Thursday 29 September 2016

Sinn Féin missed its chance to usurp Fianna Fáil - now it faces serious challenges south of the Border

Published 19/07/2016 | 02:30

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams (centre) with, from left, party TDs Mary Lou McDonald, David Cullinane, Pearse Doherty and Aengus Ó Snodaigh. Many SF figures still find it very difficult to countenance life without Adams at the top Photo: Tom Burke
Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams (centre) with, from left, party TDs Mary Lou McDonald, David Cullinane, Pearse Doherty and Aengus Ó Snodaigh. Many SF figures still find it very difficult to countenance life without Adams at the top Photo: Tom Burke

It's been overshadowed by Fine Gael's woes, but the weekend opinion polls will also have set alarm bells ringing within Sinn Féin.

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It's obviously very early days in the new Dáil, but the two polls showed the party at just 13-14pc. Okay, that's still roughly what it got in the General Election. But we know Sinn Féin seriously overperforms in opinion polls relative to its actual performance on election day, so the poll results appear to signal a significant drop in support since the election.

It's hardly surprising. It has been completely outmanoeuvred since the election by a rejuvenated Fianna Fáil. That's reflected in the 16-point lead Fianna Fáil enjoys over Sinn Féin in both polls. Fianna Fáil is the clear leader of the opposition, but is seen by many voters as also calling the shots in Government. It's the best of both worlds, completely over-shadowing Gerry Adams and co.

Sinn Féin strategists may well privately argue the party had little choice but to take the stance it did after the election - effectively opting out of any responsibility for government formation. However, it did sideline Sinn Féin at a critical time in politics. Fianna Fáil managed to stick to its election promise of not going into government with Fine Gael, but appear statesmanlike by facilitating the election of a Taoiseach.

Before that deal was struck, Sinn Féin was restricted to shrill, and faintly desperate, condemnations of the two main parties for not going into coalition together. The irony, that Sinn Féin itself was doing nothing to form a government, obviously wasn't lost on the electorate.

The opting-out approach also had the effect of neutralising Sinn Féin in terms of its media presence. Fianna Fáil or the hard left have been getting all the attention. Sinn Féin, including its two star performers, Mary Lou McDonald and Pearse Doherty, has seemed strangely subdued in comparison.

When it was making headlines, it was for the wrong reasons, such as Gerry Adams's 'N word' controversy. Its call for a Border poll, while no doubt important for the grassroots, was irrelevant for most of its supporters in the South.

The horrible misjudgement over the N word once again raised question marks about Adams's leadership. Even though party figures continue to insist it's not an issue, it has to be. Adams has been Sinn Féin president since 1983 and, given the times he has lived through, he wouldn't be human if it hadn't taken a toll.

He has never really looked entirely comfortable in southern politics, particularly when dealing with economics.

It's not just about Adams not "rhyming off numbers off the top of his head", as Doherty recently put it. It's far more than that. His lack of understanding of the income tax system was painfully obvious during the General Election campaign interview with RTÉ's Sean O'Rourke. That interview could well go down as the worst ever set piece done by a party leader in a general election campaign.

Sinn Féin feels it got a hard time from the media during that campaign, but it didn't help itself with some astonishing mis-steps - not least in relation to the Special Criminal Court and gangland.

Given what happened in February, it's hard to imagine Adams leading his party into another general election campaign, going up against Micheál Martin and either Leo Varadkar or Simon Coveney. And nobody can be sure that an election won't happen by the end of 2017.

Like Enda Kenny, logically, Adams's time as leader must be coming to a close. Yet, for all the obvious shortcomings and the undoubted mutterings in some quarters, many Sinn Féin figures still find it very difficult to countenance life without Gerry at the top.

His importance to the movement, which he brought from war to peace, cannot be understated. He remains a father figure for many activists for whom he literally is Sinn Féin. He is their Mandela. And there's a very genuine fear about life after Adams.

There's no question of the party splitting, but its current absolute cohesion and unity may not be as strong when he's gone. If it's McDonald who succeeds him, will the Belfast boys - still so central in calling the shots - be enthusiastic? Will the Dublin members, if it's Doherty?

There's a strong view that Adams himself, after decades of toil and self-sacrifice, would like to retire to Donegal, but that those who have soldiered with him these past 40 years are hugely reluctant for him to do so. And, if Adams doesn't go of his own volition, he is certainly not going to be pushed. He is still far too powerful for that.

With or without Adams, there's also the question about what to do about the return of Fianna Fáil. It outperformed Sinn Féin in its supposed Border stronghold in the General Election. And the recent polls have shown the Soldiers of Destiny winning back support among the urban working class - the core of Sinn Féin's support.

The worry for the party is that it missed the boat when Fianna Fáil was on its knees. The boys are now back. Talk of Sinn Féin usurping Fianna Fáil now seems fanciful.

There are also whispers that the legendary financial resources are not what they once were; that there is unhappiness among younger members, who would prefer a more social democratic vision, at the economic direction of the party; and that, right now, there are some not-so-happy campers in the wider Sinn Féin family.

With 23 seats, it will, of course, remain a force in politics south of the Border - Labour, for example, would love to have its "problems". But these are challenging times nonetheless. The true story of the "party consultation process" it is currently undergoing would be fascinating - not that we'll ever get to hear it, of course.

Irish Independent

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