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.

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