republic for the next general election. The Assembly will also be used as a ‘shop window’ for Sinn Fein when the next elections are called.

If all goes according to plan, the party will by then have experience of government, of delivering on issues other than the peace process, and the North will quite possibly boast a healthier economy. Sinn Fein will claim credit for any of those successes and hope that the experience will make it more electable.

All the while, the party will look to develop its policies in the Republic, promote its candidates in the Republic and position itself as a party in tune with issues in the Republic.

The challenge for Sinn Fein is to do that without abandoning its electorate in the North or its emphasis on Irish unity.

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