Tuesday 16 July 2019

Courting popularity is a very taxing business for the Adams family

Mary Lou McDonald speaks at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in Derry. Photo: Mark Condren
Mary Lou McDonald speaks at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in Derry. Photo: Mark Condren
Gerry Adams said Sinn Fein would not 'prop up' an administration in Dublin led by mainstream parties Fine Gael or Fianna Fail
Mary Lou McDonald at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis. Photo: Mark Condren

Lise Hand

In the final hour before Gerry Adams was due onstage to deliver a prettily-packaged offering of populist rhetoric to a live TV audience, one of the party's backroom boys bustled on the podium with a selection of outfits.

These were held up for inspection through a TV monitor so that the most telegenic and flattering combination could be selected, with a dark jacket, pale blue shirt and scarlet tie getting the thumbs-up. (He was also sporting black socks festooned with yellow rubber ducks, which weren't picked up by the cameras).

Sinn Féin leave nothing to chance these days - not with such a fair wind at their backs a scant year out from the general election.

It's a party which is content to play the long game and it works assiduously to present an image which won't frighten the electoral horses.

And so far, their meticulous planning has paid off. Where once Sinn Féin ard fheiseanna were mainly attended by hard chaws browsing stalls flogging 'sniper at work' T-shirts, the Millennium Forum in Derry was abuzz over the weekend with large numbers of young male and female delegates browsing leaflets from Ulster University and flyers supporting various global human rights causes.

It was a marked contrast to the recent Fine Gael and Labour national conferences where the preponderance of respective attendees sported grey hair.

Inside the spacious auditorium, the mood was buoyant. There were standing ovations for such diverse speakers as local hero Martin McGuinness and Euclid Tsakalotos, Greece's deputy finance minister.

And Lynn Boylan's meteoric rise in Sinn Féin continued (a failed local and general election candidate, she was elected as a Dublin MEP with 80,000-plus first preference votes last summer).

It was probably many delegates' first look at Lynn in action, and her fiery speech woke up the crowd during the Saturday morning session. "For the first time in the history of the State, the people of Ireland can elect a government that breaks the right-wing civil war politics of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil," she declared to loud cheers.

Lynn may well yet give Mary Lou a run for her money as Sinn Féin's alpha female, but inevitably, the roof was raised for the party's deputy leader who delivered a typically spiky speech, throwing digs at favourite Labour betes noires.

"Joan Burton challenged me to a debate, both Vincent Browne and RTÉ offered to facilitate the debate, but Joan has changed her mind. Well Joan, you know where to find me!" she taunted to the delight of her audience. She also had a go at the Environment Minister. "Joan's number two, Alan Kelly, has vowed to rip us apart. We are quaking in our stilettos, I'm sure," she all-but snorted.

And Mary Lou trotted out all the guaranteed crowd-pleasers. "When we say that we will abolish water charges at the first opportunity, we mean it. When we say that we will abolish property tax, we mean that too."

That went down a treat - although the careful wording of "at the first opportunity" isn't quite the same as "immediately". But this is the pre-election tightrope upon which Sinn Féin now balance, as they strive to be all things to all voters.

However, with the party for the first time having a realistic shot at getting into power, Sinn Féin can no longer be slippery like mercury when it comes to policies. A beady-eyed electorate will no longer buy a political pig in a poke.

So at their Ard Fheis, Sinn Féin began the perilous business of climbing down from various fences. In his speech, Gerry spelled out Sinn Féin's Wealth Tax, drawing instant scornful reaction from the Coalition sick to the back teeth of Sinn Féin sniping.

And the delegates voted to support abortion in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities - a decision which is set to be defied by Meath West TD Peadar Toibin.

Outside the venue, a pro-life protest had set up camp. Many of them were (or had been) Sinn Féin voters. There were banners showing gory images beside pictures of the party's TDs, proclaiming, "We voted for him, he voted for this".

The 'una voce, uno Grizzly' will get trickier as the contest intensifies. Welcome to senior hurling, ladies and gentlemen of Sinn Féin.

Irish Independent

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