Sinn Fein's clear 'brand image' distinguished it from rivals


ANALYSIS/Sinn Fein: Sinn Féin has emerged triumphant, having exceeded its own carefully controlled expectations, writes Mark Hennessy, Political Reporter

Five years ago, Sinn Féin's solitary TD in the 28th Dáil, Mr Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, brought Mr Gerry Adams and other along to form a line for the cameras as he walked through the gates of Leinster House.

Next month, Mr Ó Caoláin will not have to bring any crowd when he arrives with four fellow TDs. Politics in the Republic will be changed radically, and in ways that are yet impossible to fully comprehend.

"This is a real foundation. We are a party to be reckoned with. It isn't just a matter of having TDs, of having ministers. It is a matter of bringing change," said Mr Adams.

The battle for the real leadership of the Opposition will begin immediately. Fine Gael is likely to be forced to look inwards for months as it struggles to come to grips with its defeat, and to define a role.

Already, Labour, Sinn Féin and the Greens are jostling for position. The battle between Labour and the others could be as fierce as anything seen in the election.

Yesterday, Mr Mitchell McLaughlin of Sinn Féin began the job of creating an Opposition within an Opposition by calling for co-ordination between the Greens, Sinn Féin and Independents on the Left.

Over recent years, Sinn Féin and the Greens have co-operated frequently on local authorities. Even more importantly, their respective voters are instinctively prepared to transfer preferences.

On Saturday, 1,051 of Sinn Féin's Daithí Doolan's 2,555 transfers in Dublin South East elected the Green Party's John Gormley; 963 transfers from Sinn Féin's Deirdre Whelan in Dublin South helped Gormley's colleague, Eamon Ryan.

"John Gormley would not have his seat without my transfers," Mr Doolan told The Irish Times. "The same goes for Eamon Ryan and Ciaran Cuffe in Dún Laoghaire. Sinn Féin transfers were key to their success. That pattern of co-operation has been going on since the mid-90s."

Alliance brings benefits. Under the often arcane rules of the Houses of the Oireachtas, parties must have seven TDs before they are given full rights.

The Greens; Sinn Féin; the Socialist Party TD, Mr Joe Higgins; and Independent TD, Mr Finian McGrath, and others have much in common, even if much divides them.

Under the Dáil's rules, they could agree to form a so-called technical group, which would allow access to private member's time, committee membership, and, importantly, the opportunity to put down priority questions to ministers and the Taoiseach.

However, a majority of all the 25 possible members of such a grouping in the next Dáil must agree to establishing such a technical group before its formation is permitted. The Greens, the Sinn Féin TDs, and two Independents would have to agree to co-operate.

Despite Sinn Féin's talk about the need for "an alliance of progressive, radical forces to bring about equality", the Greens are likely to be cautious.

However, the Dáil is just one part of Sinn Féin's plan. "We have to be relevant on the ground. We have to help communities and groups that are already operating on a whole host of issues," said the new Dublin South West TD, Mr Sean Crowe.

Sinn Féin's publicity director, Ms Dawn Doyle, agreed: "If we are going to build the party, it means doing it at all levels in the community. It means convincing business that we have solid business policies, that we are not anti-business," she said.

The signs that Sinn Féin was bound for a good performance came in the early hours of Saturday morning, when the party's candidate in Meath, Cllr Joe O'Reilly, obtained 6,000 first preferences - compared to 2,000 in 1997. But a lack of transfers scuppered his hopes.

Over the weekend, however, there was evidence that Sinn Féin had begun to break the hoodoo of only getting first preference "plumper" votes and no transfers.

In Dublin South Central, Sinn Féin's Aengus Ó Snodaigh won 5,591 first preferences, but he went on to add nearly 2,000 to that total before he was elected on the 11th count, along with Labour's Mary Upton.

In Dublin South West, Mr Crowe gained transfers across the party board, and, interestingly, throughout the full breadth of constituency, including its middle-class districts of Templeogue and Terenure.

"We were taking transfers from everywhere. A few years ago, we would have been left waiting for a couple of hours for a couple of votes. But nobody has a difficulty transferring to us," said Tallaght-based Cllr Mark Daly.

Old-fashioned ward politics played its part, particularly in areas of Dublin such as Killanarden in Tallaght and Ringsend in the inner city, where the voters tend not to turn out, and politicians from the bigger parties tend not to be seen.

Unlike Fine Gael, perhaps, Sinn Féin has a clear "brand image". "This has marked a shift in Irish politics. Not a drift, this is a shift," said Mr Robbie Smyth, an influential Sinn Féin adviser.

Sinn Féin's electoral success will impact far from Leinster House, perhaps by helping to convince some in the republican movement that the days of violence can be fully left to the past.

"There is no going back for anybody. There were guys working on this campaign who would have been doing other things a good few years back. It was amazing to look around and see them," said one party member.