Republicans woo young voters and deliver softer image on doorsteps

 

The issues of decommissioning and participation in government are the obsessions of other parties. They are not raised by voters on the doorsteps in the Republic. For Sinn Fein, the next general election is a phase, not a finishing line.

These are the views of Mr Robbie Smyth, a 35-year-old lecturer in journalism in Griffith College, Dublin, who is the official spokesman offered by Sinn Fein headquarters to The Irish Times. He is a member of the party's election team in the Republic.

Affable and articulate, unlike the grimly efficient Northerners who have dominated the public face of the party, he presents a softer image. He is married with a three-year-old daughter. He was brought up in a Fine Gael-leaning household in Dublin. He became involved in republican politics as a student in UCD in the early 1980s, though he did not formally join Sinn Fein until the late 1980s. He worked for years in the weekly republican newspaper, An Phoblacht.

He is quick to admit that Sinn Fein was as surprised as the major parties by the outcome of the Nice referendum - though for different reasons. "We are only beginning to digest the results. It has done good things and bad things for us. It has shown the Leinster House parties that people are prepared to debate economic issues and that they do not believe them," he says.

"It has given us new credibility," he maintains. "People are beginning to think that if there were more Sinn Fein TDs and they played a bigger role, then what would that role be? It is an excellent chance for us to explain."

The decision to oppose Nice was carefully thought out. The Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, met the Sinn Fein president, Mr Adams, early in the campaign and asked him why the party was urging a No vote. Shrugging his shoulders on the staircase of Government Buildings, Mr Adams looked up and smiled: "Can you think of a better way of getting publicity?"

The strategy worked brilliantly for Sinn Fein. The party attached itself to a voting base larger than its own. Gerry Adams was pitched up against the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Cowen, and the leader of Fine Gael, Mr Michael Noonan, in the presidential radio and TV debates of the campaign.

The party with a private army could oppose a European army at the height of the latest debacle on decommissioning. It was off the decommissioning hook and Northern Ireland for the duration of the campaign.

If the Nice success has surprised Sinn Fein, it has given the bigger parties a wake-up call. "There is a little bit of the startled bunny about them, sure, but they will not let this happen again. They will put in a much bigger effort next time. We do not want to believe other people's propaganda, or our own," says Mr Smyth.

Success had not happened overnight and they would want to bear that in mind, he continues. "We were a long time getting here. We do not want to be seen as a flash in the pan."

The goal is to build the organisation and the party. Sinn Fein will be contesting seats in about 20 constituencies. "Out of them, eight or nine are a priority where we think we have a good chance of winning extra votes. That is just as important as winning seats," he says.

Hungrier and more determined to fight a long political campaign through a mixture of patience, discipline and cunning, Sinn Fein intends to avoid the fate of other smaller parties, Mr Smyth says. The spring tide enjoyed by the Labour Party in 1992 offers them a salutary warning. Once in power, Labour ministers spent their time running their Departments and not thinking about the party. "My first thought would have been, `Well, we have all these seats. What do we have to do to hold on to them'?"

Leading figures in all of the Dail parties wonder whether Sinn Fein will soon be in a coalition government. Would the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, even form a minority Government with Sinn Fein support from outside?

By all appearances, this focus is misplaced. The next general election is seen as another phase for the party. It appears not to be its immediate aim to have ministers in government on both sides of the Border next year.

"I am agnostic about the idea of going into government," says Mr Smyth. Last year's Sinn Fein ardfheis ruled out coalition "after a huge debate. The debate is ongoing. But what is the point in hypothesising about driving a car when you have not yet got a driving licence?

"I think the issue of being in government is one that is being raised by other parties. We are here to represent our constituents. There is a belief among some that you have to be in government to do that. I don't think that is the case."

He continues: "Coalition is not an issue in the party right now. I have not heard anyone speaking in favour of it in any sort of passionate way. No small party has managed to spend more than a decade in Leinster House, bar the Progressive Democrats. And they would have fragmented except for the fact that they went into government. If we are going to break that stranglehold, it is going to take 10 to 15 years."

For now, the party prefers power, not responsibility. Mr Brian Hayes, the Tallaght-based Fine Gael TD who is expected to be joined in the Dail by a Sinn Fein TD after the next election, believes the best way to fence off a small party is to get them into government. "Sinn Fein would be exposed. They realise that," he says.

They are, indeed, on a learning curve. The party has played the populist card locally by leading or backing campaigns for better hospital services, and against refuse charges and mobile telephone masts. The politics of opposition is simple. Progress could become more difficult if, and when, it accumulates Dail seats.

Sinn Fein's four-strong team of councillors on Dublin Corporation has already danced its way around the refuse charges issue. Faced with abolition by the Minister for the Environment, Mr Dempsey, the corporation eventually accepted charges this year.

On the night of the vote, however, Cllr Christy Burke and Cllr Dessie Ellis were absent. Cllr Larry O'Toole and Cllr Nicky Kehoe voted against the charges. But the party's conduct has been obscured by its criticisms of those who accepted the charges. One observer noted: "They reached a deal on this themselves. They didn't want the council abolished either."

In South Dublin County Council, Sinn Fein's two representatives, Cllr Sean Crowe and Cllr Mark Daly, took different sides on a plan by Shamrock Rovers to build a stadium in Oldbawn, Tallaght, under local pressures.

Their opponents from the established parties hope that, in time, Sinn Fein's little-known manifesto will haunt them. "If you showed their economic policies to the children of the Celtic Tiger, they would shudder in horror," according to one TD.

Mr Caoimhghin O Caolain, Sinn Fein's only TD, rejects the charge that the party is either populist or keeping its policies in the shadows. "I hardly believe it is populist to argue for an increase in taxation, as I have done every year since I came into the Dail in my pre-budget submission to Mr Charlie McCreevy," he says.

"We had press conferences to launch each and every policy and they were poorly attended. If they are little known, it is not the party's fault. The Government is trying to buy off the electorate. If Mr McCreevy introduces a fifth budget, it will be the same. People are prepared to pay a fair share for decent services," he says.

Like so many others in Sinn Fein, Mr Smyth is also quick to lambaste the mainstream parties, and the lectures on political morality hit hardest below the belt. "A lot of them have become too centred on electoral barons who are more interested in themselves than their parties."

He insists that Sinn Fein neither possesses, nor encourages, a celebrity culture. Too many people have focused on personalities, he believes. "Sinn Fein is a party with a political agenda. Sinn Fein is not about collecting ministerships," he says.

The celebrity status, particularly in the United States, of Sinn Fein figures does engender huge resentment in other parties. Accusing the media of "embarrassingly soft coverage of Sinn Fein", a senior Fianna Fail strategist suggested that "the kind of Vaseline-on-the-lens stuff doesn't serve anybody well. It reminds one of Tom Wolfe's `radical chic' in the 1970s where the Fifth Avenue socialites in New York brought the Black Panthers to their soirees to show how trendy they were."

Mr Smyth also contends that Sinn Fein's support in the Republic goes beyond the marginalised in society. They are growing the party in other areas now, "particularly with the cynicism felt by the public towards established parties".

Sinn Fein has set out to score on the big and the little things. Activists call to the homes of old-age pensioners in Co Louth to check that everything is all right with them. The visits are appreciated.

In Dublin and elsewhere they systematically check the electoral register in search of first-time voters. Many receive individually addressed letters urging them to become involved in the party.

But the slow, grinding preparation for the next phase is best illustrated on college campuses, where Sinn Fein actively recruits new members and then attempts to keep them interested and involved. Sinn Fein leaders like Mr Adams, Mr Mitchel McLaughlin and Mr Gerry Kelly invest time in the dark winter months turning up at meetings in the universities.

With little or no memory of the IRA's terrorist campaign over 30 years, many students are receptive to the message that the established parties are corrupt, decadent and remote from the interests of ordinary people. Northern Ireland presents the opportunity to radicalise the students. They are invited to spend time with families on the Falls Road, the Ardoyne, the Bogside, historic names to excite the imagination of the young.

All political parties are currently finding it difficult to attract members from a college generation that is less radical with more money in their pockets. Not Sinn Fein. It is the third-biggest party in UCD this year. Sinn Fein has 84 registered members compared to 220 in Fianna Fail's Kevin Barry cumann, 139 in Fine Gael, 43 in Labour and 30 in the Progressive Democrats. The Green Party does not have a branch in the college.

Daniel Byrne, a commerce student from Donnycarney in Dublin, is chairman of Sinn Fein's Tomas McDonagh/Mairead Farrell cumann in UCD. He was attracted to the party by the "bit of idealism" around them. "I would see Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Labour - all of them - as being right-wing."

The most interesting thing, he believes, is to hear about the lives of ordinary people, "the people who would not be famous. You can see Gerry Adams on the television any night of the week. Being in Belfast gives you the real situation. You see RUC Land Rovers pass by. Then you see how intimidating it feels. You see how close everything is. The Tricolour painted on footpaths here; the red, white and blue there. It really amazed me."

Aisling Maguire, who hails, in her words, from a mildly republican family in Arklow, Co Wicklow, joined Sinn Fein shortly after she arrived in UCD. She is studying politics and Irish. "The main thing was that they were a 32county party. I had an interest in all of that. I like Irish and they seemed to be the only people who were using it. I learned about socialism later," she says.

Brendan Hogan, another member, from Ashbourne, Co Meath, is critical of the "fast-food culture" in Irish society. "There is no community spirit. I found that in Sinn Fein."

The party is pursuing a phased strategy to advance in the Republic. The key question still hanging over it, however, is whether it can make significant progress outside its existing working-class bases, with vigilantism and without IRA decommissioning.

The election strategist, Mr Smyth, denies there is intimidation. "Yes, there were Sinn Fein people involved in anti-drugs organisations, but the idea that we drove the agenda is not right. If as much effort was put into policing as was put into the outcry in Kerry North, then we would not have a problem in the first place."

The former Taoiseach, Dr Garret FitzGerald, believes the issue of decommissioning may affect them in middle-class areas but not elsewhere. "Their propaganda system is very focused. We are the peace party. If you murder enough people and then stop, then you become the peace party," he comments caustically.

Mr Smyth disputes that decommissioning is even an issue. "That is raised by other parties. It is not raised by the voters. We are a political party that stands on its merits," he concludes.

Tomorrow: The Dail constituencies targeted by Sinn Fein