29 July 2005

Peace dividend promises electoral bounty for SF

Irish Examiner

By Shaun Connolly
29 July 2005

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DISMISSED until now as the political wing of the Irish Mafia, Sinn Féin are positioning themselves to become Ireland’s political wave of the future.

The peace dividend promises a rich electoral bounty for the party and threatens to dramatically alter the Republic's balance of power forever.

If the shadow of the armalite is finally lifted from the ballot box, the resulting Sinn Féin surge could see it emerging as Dáil king-maker after the next general election.

A sobering thought for any democrat and a defining moment in the history of the State.

If that tipping point is reached and Sinn Féin is accepted as a legitimate mainstream party there will be no going back.

A ruthlessly efficient electoral machine, its lightning-strike success in the North has proved that once it enters the democratic process it grows and grows, like an alien feeding on a host body.

In the early 1980s, Sinn Féin began a twin strategy of cosying up to the then dominant SDLP and eating away at its nationalist bedrock.

The SDLP was marginalised, overtaken and left for dead. A few hundred votes many of them loyalist were all that saved it from a near wipeout at the May Westminster elections.

If the war in the North really is over, then new battle fronts are opening right across the South.

With five deputies in the current Dáil, Sinn Féin looks set to end up doubling that figure next time out with a possible high water mark of 13 seats.

The party has been extremely effective at targeting those left behind and bewildered by all the talk of a booming economy and soaring living standards.

As a result of that sharp focus, a concentration on grassroots community issues and a highly disciplined and energised presence on the streets, the capital is poised to give Sinn Féin gains in its central, north-eastern and north-west constituencies.

Donegal South-West is another prize in the party's sights.

And with a strong wind in its sails, there is everything to play for in Cork's two central divisions, as well as Meath West, Wexford and Dublin Mid-West and North Central.

The consequences of such an impressive surge would be far-reaching and would throw Bertie Ahern's delicate manoeuvrings with the Sinn Féin leadership into a starkly pragmatic context.

Second-guessing an election that may still be two years away is a risky business, but Fianna Fáil will easily remain the largest party when the votes are counted, but seem likely to fall back from the 81 TD tally achieved in 2002.

With perhaps half of the Progressive Democrats' eight TDs seen to be living on borrowed time, the way is open for Sinn Féin to decide whether Mr Ahern musters the 84 Dáil votes needed to achieve his cherished third term or not.

For it is clear the PDs are not ready to stomach backing a Government that relies on the indulgence of Sinn Féin and may well be too enfeebled electorally to prop up Mr Ahern on their own.

The balance of power was already beginning to shift last night as Mr Ahern made it clear the Irish political landscape suddenly had a whole new topography.

"If all this comes to pass they will have to be treated like any other party," he said, referring to Sinn Féin's new legitimacy in light of the IRA statement.

And in a telling aside, Gerry Adams said the question now was not whether Fianna Fáil would be prepared to go into coalition with Sinn Féin, but whether Sinn Féin would consider forming a government with Fianna Fáil.

Peace will unleash many possibilities one of which is a Sinn Féin wave smashing through the next Oireachtas.

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