Friday, July 20, 2007


Our guest contributor, Phil makes a welcome return to "the Arm". This time our man in Belfast analyses the effects of May's Irish elections and what the consequences will be up North:

The performance of Sinn Féin in the Irish general election, and the reasons for their travails in that contest in May have been documented and analysed by Déaglan de Breadún in the previous edition of Fortnight. However, one angle which was not explored by that author was the potential effects which the results of the election would have on the political landscape of Northern Ireland. It is the contention of this author that the contest has profound ramifications for future political developments in the North, which is why proceedings were followed with some trepidation by the Unionist community up here.

It is no exaggeration to describe Sinn Féin’s performance in May’s elections as lamentable, losing one of their Dublin seats and coming perilously close to losing another, with Aonghus O’Snódaigh only being returned to his Dublin South Central constituency on the last count. Similarly, Martin Ferris, who topped the poll in his Kerry constituency in the 2002 election, came bottom of the poll in May. One drop of comfort which some party leaders cling to is that Sinn Féin’s share of the vote increased from 2002, but this is largely a result of the decision to field candidates in practically all electoral constituencies. De Breadun explored the possibility that, amongst other factors, voters were deterred from voting Sinn Féin because of the party’s tergiversations over proposed increases in Irish corporation tax, Gerry Adams’ less than convincing performance in the head-to-head debate among the smaller party leaders (particularly against Michael McDowell, then Progressive Democrat Minister for Justice in the coalition Government), and the Party’s excessive focus on Northern issues and emphasis on “rights” over more pertinent concerns to the Southern electorate such as continued economic growth, and reform to stamp duty on house purchases. Yet these reasons only describe facets of two large fundamental realities which were revealed in the recent Irish election.

The first is that the political establishment and the electorate in the South, despite perennial rhetoric to the contrary, are essentially of a partitionist mindset. Comments by leading politicians during the election campaign demonstrated that the body politic in the Republic is ill-disposed to welcome Sinn Féin into the inner sanctum of political power as potential kingmakers, seeing little reason to reward them for the strides in economic growth which have taken place over the last decade, and refusing them any surfeit of credit for the currently stabilizing political settlement in Northern Ireland. No enthusiasm whatever has been shown by Irish Governments for allowing Sinn Féin MLAs speaking rights in the Dáil.

The second reality is that social and economic changes in the Republic over recent decades have rendered largely obsolete the political programme of Sinn Féin in that jurisdiction, a programme which, in essence, advocates little more than a vague version of a Soviet command economy and increased state intervention in the lives and livelihoods of Irish citizens, garnished with increasingly hollow rhetoric on rights and equality. Indeed, sections of the Southern media and political establishment hammered home the paradox of Sinn Féin calling for higher corporation tax in the Republic, yet simultaneously lobbying for reduction of this tax in Northern Ireland. While it would be unwise to write off the prospects of the Party in future electoral contests, there appear to be few issues on the political horizon in the South on which Sinn Féin cannot be outflanked by one of the more established parties, with Fianna Fáil recently demonstrating the strength and tenacity of their party organization at ground level in the constituencies.

The uncomfortable reality for the largely Northern leadership of Sinn Féin is that despite their electoral boasts about being the only “all-Ireland” party, and the expectation that they could capitalize on the newly created political stability in the North, their designs on political decision making in the South have amounted to very little, and this does not look set to change in the foreseeable future.
So how will this effect the Northern Ireland political situation? At first glance it would appear that the answer to this is “not very much.” Sinn Féin still remains in a powerful position in the North, being the largest nationalist party, and controlling key positions in the devolved executive, including the office of Deputy First Minister, currently held by Martin McGuinness, and the important portfolios of Education, Health, and Regional Development. Over recent days Sinn Féin Ministers demonstrated accomplished performances during the meetings of the British-Irish Council and the North-South Ministerial Council, showing a willingness to move forward in harness with the DUP and achieve real progress here in the North.

However, therein lies the rub for Sinn Fein as regards their long held ambitions for a united Ireland. The longer they continue to be associated with governance in the North, and working together with the major Unionist parties, the more the perception will be created among both electorates on the Island that the true home of the Party, and the real outlet of its ambitions is in Northern Ireland, becoming little more than another Northern constitutional nationalist party. This will undoubtedly reinforce the already strong impression of the Southern electorate that Sinn Féin really has no place in government in the Republic, something which, I suspect, politicians from the more established parties in the South will not be shy about pointing out. Two elections from now, assuming that they will be five years apart, the generation of Adams and McGuinness will be aging, with both of these leaders not far off 70. Is it likely that they will be able to surmount the continuing dynamism of the young bloods of Fianna Fail or Fine Gael?

Similarly, as Northern Ireland inches forward into stability, and even prosperity, over the next decade, with individuals and families experiencing ever higher standards of living and rising property prices fuelled by gradual inward investment, how pertinent will the emphasis on rights and equality be to an electorate, even nationalist, which, like that in the South, will have concerns and aspirations more pressing than a united Ireland and discrimination? While sectarianism is a remarkably persistent spectre here in the North, and issues arising out of the Troubles such as restorative justice, inter-communal strife, and reconciliation are still highly relevant, it is unlikely that a younger generation of the nationalist electorate, with only hazy memories of the troubles (or none at all) and the relatively unequal position of their community will have their emotions exercised to any great extent by memories of past grievances. In fact, it is probable that a more important worry for the increasingly wealthy and educated or skilled electors will be how to meet the payments on the mortgage and cars, even with both partners working, and still manage to escape to Spain or Portugal during the summer with the children for a fortnight. What will rhetoric on rights and equality mean to people in this situation? With many of the outside pressures on the nationalists having been removed, nothing dissolves the bonds of community solidarity more than increasing prosperity and the absence of adversity, and this is increasingly the case even in the Republican heartlands of West Belfast and South Armagh.

So what can Sinn Féin do to keep its central political aim of a united Ireland on track, and maintain or enhance its electoral potential in both parts of Ireland? It is a difficult question to answer, but the writer Dean Godson has suggested that Sinn Féin will attempt to find an issue on which to provoke the Unionist community into an angry reaction, which will thereby enable republicans to galvanize nationalist opinion on both sides of the border, much as the Drumcree situation did over a decade ago. Yet not only is it difficult to imagine what possible bone of contention could possibly arise, but both Sinn Féin and the Unionists would be ill-advised to embark on such a course of provocation and reaction. Both the Irish Government and the electorate in the Republic appear proud of the peacemaking deals which they have helped achieve in the North, hence the plaudits which Bertie Ahern gained before the election with his meetings with Ian Paisley at the Boyne battle site and his speech to the Houses of Parliament. Any move on the part of Sinn Féin or republicans to disturb the still delicate balance of stability up here would enrage the political establishment in the South, and provide established parties with a further arsenal of ammunition with which to discredit Sinn Féin in future Irish elections. Similarly, even if such a contentious issue does arise, or is manufactured, the unionist establishment would be wise not to rise to any provocation, since this may nullify the currently strong and increasingly productive relationship which unionist parties, even the DUP, have established with the Irish Government in recent years.

Sinn Féin, if it is to retain its position as the leading nationalist party in the north (quite apart from preventing its complete political annihilation in the South) will have to respond and adapt to the new social and economic realities which will face it with greater urgency over the next decade. Whether they are capable of pulling this off, or whether they will be met with the further challenge of a reinvigorated SDLP in the future are currently matters of conjecture.


CW said...

Good post, Phil. I think one significant factor here is the lack of floating voters in the north compared with south of the border - ie we all know that if you wrap a donkey in a tricolour and stand it for election in West Belfast or South Armagh it will get elected. In the south with parties like the Greens, Labour and Fianna Fail all competing for votes with the Shinners, given the current economic stability and SF's intention to increase taxes they weren't going to get far. Their current northern-based leadership is largely out of touch with the southern voter.

Andrew Charles said...

I think Sinn Feins performance demonstrates one thing - they are out of touch with the Southern electorate and only concerned about engaging in the sectarian politics that has engulfed Ulster for many decades. This does not correspond to the Sinn Fein electors in Northern Ireland who continue to support this former terrorist organisation in hope of a United Ireland.

The Southern electorate have accepted partition (doing so long ago) and recognise Northern Irelands position within the United Kingdom - a position which Sinn Fein has now finally recognised after engaging in a 30-year bloody terror campaign against innocent people. As the Republics economy has grown identity politics no longer has any foundation in the Irish state; with families, young professionals and graduates concerned about their financial wellbeing and future.

Sinn Feins performance has peaked in the Republic and unless they change their appeal they will face electoral alienation. It doesn't help when your 'Northern' membership leads the party, with Sinn Feins membership mainly based in Ulster with little support existing in the Republic by comparison.

The key outcome from this election is that it demonstrates that whilst Sinn Fein have grown in electoral performance in recent years, both North and South of the border their day has perhaps come. However this depends a lot on nationalist rivals in Northern Ireland and as to whether they can offer a strong alternative.

Anonymous said...

I think there are some excellent points in here, but one factor that should be pointed out is that Sinn Fein did not contest the Irish election in any way that posed a serious threat of meaningful engagement with either the Irish electorate or the main policy issues of the election. Therefore your argument that there was a pre-election perception on behalf of the Irish electorate that Sinn Fein was a 'Northern' party and that this perception was the reason for their failure is perhaps correct, but the electorate's perception was probably dramatically strengthened by Sinn Fein themselves. In this way, the party - who were really contesting the election for the first time as a realistic contender in the eyes of many - failed to challenge old ideas held by the Irish electorate. I would suggest perhaps that were they to have campaigned more effectively - though there's an argument here that it was the simple matter of their policies themselves that were at fault - they would have done much better. I'm not convinced that they are destined to suffer poor performances in the South based on their activities being primarily Northern Irish, but just that they need to develop as a party to pose a challenge. Of course you may say that this would be a 'new' Sinn Fein and so any future success this 'new' party would have wouldn't fall outside your thesis, but I believe you can't ignore the fact that their campaign was a shambles.

Andrew Charles said...

Anon, I would agree with some of the points you make there. Sinn Fein probably do have a chance of posing themselves as a 'New' Sinn Fein - a 'totally' democratic, non-armed, non-violent means political party.

I suspect that as issues of government continued in Ulster - to form a govt, or not to form a govt - played some part in the Irish peoples minds at the recent election as to suggest they haven't changed.

There are a lot of psychological/emotional issues within the Irish electorates' minds comparable to Unionists who regard Sinn Fein as the IRA - however it may now be suggested that this view is changing due to Ian Paisley's decision to enter Government with Sinn Fein.

However I pose the question - can Sinn Fein deliver? If they do deliver in terms of policy etc in Northern Ireland they may have a chance with the Southern electorate. This is maybe a reason why Fianna Fail will contest elections in Northern Ireland. They recognise that Sinn Fein pose a threat to their voter base now that they have fully evolved from a 'war' mindset to democratic politics. This mind set will be bred in the minds of their new electorate i.e. the new and next generation of Sinn Fein voters.