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Coming 6th in a 4 Horse Race
The Southern elections are over and Fianna Fail shall be back in government running the show much the same as before. Despite predictions like that thrown about by the Irish Voice that 'the story of the Irish election will be the performance of Sinn Fein', the epilogue told it somewhat differently. Last year's post-Nice referendum pronouncement by recently defeated Dublin candidate Nicky Kehoe that the Southern political establishment would be shocked and knocked sideways by the party's showing in 2002 did not come to pass. Outside of the right wing press there was little sense of alarm. And that alarm was probably fed by no small measure of embarrassment at having pronounced the party's chances dead in the water, particularly in North Kerry. While the republican party performed well, there was little that should engender surprise, Maurice Hayes making the point that the achievement was 'less mould-breaking than many commentators would suggest'. But not to be deterred from making good stories the media, more so in the North, opted for the sensational rather than the sensible.
The real story of the election was twofold and unlike Sinn Fein's anticipated success the pundits failed to see it coming. Firstly, that of Fine Gael being seriously holed beneath the waterline and its captain abandoning ship before it had even limped home to port; secondly, the Progressive Democrats, widely tipped to be scuttled and auctioned off for scrap, have suddenly emerged not only nautically superior to Sinn Fein but with a sparkling new upper deck to boot. By doubling their seats to eight they qualify for full party status in the new Dail whereas both Sinn Fein and the Greens fall short of the minimum seven required to make that leap.
Sinn Fein's showing should not be dismissed or devalued - Steven King style - in a fit of parsimonious pique as a 'a damp squib'. In a turbulent climate it managed to soothe a measurable section of the electorate. Despite the allegations about republican complicity in Colombia, Castlereagh, targeting British MPs, involvement in racketeering, robberies, murder and punishment beatings the party patently did not suffocate under a blanket of adversity. But, if the journalist and author Ed Moloney is right, its electoral leap did not take it over the bar as cleanly as it had anticipated (potentially 11 seats) or as clearly as Fianna Fail feared (six seats). The Irish Voice provided a more conservative estimate of internal party expectations claiming that 'insider projections from Sinn Fein personnel themselves say that the seat totals could be as high as six to eight'. The public statement by the party president that the target was a mere three can be disregarded on the grounds that he has been underplaying Sinn Fein expectations since the May 1985 council elections in the North when he predicted thirty seats only to see that almost double on the day.
Sinn Fein now has five TDs, two of whom may be said to occupy positions on the Left of the political spectrum. The party was a victim of unfavourable electoral arithmetic. While polling well it did not get the bounce of the ball. Strategically, it could have been better placed with even fewer seats in a hung Dail where it could make those seats count by holding the government of the day to ransom, allowing it to drive but only with a Sinn Fein hand on the gear stick. The destination that Conor Cruise O'Brien 'dreaded - a hung Dail, with Sinn Fein holding the balance of power' is no longer on the map. The Dublin government is now free from any Sinn Fein hand on the tiller directing its approach to the North. And already Bertie Ahern is laying down the line to republicans rather than their opponents by demanding the disbandment of the IRA.
While it is easier to get votes for peace than for war, Sinn Fein's success was hardly a victory for the peace process as Martin McGuinness claimed. The North simply didn't register in the electorate's consciousness as was illustrated through a recent poll in which, according to the Irish Voice, only 1% of respondents stated that the North was their biggest voting priority. Sinn Fein was rewarded because of its hard work on the ground and its competent electoral machine more than anything else. Such a combination can unlock otherwise dormant forces in situations where the prevalent politics are suspect, the promises unfulfilled and the rhetoric stale. There seems at least to be consensus on the Sinn Fein attitudinal continuum despite its range from pro-republican to outright hostility towards the party - the Irish Voice put the success down to 'dogged constituency work and a regard for the less well-off in society who have been criminally overlooked by the larger parties'. And Ruth Dudley Edwards generously said of Sinn Fein:
It has highlighted the concern that many in EU countries feel about an unaccountable bureaucracy. It has rightly drawn attention to the disgraceful neglect shown by the Celtic Tiger towards the most vulnerable people in the country. Its social policies are geared towards giving the disadvantaged a decent education, good medical care, an efficient welfare system and a crime-free environment. It has denounced the sleaze in public life that has disfigured Irish politics for decades. And it has a good record on opposing racism and demanding tolerance for asylum seekers.
And yet this very success may give rise to some tension within the party. Its president, a strict adherent to Fuhrerprinzip, may encounter difficulties extending his outright hostility to internal party democracy to a body growing in size and which - situated in a substantial left leaning constituency - is unlikely to be beholden to the much more right wing Northern leadership. Internal attempts may be made to disguise the independent dynamics underlying the party's Southern success. This has already begun with McGuinness putting it down to the peace process. And Gerry Adams, in attempting to make the entire party an extension of his totalitarian temperament may cultivate the myth that he won the Sinn Fein candidates their votes; that without his face on the election posters or his letters to first time voters their chances would have been considerably squeezed. The iconography that he has constructed around himself - even having mugs sold with his own face on it in Sinn Fein outlets - might be flagged up as an indispensable electoral commodity. This self-serving political entrepreneurship may find it straight sailing in the uncompetitive market of Northern republicanism where activists can be told to 'shut up' on the basis that 'it is an army initiative', but can such authoritarianism work in the Republic? Denying the expanding new republican constituency there a democratic input to decision making processes in like manner may come unstuck if the trend predicted by Professor Marsh is correct:
For Sinn Fein to be successful may mean that the sort of candidates it will increasingly throw up are the people without any great record of armed activity, not least because in five years' time it will be 11 years since the ceasefire.
While Martin Ferris may yet wield the baton as leader of the parliamentary party in the Dail as a means for the leadership to continue to rule the party with the ethos of the army, it does not automatically follow that a developing left wing republican consciousness manifested in activists who are not war veterans is going to be intimidated or defrauded by what Ferghal Keane has called an 'anti-democratic, ultra-nationalist militia'. And if the Sinn Fein leadership fails to overcome resistance to its authoritarianism it may yet taste the sour irony of finding itself curbed by its own tactics of having encouraged localism as a means to national electoral success.
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