Sinn Féin hindered by a partition it despises
ANALYSIS:Sinn Féin is in a mess south of the Border. Can it survive, asks HARRY McGEE
A DECADE ago, Sinn Féin strategist Jim Gibney made the audacious prediction it would make spectacular strides in the South, with the number of TDs reaching respectable double figures (many took that as 20-plus or 30-plus) within two decades.
Within a few years, his confidence seemed less fanciful. In 2002 and 2004, the party made huge electoral gains. In the general election, it increased its Dáil seats from one to five. Two years later, in the local elections, it gained a whopping 33 council seats to take its tally to 54, winning 10 seats on Dublin City Council alone. In the European Parliament elections the same year, Mary Lou McDonald won a seat in Dublin and Pearse Doherty almost secured a second in North East.
Other parties muttered darkly about Sinn Féin’s “army” of volunteers. But there was more than a little envy in that. Sinn Féin was brilliantly organised. A cluster of opinion polls showed support levels consistently above 10 per cent. Its rise seemed unstoppable.
Broad hints were dropped of a possible coalition with Fianna Fáil after 2007.
Interviewed in October 2004, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams said the party would only consider coalition in the South if that advanced the process of change.
“We have no interest in ministerial seats for the sake of it . . . Neither could we proceed without a real strategy for Irish unity,” he said.
But, crucially, it was abundantly clear he was not ruling coalition out.
As it transpired, that autumn was the high-water mark for Sinn Féin and its grander ambitions in the South. Electorally, since then, it has – in the kindest interpretation – been in a holding pattern. It’s more probable that the party has been on a slow slide since then, with no real sign of a reversal. In the 2007 election, the party retained its 2004 vote share of just under 7 per cent. It served only to give some scoreboard respectability.
The party lost one Dáil seat and markedly failed to get any of its younger candidates – Mary Lou McDonald in Dublin; Padraig Mac Lochlainn and Pearse Doherty in Donegal; or David Cullinane in Waterford – elected. It was left with its Dáil old guard, led by Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin. That deprived it of an identifiable and articulate figure around whom the party could rally as a Southern alternative to Gerry Adams. It was a huge setback.
Worse was to come in 2009. The party treaded water in the local elections, winning 54 seats, the same as in 2004. McDonald failed to retain her seat. Gains in Cork, Mayo and Wicklow disguised an emerging faultline in Dublin, where it was haemorrhaging seats and members. Those problems have been compounded since last summer with the defection of three of its Dublin city councillors: Christy Burke, Louise Minihan and Killian Forde. It’s hard to conclude other than the party du jour of six years ago is now facing a full-blown existential crisis in the South.
What were the causes of the plateauing or backslide? There were many and not all are easily identified. But it underlined the paradox that the fortunes of a party that styled itself as the only all-island party very much reflected the reality of partition.
Two events in December 2004 and January 2005 – the Northern Bank robbery and the brutal murder of Robert McCartney – proved to be massive and lasting setbacks in the South, much more damaging for the party than north of the Border.
The political cycle was also moving on. The afterglow of a successful peace process was beginning to fade. Adams’s high approval rating in the South was beginning to decline.
There was more scrutiny and scathing criticism of its policies. In some cases, like finance, policy was back-of-the-envelope stuff. Adams was disastrously bad on the economy in a pre-election leaders’ debate on RTÉ. That performance came to be seen as the crystallisation of many party flaws: the disconnect of its message with ordinary people, the North-South dichotomy, and the lack of a credible elected Southern leader.
Sinn Féin’s attempts to broaden its appeal made it less relevant in poorer areas of Dublin. A core of disillusioned councillors and staffers in Dublin left to join Eirigí, a dissident group which describes itself as republican socialist. Other left-wing parties – People Before Profit, the Socialist Party and Labour – began to colonise Sinn Féin strongholds.
In the past year, some of the sternest criticism from within the party has come from its rising stars. In July, Toireasa Ferris, writing in An Phoblacht, the Sinn Féin newspaper, said the party was facing an identity crisis. Voters, she wrote, saw Sinn Féin as “a Northern-based party, irrelevant to the everyday concerns of people in the 26 counties”.
In an internal submission from the same time, Killian Forde wrote: “We are one election away from being totally irrelevant in Dublin and the South in general,” he wrote.
He was scathing of the party’s organisation and structures. On policy, he was equally critical: “Our response to the economic crisis was glacial. The bank guarantee happened in September, our economic policy was launched, way too late, in March or April.”
He also contended that the paramilitary history that valued loyalty above merit was “now become the greatest hindrance to us developing as a dynamic, interesting, vibrant, creative party. There is little tolerance for dissenting opinions.”
Eoin Ó Broin, who returned to Dublin three years ago after 11 years in Belfast, chairs the organisation in Dublin. He disagrees with the arguments of Ferris and Forde that the party has an identity crisis.“For many years, we were a party that was very strong on what it did not like but was not so strong in outlining what we would do. That has changed.”
Ó Broin has characterised the situation facing Sinn Féin in the South as “party-political growing pains”. He agrees there were problems up to 2007 but contends that the party has succeeded in re-establishing itself as a radical left-wing party. “My assessment is that we are making progress. It’s a big machine and change can be slow to take effect. We have not fixed all the problems yet but are in a much better position than we were after the 2007 election.”
Not all will agree with that assessment. For now, there are too many doubts surrounding the party’s standing. Is it possible for Pearse Doherty to win the byelection in Donegal? Can the party retain any Dáil seat in Dublin? Will Toireasa Ferris lose out to Arthur Spring in Kerry North?
There are some who believe Sinn Féin is in terminal decline, like other republican parties that preceded it. Despite the party’s current woes, that view is as far-fetched as the party winning 20 seats or more anytime soon.
Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times