Sunday 16 December 2018

Negative campaigning continues to bring positive poll results for Sinn Féin

The next election may be Gerry Adams’ last, but will Mary Lou McDonald be his ‘untried’ successor? Photo: Tom Burke
The next election may be Gerry Adams’ last, but will Mary Lou McDonald be his ‘untried’ successor? Photo: Tom Burke

Mandy Johnston

Ten years ago Sinn Féin were caught in a vortex of debate around a series of incidents which led to many difficult questions for the leadership of the organisation.

The first of those issues was the robbery of £26m in cash from the Donegall Square headquarters of Northern Bank in Belfast on December 20, 2004. The other issue was the death of Robert McCartney, who was involved in an altercation on May Street in Belfast city centre on January 30, 2005. He was found unconscious with stab wounds and he died in hospital the following day.

These incidents were set against the backdrop of an extremely fragile peace process. There was a growing frustration with Sinn Féin's intransigence on a number of key political issues, in particular on decommissioning. At that time, it seemed as though national and international diplomatic patience with Sinn Féin was reaching breaking point.

It also seemed inevitable that with the weight of the political world and the mainstream against them, Sinn Féin's popularity would inevitably plummet.

It didn't.

Ten years later - and much to the chagrin of the more established political parties - Sinn Féin remain under the tutelage of the same leadership, and they continue to prosper in terms of public appeal in the Republic of Ireland.

Recent opinion polls rate Sinn Féin as the most popular political party in Leinster House. Unlike other parties, Sinn Féin support seems to thrive in a negative political environment. Their tactic is a simple one, and it is as prevalent today as it was 10 years ago.

Attack is the best form of defence. When faced with any public policy, any political development, any external crisis, the party unites to fire as much as they can and lead the charge of opposition and protest. Operating on the basis of if-it's-not-broken-don't-fix-it, internal party difficulties that reach the media are dealt with in a similar way.

Here is an extract from a speech made by Mary Lou McDonald. "It is remarkable that exactly 10 years ago this week the same denunciations, the same unsubstantiated and unfounded attacks on Sinn Féin that are dominating the headlines this week, were taking place then. Those attacks while mainly focused on Sinn Féin, also took in any individual, organisation or any community that dared to have anything to do with Sinn Féin or Irish republicanism…" she said.

You would be forgiven for thinking that Deputy McDonald's words were spoken in the wake of the Mairia Cahill affair, but they were from her opening address to the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in 2004.

The years come and go, but the tactics of Sinn Féin remain largely the same. As political observers continue to scratch their heads to understand just why it is that the politics and policy of protest continues to attract such public support, Sinn Féin continue on their magic roundabout, promising little but protesting a lot.

Just like Fine Gael and Labour, Sinn Féin benefited politically from the collapse of our economy. But unlike Fine Gael and Labour, they continue to reap the rewards. In promising to rescue us from the 'Barbarians at the Gate', many feel that Fine Gael have failed us by implementing the Troika plan without fear or favour. In doing so, they have frequently rolled back on pre-election promises.

The Labour Party is in an even worse state. By slavishly following the Troika plan and adroitly providing a political mudguard for Fine Gael, they have been branded as the party which should have known better.

The assumption is that Labour could, and should, have put up a better defence for the working class and the marginalised in society during this time of recession. Their fate is compounded by the charge that "we might have expected as much from Fine Gael, but not from Labour".

Fianna Fáil are charged with the economic and social demise of the nation and may never recover from the crash. While its position is under surveillance and they remain stuck in a holding pattern, Sinn Féin continues to exploit every opportunity as spokespeople for the ordinary, hard-pressed voter.

As a result of the downward spiral of the more traditional parties, Sinn Féin's popularity has grown in recent years, but is largely down to empty rhetoric. They are full of recriminations, but so far fall short on viable economic solutions.

Sinn Féin's popularity in opinion polls has yet to manifest itself in any striking way at the ballot boxes, but seasoned political observers believe that the time to translate popular opinion into solid votes is now. With the savvy Irish voter now moving away from the idea of independents and the clientelism that it implies, Sinn Féin may significantly increase their vote in the next general election.

There is no doubting that inside Leinster House they remain the bete noir of the established political class. Hamstrung by their past -with many legacy issues remaining - sections of the voting public have moved on in relation to Sinn Féin, but the established political parties in the Republic will do everything they can to ensure that it is anybody but Sinn Féin in the next government.

Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams has been a pre-eminent leader in nationalist Ireland longer than anyone since Éamon de Valera. If the next Dáil lasts its full term the next election may be his last. He will likely leave a formidable legacy somewhat built on a platform of vacuous protest and victimisation.

It remains to be seen if his untried successors can keep it intact. But don't expect their message to change.

Irish Independent

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