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‘We had spies there . . . I envy them.’ How the political world saw Sinn Féin’s meetings

Public meetings elicited curiosity, nerves and jealousy among SF opponents

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald arrives at a public meeting in Liberty Hall, Dublin. Photograph: Reuters/Lorraine O’Sullivan

The size of the crowd at the first post-election Sinn Féin public meeting was indeed impressive, acknowledged a senior Fianna Fáiler. “We had spies there,” the Fianna Fáiler added, deadly serious, of the event last Monday evening in the Rochestown Park Hotel, Cork.

It is no surprise that Fianna Fáil wanted to see for itself what type of event Mary Lou McDonald had planned for the heart of Cork South Central, Micheál Martin's constituency.

Mary Lou McDonald arrives at the Sinn Féin public rally in Cork. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

It was the first of three such "rallies" this week: Liberty Hall in Dublin and the Canal Court Hotel in Newry followed on Tuesday and Wednesday, with more scheduled for the days ahead.

Sinn Féin have held a public meeting at Liberty Hall, Dublin as part of their series of public events to rally support for the party’s efforts to get into government. Video: Bryan O’Brien

Sinn Féin had the perfect advertisement in Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's claim that the events were the next stage in what he claimed was a "campaign of intimidation and bullying" by the party. When they turned out to be largely the same as any other political public meeting, although bigger in scale, Varadkar looked foolish, as even some in Fine Gael acknowledged.


Some in Sinn Féin speculated that the public meetings could have been designed 'to increase the pressure on Fianna Fáil' over its decision not to enter talks

At each event, opening speeches attacking political opponents and lauding Sinn Féin’s general election success were followed by a question and answer session with McDonald and other senior party figures.

Yet a curiosity about the events, mixed with some nervousness and jealously, lingered among political opponents. An estimated 1,000 people attended both Cork and Newry. About 500 gained entry to Liberty Hall in Dublin, although many were turned away when the venue reached capacity.

“I envy them being able to do that,” a Fianna Fáil TD said. “They are on the crest of a wave.”

Posters for the events began to spring up after McDonald and Martin attacked each other across the Dáil chamber on the first sitting day after the general election.

Martin had slammed the door shut on any notion he would enter coalition with Sinn Féin in a speech which attacked the party’s economic policies, culture and past associations with the IRA. McDonald responded by accusing Martin of having a “narrow and bitter mind”.

Some in Sinn Féin speculated that the public meetings could have been designed “to increase the pressure on Fianna Fáil” over its decision not to enter government formation talks with McDonald.

Many in Sinn Féin say Fianna Fáil, from its grassroots to frontbench, is divided on Sinn Féin and want to apply pressure on Martin through those avenues. But others in Sinn Féin said this was not the thinking behind the meetings.

“I’m not sure that was the intention,” said one party figure. “But if that is a by-product, then it is a very welcome by-product.”

Sinn Féin rally at a filled-to-capacity Liberty Hall, Dublin. Photograph: Tom Honan

Numerous Sinn Féin sources cited the precedent of the party consulting its base in Northern Ireland throughout the peace process, a practice that has continued with what the party calls “town hall meetings”.

One source said such meetings, like those over the past week – with one each in Cavan and Galway scheduled for next week – are almost like Sinn Féin “negotiating with our own base”.

Yet the crowds in Cork, Dublin and Newry, especially Cork, were a mix of Sinn Féin members celebrating the election success, party voters and others who were just curious.

“Clearly these are people who are interested in us,” said a Sinn Féin TD, who added the events were about continuing to talk “not just to the base, but with a wider group and set of people”. Another TD said: “Look, there is an element of striking while the iron is hot.”

Another figure said the party also wanted to maintain contact between senior TDs such as Pearse Doherty, Eoin Ó Broin, Louise O'Reilly and voters on the ground. Those who attended the meetings, it is argued, could go away thinking, "I know what I said to them is being taken back to Leinster House".

The meetings also attracted others from across the left, such as Cork North Central Solidarity TD Mick Barry, as well as councillors and other left-wing activists.

One non-Sinn Féin political operative present at one meeting said many of the attendees were “new” people.

“Sinn Féin are strengthening their base at the rallies – consolidating voters, winning new recruits – even if they probably don’t strengthen their chances greatly of getting into talks with the establishment parties.”

At each event, McDonald and other speakers initially attacked Varadkar and Martin but it soon became clear the main target was Martin. There is genuine frustration in Sinn Féin that Fianna Fáil will not enter coalition talks, but a contribution at the Newry meeting is likely to have spoken to Martin’s concerns about the party.

His Dáil speech referenced the 2007 murder of 21-year-old Paul Quinn from Cullyhanna, Co Armagh, a murder for which the Quinn family has always held the IRA responsible.

During the election campaign, Conor Murphy, Sinn Féin’s finance minister in the Northern Executive, apologised for remarks he made at the time which suggested Quinn was involved in criminality and smuggling.

Murphy sat at the top table at the Newry meeting alongside McDonald and Michelle O’Neill, the Stormont Deputy First Minister.

A man called Kevin from Crossmaglen drew warm applause when he told Murphy: “In relation to what you said a few years ago, you have absolutely nothing to apologise for.”

His comments were not acknowledged by the top table. There was also applause when another contributor said that Sinn Féin, "when" in power in Dublin, should have a "special word" with RTÉ over the "disgraceful way they deal with ourselves in Northern Ireland".

In response, McDonald said the media had a job to do.

Across the meetings, there were hints that McDonald – who says she wants to lead a government of the left – is still keeping her options open and wants to ensure Sinn Féin is seen as a party of government and not of protest.

Among the attendees in Newry, there was anger at Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael for refusing to talk to Sinn Féin

The 45 Dáil votes garnered by McDonald when the Dáil voted for Taoiseach saw Sinn Féin’s 37 TDs supplemented by another five from Solidarity-People Before Profit and three from Independents4Change.

In Cork, Barry again told McDonald that his support is contingent on her not entering government with Fianna Fáil. She chose not to address his point.

In Liberty Hall, a member of People Before Profit raised the subject of a March 7th protest in Dublin against the prospect of a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael government.

McDonald, while wishing those who took part well, firmly indicated Sinn Féin will not take part.

“The focus of our work is on the negotiations with other parties,” she said. “The reality is the numbers will either stand or fall within the Dáil.”

Her response seemed to satisfy some of those in the audience who sit further left on the political spectrum than Sinn Féin.

Adam Maher (18) and his friend James Carroll, both from Kilbarrack in Dublin, left the meeting impressed with what they saw.

“Some of the things that came up, I never would have thought of,” said Maher. “The autism question, the one about disability housing, community housing.”

Carroll said he is “a bit more to the left” of Solidarity-People Before Profit, but added of the March 7th protest: “It is important to show up, have your solidarity but [Sinn Féin] are more focused on forming a government.”

McDonald repeatedly said Sinn Féin, the Greens and the Social Democrats gained from a desire for change at the election and should form a government that is republican, green and left.

As speculation continues about a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil-Green Party coalition, her meetings also act as an unspoken challenge to the Greens to defy what she characterises as that demand for change.

The prospect of a second election this year lingers, and further meetings, Sinn Féin hopes, will sustain its momentum

Among the attendees in Newry, there was anger at Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael for refusing to talk to Sinn Féin.

Sisters Claire Bolger and Eileen Hart, both originally from Dublin but now living outside Newry, brought Hart’s 14-year-old son Oisín to the meeting. Both are teachers at the Redeemer Boys’ National School in Dundalk; both are Sinn Féin voters but not party members.

“The other parties ought to be ashamed of themselves saying that they won’t talk to the party that the people have voted for,” said Bolger.

Hart said she was “disappointed with the type of politics that is happening at the minute regarding Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael slinging all the dirt and the mud.

“I just think that at this point in time we need to move from that and move quickly because the needs of the people are huge.”

Top table: Mary Lou McDonald and Eoin Ó Broin at the Sinn Féin rally at Liberty Hall. Photograph: Tom Honan

Party supporter Pat McAleavey (59) said “everyone is trying to downplay the success of Sinn Féin, especially I have to say, the Irish press”.

There was no evidence at the meetings of the party preparing its base for any compromises that will need to be made if Sinn Féin is to reach government or agree a common left platform.

Some of its election promises, such as restoring the pension age to 65 and introducing a rent freeze, were repeatedly mentioned.

Party figures say compromises will have to be made, but one TD bluntly said the public message may have been different if Sinn Féin was preparing to negotiate with Fianna Fáil and government was near.

“Do you prepare your base for compromises that may not happen? The considerations would’ve been different if Fianna Fáil had been willing to talk.”

More meetings on top of those already announced are being planned. The prospect of a second election this year lingers, and further meetings, Sinn Féin hopes, will sustain its momentum.

“Some people have been on saying: ‘When are you coming to Limerick, when are you coming to the midlands?’” said one source. “We are going to keep them going.”