Green shoots in Sinn Féin struggle in Adams's shadow
Published 05/03/2016 | 02:30
Don't be fooled by the bright smiles and bold statements from Sinn Féin. This election was no runaway success for the party and it knows that. Its vote increase was steady, not spectacular, and the cards won't fall better for the Shinners again.
They faced a Labour Party slated for betraying the working-class through water charges and austerity measures and, in Fianna Fáil, a party blamed for almost bankrupting the country just five years ago.
Yet the gains by Gerry Adams's party were modest. Let's put it in a European context. Sinn Féin presents itself as an Irish Syriza but that party's vote has soared seven-fold in Greece - from 5pc in 2007 to 36pc last year - while Sinn Féin's has risen from 7pc to 13.8pc in the same period.
Sinn Féin's big hope was to replace Fianna Fáil as the main opposition party, but Fianna Fáil has pulled well clear in terms of both votes and seats. Its shift to the left during the election campaign was bad news for Sinn Féin, whose best opportunity now is for Fianna Fáil to be seen as propping up a Fine Gael government.
If Micheál Martin wants to stay ahead of the Shinners, then he needs to put clear green water between himself and Fine Gael on economic policy. Unlike the SDLP in its heyday in the North, Fianna Fáil doesn't underestimate Sinn Féin.
The SDLP fought Sinn Féin according to Marquess of Queensberry rules. They were decent, dignified and, let's face it, arrogant too. They thought that as nice, middle-class people with clean hands, voters wouldn't desert them or, if they did, it would be only for a brief fling and then they'd come running back. Fianna Fáil is an altogether more ruthless opponent and its eyes are wide open. Alone of the nationalist parties on this island, it has the political machine to match Sinn Féin's army. Sinn Féin's strength in the Republic is its presence on the ground in deprived areas that the establishment parties have long abandoned.
Ironically, as it strengthens its urban working-class base south of the border, its grip is loosening on that very same constituency in the North. In the Sinn Féin citadel of West Belfast, the party's vote fell by an unprecedented 16pc in last year's Westminster election. People Before Profit candidate Gerry Carroll took almost 7,000 votes and is set to snatch an Assembly seat in May's Stormont elections.
In the Republic, Sinn Féin's dilemma is that it can't significantly expand beyond its working-class base with Gerry Adams as leader. Plenty of the party's bright young recruits are saying this to each other but it's doubtful whether any have the guts to say it to the man himself. Gerry Adams's IRA baggage isn't his greatest weakness. A partitionist mentality means that few people care about what the Provos do in the North. The Slab Murphy issue was different because, through an accident of geography, most of his farm is in the South. Had Slab been tried in the Crown Court in Belfast, and not the Special Criminal Court in Dublin, it wouldn't have resonated with the public at all.
Gerry Adams's perceived economic illiteracy is disastrous for his party. No matter how hard they school him, he still stumbles and bumbles his way through interviews. Given the many excellent performers in Sinn Féin ranks, the requirement to always have Gerry as the front man must rankle with party strategists.
In the North, the next generation in Sinn Féin are an uninspiring lot. The wooden South Armagh MLA, Conor Murphy, is tipped to be leader.
By comparison, Sinn Féin in the South is awash with talent, and not just in the form of Mary Lou McDonald and Pearse Doherty. Pádraig Mac Lochlainn and Peadar Toibin are most impressive.
Just last week, when asked about the Sinn Féin president's plans for the future, a party spokesman said: "Gerry Adams has been elected at successive ard fheis since 1983 and there is no reason why that will not continue." It sounded like a statement from North Korea.
Being head honcho for 33 years isn't something to boast about. For a party which asks so much of its activists, and demands that its elected representatives live on the average industrial wage, its president seems prepared to sacrifice so little. Gerry Adams is no Bobby Sands. 'Greater love hath no leader than to lay down his career for his party' most definitely doesn't apply to him.
Those who see Sinn Féin as dangerous revolutionaries who will overthrow the established order if they ever get their hands on the levers of power are misguided.
Sinn Féin indulges in left-wing rhetoric in the South because that's where the gap in the electoral market is.
In the North, where Sinn Féin is in government, it's conventionally conservative.
The party has settled smoothly into the system and enjoys the patronage that brings, despite huffing and puffing about welfare reform, when push came to shove, it rolled over.
The old fiery anti-capitalist policies from its years in opposition were quietly laid aside. None of the big players in the commercial world have a bad word to say about the party. And the rhetoric of abolishing the three-judge Special Criminal Court in Dublin shouldn't be taken seriously. Sinn Féin hasn't made the single-judge Diplock courts in Belfast a make-or-break issue.
The party's record in office at Stormont is one of political pragmatism, not ideological inflexibility. Those who fear, or who hope, that Sinn Féin in government would mean radical change in the South are wrong. The Northern experience is that the party won't even prick the establishment, let alone rock it.