Time for SF to reassess as activists walk away

Thu, Jul 23, 2009, 01:00

IT MAY be an illusion, but does summer make discontent boil over in the lower ranks of politics? Local councillors seem to draft resignations as they dig out the swimming costumes: done with that, shake off dust, let the rest wait for the new school term, writes FIONNUALA O’CONNOR

Sinn Féin is not the only party with malcontents, but has taken most hits, North and South, and may have the most thorough-going questions to consider. It might of course make sense for unionist parties to re-examine unionism, but that looks like a task for another generation. Ulster Unionists, the DUP and even the infant Traditional Unionist Voice have all lost councillors.

Republicanism has a more impatient base, more politicised supporters. Their re-definition has come too far to stall now.

The thoughts of Toiréasa Ferris perhaps won publication in a recent An Phoblacht, house organ of mainstream republicanism, because of her father’s standing. But it was forthright criticism from the Kerry councillor, a cruel blow from one of the Sinn Féin leadership favoured line-up of comely females – even though she is perhaps best known as daughter of Martin Ferris, gunrunner/turned pillar of the peace process.

Ms Ferris suggested that Northern success has served only to damage development in the South, where she recommended a renewed commitment to community activism that sounded like rejection of mainstream politics, and even republicanism.

Then veteran of Strabane council Gerard Foley announced last week that he was off, softpedalling his reasons, while the third Southern councillor to go in three weeks departed at the weekend, 28-year-old Dubliner Louise Minihan.

Her stint as director of elections for TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh did not stop him carping that she had waited to take this course until after election as a councillor, and he would like her to do the decent thing and hand back her seat.

She made clear that would not happen. Ó Snodaigh should have winced as she declared “it would be hypocrisy to give way to a party I no longer support or believe in”.

Sourness in their wake gave the lie to suggestions that the recanters were not important, their departure merely an irritant. When enthusiastic party activists shear off, abandoning discretion to lambast policy and lack of leadership, no party can be easy about it.

Mainstream republicanism is no ordinary party. Coming out of a sealed world dominated by a secret army, it still has twinges of the old instincts to go after the renegades. Or dissidents, as they might have been called if others had not been given the name earlier.

Louise Minihan joined as a 16-year-old in 1998, as the long, erratic process of winding down the IRA began: an era ago in republican development. She leaves an organisation which still needs to develop openness in internal debate, for all it tries to relegate the memories of bound and hooded bodies dumped in border ditches. Ms Minihan can say her piece and walk away.

But she did at least hark back to republicanism’s central dogma in her complaint that today’s Sinn Féin was no longer willing or able to challenge the British occupation of the six counties.

Toiréasa Ferris in her An Phoblachtessay made no such charge.

Like Minihan, she thought that the party had forfeited principle, but complained that “too many voters unfortunately see us as a Northern-based party”. It was the sole reference to the old obsessions.

All the same, Southern unease about Northern dominance of the party leadership sounds fairly central to discontent about its fortunes. Listening to youthful voices chirruping disquiet where they failed to listen to the grizzled Christy Burke, the less glamorous and earlier refusenik in inner Dublin Sinn Féin’s ageing top table must sometimes recognise a strong partitionist note.

Should they cut their cloth? Set free the three green fields, lose those community activists at the recession-hit grassroots once more, and abandon the Dáil to Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin? Gerry Adams takes off abroad again, like a latter-day John Hume, but without the one-time network of powerful friends. The appeal to the diaspora to crusade for unification may have more to do with finding a role for the displaced Adams than real expectations of enthusing recession-crushed Irish-America about a united Ireland.

Maybe it is time instead to assess strengths and weaknesses, to be realistic and re-christen the most efficient part of the organisation Sinn Féin/Northern Ireland. (Which would make it SIFFNI. Perhaps a thought not to be borne – although the mocking PISSNI never did catch on for the PSNI, Police Service of Northern Ireland.)

A Northern-bound SIFFNI, in effect if not actually re-named, would delight the lower-case eirig now setting out its stall of 32-county socialist republicanism with no big names, but apparent confidence.

The new school term will be worth monitoring.