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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: September 18, 2010 @ 12:17 pm

    Whither SF?

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    Dáil gains key to lifting SF prestige among republicans


    This article appears in the print edition of  The Irish Times, Sat, Sep 18, 2010

    Sinn Féin’s credibility calls for some gains to be chalked up in the next general election

    THE LATE Brendan Behan famously wrote that the first item on any Irish republican agenda was always “the split”. The Sinn Féin party led by Gerry Adams is not undergoing a split, despite an apparent rise in support for dissident groups, but it does have a split personality.

    It isn’t the party’s own fault. Sinn Féin is, by definition, a 32-county all-Ireland grouping, but it must willy-nilly operate in two jurisdictions, north and south of the Border.

    The curious constitutional situation leads to curious results. Sinn Féin’s 19th-century forebears campaigned actively against absentee landlordism, ie landowners who presided from London or the English home counties over their Irish tenants.

    There is a slight parallel with Sinn Féin, which is presided over by Gerry Adams, who resides in and represents West Belfast (although he does not, of course, attend the chamber of the House of Commons). Although a frequent visitor to the South, he is technically an absentee leader.

    Whether you love him, loathe him or just find him slightly wearisome at this stage, Gerry Adams has an undoubted charismatic appeal to his own followers. Indeed last June’s Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll showed he was the second most popular party leader in the State at 31 per cent, well behind Eamon Gilmore’s 46 per cent but clearly ahead of Enda Kenny’s 24 per cent, John Gormley’s 21 per cent and Brian Cowen’s lowly 18 per cent. Had Kenny secured the same rating as Adams, the recent heave in Fine Gael would probably not have happened.

    One of Sinn Féin’s biggest challenges – arguably the main one – has been to find, develop and promote a charismatic leader in the South. For a long time, hopes rested on Mary Lou McDonald, member of the European Parliament for Dublin from 2004 to 2009. Although she is intelligent and articulate, and comes across well on television, McDonald has so far failed to make the crucial breakthrough of winning a Dáil seat. She even managed to lose her Strasbourg seat in last year’s European elections as opponents focused their criticism on her attendance record as an MEP.

    Going into the 2007 general election with five TDs, the “Shinners” had high hopes of coming back with double figures. On that occasion, the smaller parties were sectioned-off in a minority leaders’ television debate where, like a defender of the Alamo determined to bring someone else down with him, the doomed leader of the Progressive Democrats, Michael McDowell, left the hapless Adams reeling in a series of sharp political exchanges.

    Sinn Féin’s economic policies had a Soviet-era feel to them, and failed to catch the imagination of an electorate still basking in the deceptive glow of the Celtic Tiger. Seán Crowe lost his seat in Dublin South-West, leaving the party with only four Dáil deputies. The pictures of McDonald herself, when she received the bad news at the Dublin count centre, were a classic study in political disappointment.

    Even their most grudging opponents would concede that sitting Sinn Féin TDs Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, Martin Ferris, Arthur Morgan and Aengus Ó Snodaigh are hardworking politicians, but their most ardent admirers would have to admit that charisma is not among their more obvious characteristics.

    Just at the point when this minority party most needs a voice and a talking head to put its case and win over middle-ground voters, there is nobody on the scene. McDonald does her best, but lacks the credibility and confidence that elected office brings.

    Donegal-based Senator Pearse Doherty has been making a name for himself with his court case challenging the Government to call the byelection in his home constituency of Donegal South West, and he is seen as having a strong chance of taking that seat, if and when the vote is held. But intelligent and articulate as he is, Doherty lacks that crucial “Middle Ireland” appeal that Sinn Féin needs.

    The party, in other words, is like a soccer team that has good, solid players down the field but lacks a sufficiently talented “striker” to knock in the goals. There has also been a series of high-profile resignations among the party’s councillors, eg Killian Forde, who joined Labour in Dublin, and long-time stalwart Christy Burke, who is now an Independent.

    Adams experienced a torrent of negative media coverage following incest allegations against his younger brother Liam, and as a result of his own continuing denial, in the face of very widespread scepticism, that he was ever a member of the IRA. There have been suggestions that it was time he hung up his hat and retired to the Donegal coast to write books, but he is still the party’s most saleable asset on this side of the Border, although there is no sign of him running for a Dáil seat himself.

    The party will be standing more than 40 candidates in the general election, in most if not all constituencies. Seán Crowe will be hoping to win back his Dublin South West seat. As well as Pearse Doherty, Sinn Féin has a strong contender in adjoining Donegal North East in the person of Pádraig Mac Lochlainn. Dessie Ellis got nearly 5,000 first preferences last time in Dublin North West.

    Selection conventions are due to start shortly. Cllr Joe Reilly has decided not to run in Meath West again, and Cllr Seán McManus has decided not to contest the Sligo/North Leitrim constituency.

    In the historic Belfast Agreement of 1998, the Provisional republican movement, with Sinn Féin as its political wing, gave a potentially epoch-making commitment to abjure the gun and promote its aims instead by peaceful, democratic means.

    A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then – and it is clear that there is a not-insignificant, growing minority who are still wedded to the bomb and the bullet. In order to minimise losses and defections, Sinn Féin needs to be able to boast that a united Ireland is closer now than it was 12 years ago.

    It would be a considerable step in that regard for the party to secure at least one place at Cabinet in a Dublin administration. That would have major propaganda value, particularly on the Irish-American scene, with a Sinn Féin minister from Dublin meeting his or her Sinn Féin counterpart from Belfast in the context of the North-South Ministerial Council.

    The party probably wouldn’t like to be reminded of it now, but Sinn Féin initially supported the blanket guarantee to the banks in September/October 2008. The move was quite controversial internally, but it did send out a signal to the mainstream parties that the republicans were prepared to bite bullets as well as decommission them. The last Sinn Féin ardfheis voted to keep open the party’s options for coalition, which would be subject to a special delegate conference.

    Many of the activists in the party, particularly in Dublin, come across as more left-wing than republican, if one may draw such a distinction. Some of them might be more at home on the Michael D Higgins wing of the Labour Party, or with the Communist Party in the days before the Berlin Wall came down.

    That could be a problem if Sinn Féin went into coalition, although they could take lessons from the Greens on how to jolly along your radical fringe. Certainly, time is running out for the “Shinners” – and this election is a crucial one if they are not to be typecast as what Dublin slang would characterise as a “Nordie” party alone.

    By the Numbers 

    Sinn Féin 









    Deaglán de Bréadún is Political Correspondent

    Series concluded

    © 2010 The Irish Times


    • “Indeed last June’s Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll showed he was the second most popular party leader in the State at 31 per cent”

      Aren’t those poll numbers satisfaction ratings for how people think party leaders are doing their jobs as party leader and not popularity ratings at all?

    • robespierre says:

      I think the SF ship has sailed. They will make gains however in marginalised areas and in border areas from FF especially where FF are weak and Labour have no real tradition like Donegal. I could see them getting as many as ten seats but then losing most of those again the election after next.

      Ultimately, 98% of the population in the south want to support parties that have a command structure inside the Irish state. We had enough foreign interference when we were part of the British empire.

      I personally find the colonial attitude of Adams and his lust for interfering in our sovereign politics offensive. I wish he would get on with the business of helping to run the politics offices of her Majesty’s kingdom.

    • jo bangles says:

      How very provocative robespierre…’A journey of a thousand miles’…and all that…
      SF are the only party with elected representatives in Westminster Stormont and the Dail…
      The wholly artificial partition of the 6 Counties of Ireland hardly amounts to a ‘Colonial’ mindset…
      As a ‘wild colonial girl’ I welcome the party of Exiles back to their motherland…
      Now remind me which part of Mayo do your people hail from…? Or did you blow in from the Cape in the death throes the British Empire in Serth Efrekeh…
      ‘To be born in a stable doesn’t make you an ass’…

    • jo bangles says:

      How much longer the President of SF will be involved in the business of the politics of ‘her madge’ is moot..
      the UK government, as we are constantly informed is strapped… so getting rid of this ‘colonial canard’ will probably be high on the fiscal agenda…The Brits want out so like it or not that is what will happen…

    • robespierre says:

      My people hail from the Limerick / Kerry border and from Dublin. Safe blueshirt collins & cosgrave, pro EU tradition.

      Like or not, in this de facto state recognised by hundreds of international treaties and charters including the United Nationa, the ICC and the International Court our jurisdiction and its boundaries are legally recognised and denoted.

      You can aspire to dromchionn donn droichead but it will forever remain a 4th green field or the lost heifer as Austin Clarke described it.

      Until then, Adams is merely an instrument of british foreign policy, interfering in our sovereign politics.

    • Alex says:

      A tad harsh on the analysis as to why Mary Lou lost her seat. It had more to do with the constituency being reduced from a four seater to a three seater than anything her opponents threw at her.

    • CW says:

      “SF are the only party with elected representatives in Westminster Stormont and the Dail…”

      Not true, jo bangles, the Greens also have at least one elected representative in each of the three jurisdictions.

    • jo bangles says:

      @6 …yeah butnobutyeahbutnobut…they’re not actually the same Party doaredey?

    • jo bangles says:

      The Shadow Foreign Secretary Miliband major… has just made an compelling statement…’Occupying armies don’t end Civil wars’… He was referring to Afghanistan/Gaza of course…seems to have forgotten about the little skirmish in his own back yard…or maybe not…perhaps they could now push to remove the remnants of the occupying forces from the North of Ireland…

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