Nothing ruled out as Sinn Fein focuses on a greater future role


ANALYSIS:Sinn Féin’s Ardfheis takes place this weekend, the party fortunes having been revived by Lisbon in the wake of its general election debacle, writes DEAGLÁN DE BRÉADÚN

ONE OF those who was most involved in the peace process on the Government side but is now grappling with the dramatic complexities of the economic crisis confided recently that it was a source of relief not to have to cope with an additional burden of worry about the North in these turbulent days.

Even in the event of a deadly attack on the police by dissident republicans, the overall state of community and inter-party relations in Northern Ireland is quiescent. The two sides may not be getting on like a house on fire, but there are no houses on fire either.

It is against this background that Sinn Féin assembles for its latest ardfheis tonight and tomorrow at the traditional location of the Royal Dublin Society in Dublin. It has been a long road from all-out conflict, through the hunger-strikes, the ending of abstention from the Dáil, the ceasefires and the Belfast and St Andrews agreements, to powersharing in the North and a modest but vociferous role in the parliamentary process at Leinster House.

Formerly little more than a cheerleader for the IRA, Sinn Féin is now a serious entity in its own right. It is a prime partner in the governing process north of the Border and a small but far from negligible player in the political game in the Republic.

The last general election was a fairly wretched experience for the Shinners. Party leader and republican icon Gerry Adams turned out to have feet of clay on economic issues. The unforgiving environment of the television studio exposed his weaknesses in a way that would never have occurred in Castlereagh detention centre.

The party lost one of its five seats and, more importantly, failed to secure a place in the Dáil for its chief spokeswoman and public voice in the South, Mary Lou McDonald MEP. The four Sinn Féin TDs who survived the electoral cull are hardworking individuals, but none of them would ever set the world on fire with their rhetoric.

McDonald on the other hand would give Eamon Gilmore a run for his money. Her well-modulated tones are just what the spin-doctor ordered for verbal confrontations in the Dáil or on TV or radio.

At present she is campaigning to retain her seat in the European Parliament, but Sinn Féin really needs her in Leinster House. Whether this can be accomplished through one of the Dublin byelections or in the next general election remains to be seen. She will get yet another boost to her profile when she introduces Adams’s presidential address tomorrow night, and she is also set to become party vice-president in succession to Pat Doherty, who has stepped down after 20 years.

Just as the European Union is praised for having breathed life into a depleted and forlorn Irish economy in the ’80s and early ’90s so, too, can the EU take credit, in an indirect and ironic way, for reviving the fortunes of Sinn Féin.

The party was tottering badly, and then the first Lisbon referendum came along.

Anyone who was there will remember well the mad media scramble around Adams as he made his way to the winners’ enclosure, aka the referendum count centre, in Dublin Castle last June. It looked as if a media fistfight was going to break out at one stage, such was the rush to get close to the Sinn Féin president.

Although Declan Ganley was arguably the prime mover in the referendum defeat, Sinn Féin cashed in big-time as the leading force on the republican left, and made the most of the media and political opportunities arising in the campaign.

A second Lisbon vote looms sometime this year and, although the party has officially adopted a “wait and see” attitude to the Government’s efforts to secure guarantees from Brussels on various issues, the noises it is making strongly suggest that Sinn Féin will be a leading force on the No side once again.

Although the methods of achieving it may have changed, Sinn Féin still espouses a policy of Irish reunification and this will be Martin McGuinness’s main theme this weekend.

It would be an undoubted propaganda boost for the party to have ministers in government on both sides of the Border and would play especially well with its Irish-American supporters.

From the point of view of the republican project, it is vital for Sinn Féin to get into government in the Republic. But in order to do so, it has to become an acceptable coalition partner to the other parties. In that context, it was fascinating to note that Sinn Féin voted in favour of the Government’s bank guarantee scheme in principle, along with Fine Gael, whereas Labour voted against.

Likewise, speaking on RTÉ Radio 1’s This Week programme on June 10th, 2007, in the aftermath of the general election, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin sent out a very strong signal to Fine Gael that Sinn Féin would be willing to talk about coalition. “We are available and willing to speak with all different opinion, including Enda Kenny and Fine Gael; we have ruled out absolutely nothing,” he said.

Just as Fine Gael initially had difficulty swallowing the idea of coalition with Democratic Left in former times, so too it would have problems accepting the notion of partnership with Sinn Féin. But as the economy sinks below the waterline, there’s no knowing which of the passengers may yet cling to one another for protection.

Deaglán de Bréadún is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times