McDonald comes centre stage in first chapter of Sinn Féin rewrite

Sat, Jun 14, 2008, 01:00

ANALYSIS:Following a poor general election campaign last year, Sinn Féin is back in the game, writes Mark Hennessy.

SINN FÉIN'S Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald quietly celebrated in Dublin Castle yesterday surrounded by other more raucous elements of the No campaign.

The body language was interesting. There were no tricolours, no rowdy supporters. Everything was designed to present an image of a sober political party.

Ever since last year's election, Sinn Féin has bridled as it stood ignored in the margins, left without a real platform in Leinster House following the loss of one of its TDs.

Undoubtedly, it is the big winner of the campaign. Last year's election showed that its hopes of power on both sides of the Border were unrealistic.

Following a poor election campaign by Adams, Sinn Féin without a strong southern face could never hope to succeed in elections in the Republic.

Equally, the election showed that the party had to change, or even rewrite much of its past messages to the public. Its Lisbon campaign was the first chapter of that rewrite. Old baggage was quietly put to one side. Although Sinn Féin has campaigned against every past EU referendum, it now declared itself to be a pro-EU party.

The new vocabulary made the party much more difficult for the bigger parties to hit, while it studiously avoided, in public, tying itself to the more extreme calls from others on the No side.

And its vocabulary captured the mood of much of the public, disconnected from the EU, confused about its intentions, doubtful about the path that it could see.

Lisbon has helped the party to begin to find the solution to the party's leadership problem as Dublin MEP Mary Lou McDonald went centre stage and Adams drifted into the background.

In all, she had a superb campaign. Even when she performed less than brilliantly she was not mauled by Government Ministers who failed to land significant punches. She was caught out badly just once when she stumbled in the face of RTÉ's Bryan Dobson, who asked her what France and the Netherlands had gained from their No votes.

By then, however, the repercussions were slight. The 24-hour moratorium observed by broadcasters before the referendum beckoned.

Months ago, few would have given McDonald a prayer of holding on to her seat in the capital in next year's European Parliament elections, when the constituency is reduced to a three-seater.

Now, however, her profile has been hugely increased. Victory next year is far from certain, but, depending on events in coming months, she is now a serious contender.

Yesterday's success will invigorate a membership that had become unsure of itself and its future, and widened its attractiveness to a new, previously untapped electorate.

Now that Sinn Féin has shown that it can successfully redraft some of its messages, it will tackle the job of dealing with the rest of its policy manifestos with more confidence.

Yesterday's result emerged because working-class districts voted No. Now, Sinn Féin has to ensure that those same districts come out and vote for them. That will not be an easy task.

In 2004, many of those same districts came out in large numbers to vote for the citizenship referendum that restricted the rights of immigrants' children to an Irish passport.

However, there is one question. Has Sinn Féin been too successful for its own good? A narrow defeat would have brought it many of the advantages of yesterday's result, without any of the risks.

Months of crisis, if that happens, for Ireland at European level could backfire on Sinn Féin if the public begins to doubt the wisdom of yesterday's referendum.

But that is for another day. Politics is about winning, and Sinn Féin has won.

The dangers of success are dangers that the party will happily deal with.