Seanad referendum and forthcoming budget exercise party hearts and minds

A cool but sunny day in Carlingford, Co Louth. The sea is like glass as a group of kayakers paddle towards the shore. Above this gorgeous medieval village stands Slieve Foy, without its usual cap of fog today. The atmosphere among Sinn Féin TDs, Senators, MLAs and MPs here is as serene and as sunny as the day, reflecting a political grouping whose strong sense is of a party on the rise.

It has become a tradition for parliamentarians of all parties to meet as the summer ends, the media shorthand for which has become “think-ins”.

The meetings serve two purposes: planning for the session ahead and generating publicity ahead of the new Oireachtas term. It is usual for parties to have a pro-forma announcement of an initiative and change. Sinn Féin's day-long meeting sought to identify the party's political priorities for the upcoming term, both South and North, as well as a "stock-take" on its performance (politically and in the media) over the past year.

Sign of the times
In his opening remarks Gerry Adams made an aside that it was apt the meeting was being held in an adventure centre. It may have been a reference to its troubled (and still troubling) past. But in the context of Sinn Féin these days, maybe it's not really apt any more. He told his colleagues that for those staying overnight there was a kayak race the following morning at 7.30. It's a sign of the transition and journey that Sinn Féin has made over the past 16 years that – like the other Southern parties – an early-morning paddle is as adventurous as it gets for its members nowadays.


In an interesting departure, the party also invited two unionist Assembly members, Basil McCrea and John McAllister (from the new N21 party), to address the meeting and give their perspective on political developments in the North. President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions John Douglas also addressed the meeting on the theme of "defending workers and challenging austerity".

Underlying all this are the longer-term strategies – and given its own legacy no party strategises as obsessively as Sinn Féin – of electoral gain, especially in the South. The party’s medium-term goals are next summer’s local and European elections. Even if its opinion poll ratings have fallen back slightly, it will make big gains next year, with a significant increase in its complement of councillors and with a strong chance of winning at least one EU Parliament seat.

There are more immediate short-term priorities and they were obvious in the stand-up interview leader Gerry Adams did ahead of the meeting, as well as his opening address.

They are the two significant set events in October: the referendum on abolition of the Seanad on October 4th and the budget on October 15th.

'Core republican values'
In his address to his colleagues, Adams said the party faced a "very strenuous upcoming phase" in relation to both matters.

In relation to its budgetary strategy he said Sinn Féin needed to develop “very basic core republican values”. He continued: “Republicanism is about citizenship, about equality, everybody being treated on a fair basis.” He argued that Sinn Féin’s budget would meet the targets but would be lower than the €3.1 billion being sought by the EU-IMF troika. He said the Government had a choice, but its decisions reflected its ideological position.

In the year of the 100th anniversary of the Lockout he accused the Government of pursuing “disgraceful anti-working class policies”.

The other immediate priority is the Seanad referendum. Sinn Féin wanted the electorate to be given the choice of reform in addition to the retention or abolition option. In the absence of that, it is arguing for a Yes vote.

“We cannot support the retention of an institution that is elitist,” argued Adams. As is the norm with Sinn Féin, the meeting also strongly emphasised the North, with a briefing that included its analysis of the violence and sectarian tensions that reared up during the summer.