Sinn Fein, now indisputably one of the Republic’s fringe parties, may lick its wounds but is likely to find that saliva is a balm lacking in the properties necessary to heal them. What Garret Fitzgerald described as an emphatic rejection of the party by the Southern electorate will have hurt hard and may prove irreversible.
Sinn Fein has thus far been able to mask its retreat from a united Ireland with the forward momentum of electoral success. Crucial to this process was the possibility of the northern nationalist party becoming a government partner in both parts of the country from where it could sit and appear to be busy knitting North and South together. Now it seems that if any all-Ireland party is to become embedded in the Dublin government it shall be the Greens. The future for Sinn Fein shall take the form of serving under Paisley in Britain’s northern administration. Not the heady stuff of revolution.
Losing one of its five southern seats was bad enough for Sinn Fein but the derisory vote for Mary Lou McDonald, which capsized her TD ambitions, can only be viewed as disastrous. From Mary Lou to Mary Who overnight has left the party smarting. Even if Adams is now tempted to revert to form and beach McDonald, it shall neither absolve him of his own responsibility for the shambles nor solve the strategic malaise that besets his movement.
Of the two Sinn Fein members I have spoken to in the past few days both readily acknowledged the debacle that had occurred. Only on the internet do we find party hacks openly displaying their flat earth membership for life cards while insisting that the performance on television by party president Gerry Adams was flawless.
Yet if confirmation were needed that Sinn Fein were not fit for government Adams provided it through those panel discussions. Although he tried to conceal his dictatorial form the fact that he took the stage at all rather than allow colleagues with greater knowledge of the pertinent issues to do so, betrayed his essential overpowering urge to control. Said to have led with his chin, he more resembled a luminary of the 1850s American Know Nothing Movement than a serious modern European political leader. His awareness of the issues in the Republic has improved little since attention was first drawn to this handicap by Paul Bew and Henry Patterson two decades ago. His is an intellectual embodiment of the success of partition rather than its failure. His knowledge of the island is restricted to its northern territory.
Despite his considerable personal ratings with the public it is all too easy for opponents of Sinn Fein to exploit the partitionist mentality that permeates the Republic, and depict Gerry Adams as an ignorant Northern serpent trying to bamboozle his way into the Southern garden of Eden offering only a rotten apple as an aphrodisiac with which to seduce the electorate. And while Michael McDowell’s self-portrait depicting himself standing on the serpent’s head a number of times during debates ultimately delivered little for the Progressive Democrats, the mood in the polling booth indicated that incompetent government should be contained in the North.
Essentially Sinn Fein suffers from being able to kick with only one foot, its northern one. The peace process may count for something in Belfast but in Dublin it does not hit the spot. The Sinn Fein strategy of engaging the Dublin establishment was to legitimise the party and lend it a gravitas in the eyes of the Southern electorate, miscalculating along the way that the Republic’s electorate would reward profile rather than policy. The speed with which the party ditched policies in the midst of an election campaign without any consultation with its own membership emitted a sense of not having thought deeply about the policies to begin with. The party then looked as if it would do anything to get a vote and is therefore not to be trusted. And belly-up it went.
It will be very difficult to endow the peace process with the appeal it currently lacks to make it a serious electoral asset in the Republic. Sinn Fein failed to weave the threads between North and South at the appropriate juncture. Now it is left to sport a green shirt in the North but is naked in the South, where its dangly bits are dangerously exposed to anyone fancying a kick at them. By the time of the next election, who in the Republic will be even faintly interested in the North and its incessant demand for attention? Blair will have gone in Britain so access to No 10 will be rare. Ahern intends to step out of politics within the next four years. The US without prompting from Dublin and London will have other fish to fry. The media will plough different furrows.
Some Sinn Fein members are trying to seek comfort in the belief that their party was squeezed between the big beasts of Ahern and Kenny; that this is somehow a blip that can be easily corrected. This is wishful thinking. The lack of depth to Sinn Fein explanations can be easily glimpsed by a quick look at Jim Gibney’s vacuous account in the Irish News and compare it against Ed Moloney’s forensic analysis in the Irish Times.
Long before the emergence of the Ahern-Kenny squeeze phenomenon astute observers like Harry McGee and Noel Whelan were calling time on the march of Sinn Fein. They sensed that something else was at play. They were right. The end of Sinn Fein as a serious electoral force in the Republic was the cumulative effect of its associates’ involvement in the Northern Bank robbery and the murder of Robert McCartney.
Those who looted the vaults and then plunged their knives into the body of one of Sinn Fein’s own voters robbed the party of a potential breakthrough and killed off more than their innocent victim.
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