Referendum offers SF oxygen of publicity but it is struggling even for leadership of No campaign

Tue, May 20, 2008, 01:00

ANALYSIS:SINN FÉIN has invested much in the Lisbon Treaty referendum campaign: 500,000 leaflets, hours upon hours of effort, and careers hanging upon the result.

Yesterday, the party formally launched its campaign for a No vote to a small corps of press, so unlike days of yore when journalists hung on every word.

However, interesting things are happening underneath the surface, as Sinn Féin’s decision to trumpet its pro-EU feelings at every opportunity testifies.

The only major political party to oppose ratification of the treaty, Sinn Féin should be the ones to benefit from any No upsurge, even if it is not enough to defeat the treaty.

The opinion poll results do not hold good tidings for the party, which is increasingly frustrated by its lack of profile in the Dáil now that it no longer has formal party recognition under Oireachtas rules after the loss of Seán Crowe’s seat in the last election.

However, it has had to struggle to compete for the oxygen of publicity with an unelected lobby group, Libertas, headed by multi-millionaire Declan Ganley.

So far, it has not decisively become the face of the No campaign, partly because the party’s leader, Gerry Adams, is much less visible in the Republic.

But there is still a month to go and public attention will grow stronger as polling day approaches, so there are major gains for the party possible if it gets its house in order.

Opening the press conference yesterday, Adams went to great pains to spend time introducing everybody else in the party. Indeed, one could have been forgiven for believing that he was determined not to deliver a quotable quote for TV and radio.

Partly, Adams has to do this if Sinn Féin is ever to develop a recognisable leadership structure in the Republic, but every time he does he will be open to the charge that his confidence remains brittle following a poor election campaign last year.

This is the first SF campaign that is being run by people in Dublin, and not by people from Belfast – even if that is partly because Belfast is uncomfortable with the subject.

Mary Lou McDonald has developed into a formidable No campaigner: far surer than many of her colleagues, and far surer than many on the Yes side. McDonald cannot be the sole face of the campaign, though, and few of her colleagues are sufficiently well-briefed to be trusted to make a credible case for a No vote.

The Dublin MEP has invested much in the campaign, since she has to perform well if she is to have any chance of holding on to her seat in next year’s European Parliament elections when Dublin drops to a three-seater constituency from four today.

Sinn Féin does not need a No victory, but it does need to fight a good war so as to widen its appeal to voters who might stay with them for next year’s elections.