Difficult challenges remain for Sinn Féin party on the rise

Party is struggling to position itself and has adopted every populist position going

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness who addressed the party’s ardfheis in Wexford last night. Photograph: PA

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness who addressed the party’s ardfheis in Wexford last night. Photograph: PA

Sat, Feb 8, 2014, 10:23

This year will mark the 20th year since the IRA announced its first ceasefire.

While its dominant personalities - Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness - have remained constant, the party has undergone profound changes during that time.

Electorally, in the south, the general election of 2011 was a defining moment. Since then, the narrative surrounding Sinn Féin has been that of a party on an inexorable rise.

That face is sure to be presented unremittingly at its ardfheis this weekend in the salubrious surroundings of the Wexford Opera House.

Opinion polls suggests the party is harnessing more and more popular support. No matter which way you look at it, it just can’t lose in this year’s local and European elections.

It had a dire local election in 2009, winning 54 seats, exactly the same as it won in 2004. With the increased number of council seats following reforms of local government, the party should double its seats and then some.

It has zero MEPs in the South at present - it will be a surprise if one of its three relatively unknown candidates (Matt Carthy being the most likely) does not take a seat.

Even before a vote has been cast, you can safely say it’s going to be a win-win.

Yet there is another, less seen and less obvious narrative: that of a tricky and painful adaptation to the new (and more limited) realities of post-conflict politics.

And while there is no better party at using militaristic discipline to present a united face, some of those difficulties may emerge at the Ard Fheis, which has at its theme the vague notion of ‘Putting Ireland First’.

Reading through the motions of the clár, the difficulties become more apparent. Sinn Féin’s position on the so-called national question is still its defining characteristic.

But the manner in which it defines itself, especially to a southern electorate, is still very much a work in progress. Many motions try to meld the issues on both sides of the Border as if they were one, when in reality they are often very different.

The party is in a power-sharing executive in the North and in opposition in the South. No matter how it is parlayed, that amounts to two very different realities.

Adams and McGuinness remain the party’s biggest draws but they may also constitute drags in the future as the party tries to broaden its breadth of policies and its reach.

The recent BBC documentary on the ‘disappeared’ that drew Adams into this inglorious part of the IRA’s history was a powerful reminder of this.

The uncomfortable ride that McGuinness had over the still-bitter legacy of the ‘Troubles’ during the 2011 presidential election also showed that there is a very different dispensation in the south.

That said, the conference will rally around Adams and bolster him in a leadership role that has never been in doubt among its supporters. But it will also defer more to Mary Lou McDonald and Pearse Doherty, its two stand-out personalities in the south.

One of the motions calls for the party not to go into a coalition with a right-wing party. The corollary is that Sinn Fein is a party of the left. But is it truly so? Beyond the ‘national question’ it has struggled to position itself and the party has rightly been criticised in the past for adopting every populist position that is going.

It opposes water charges and property tax, for example. But what are its alternatives? Caoimhghin O Caoláin has developed some strong health policies over a long period. Pearse Doherty has given much-needed credibility to its finance policies but they still include a lot of very hopeful arithmetic.

But in so many other areas - from agriculture to education to the environment - the party has not really come up with coherent through-through joined-up policies. In some areas, you sense a lack of imagination as if their hearts are not really in it.

Beyond the obvious, finance and health have become central as have governance, political reform, and a ‘critical engagement’ with the EU.

This motion on the EU, under the Ard Chomhairle’s name, sets out its opposition to any further ceding of sovereignty. Its position can be read no other way than wholly eurosceptic which sets it apart from other parties at least.

The outlook of the party is also becoming increasingly liberal and that has exposed fault lines with more conservative and traditional supporters . One motion calls for all religious orders to lose charitable status which will be controversial.

Conversely, another motion signed by 15 cumainn challenges a more liberal position and also the iron grip of obedience that stems from its leadership. Supporting Peadar Tóbiín’s position, it argues all members should be allowed to express their views and vote on the issue of abortion according to their conscience. That will prove the most divisive motion of the weekend.

There are the standard ‘solidarity’ pieces aligning Sinn Fein with a host of revolutionary movements.

Immediately preceding Adams speech there will be a tribute to Nelson Mandela, with the inference of a similarity of stature between both leaders. That will grate on too many ears.

Twenty years after the ceasefire Sinn Féin is still at least one general election away from that kind of acceptance.

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