Deaglán de Bréadún
Dáil gains key to lifting SF prestige among republicans
DEAGLÁN DE BRÉADÚN
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
NUMBER OF TDs I N PARLIAMENTARY PARTY
PERCENTAGE OF VOTE IN 2007 GENERAL ELECTION
PERCENTAGE OF VOTE IN 2009 LOCAL ELECTIONS
PERCENTAGE OF VOTE IN JUNE 2010 IRISH TIMES POLL
Deaglán de Bréadún is Political Correspondent
© 2010 The Irish Times