19 February 2006

Sinn Féin aims to broaden appeal

Sunday Business Post

By Pat Leahy
19 February 2006

Sinn Fein delegates gathered this weekend in the RDS in Dublin, anxious to put some difficult times of the past year behind them, and concentrate on the twin task of resurrecting the Northern peace process and becoming an unignorable force in southern politics. Both goals are within the party’s grasp within the next year or so. It will be an important year for Sinn Fe¤ in.

This time last year, Sinn Fe¤ in met under the cloud of the killing of Robert McCartney and the Northern Bank robbery. Those two events presaged a difficult year for the party and probably pre-empted the August declaration and disarmament by the IRA.

A year on, the fingers pointing at the party leadership are from within the party. The outing of Denis Donaldson, and the leadership’s explicit warnings that more informers were likely to be exposed, raised the fear among party activists that something was rotten at the top - some said the very top - of the organisation.

The leadership has been putting significant efforts into reassuring party members and the fruits of that labour can be seen as more than 2,000 delegates and observers assembled at the RDS, the largest gathering ever.

Almost 500 motions are tabled for discussion and, while these mean little in real political terms, they are often interesting as an insight into where the activists are.

In Sinn Fein’s case, that’s a curious mix of revolutionary and redistributionist socialism, aspirational campus legalist liberalism and old-style nationalism.

Occasionally, these rub against one another: one motion calls for the removal of the Catholic Church ethos from all schools and hospitals.

Another would mandate that a decade of the rosary be said at republican commemorations which are held on consecrated ground.

More seriously, several motions are critical of the leadership and many also express the fear that a deal on policing will be done.

Suggestions that the leadership are out of touch with the grassroots probably just show that the party is evolving into a normal political organisation, but policing is one issue on which there is genuine and widespread opposition throughout the party.

Nonetheless, despite the nervousness on these issues, spirits are high.

‘‘Sinn Fein is buoyant, no question about that,” said the party’s leader in the Dail, Caoimhghin O Caolain.

‘‘There was a time when you’d know all the members at a Sinn Fein ard fheis. Now you’d be struggling to know all the elected representatives.”

The party approaches the next election almost certain to make substantial seat gains. It currently holds five seats, attained with 7 per cent of the vote in the 2002 general election.

In the local elections of 2004, the party took 8 per cent of the vote; opinion polls throughout last year put its support at 9 to 10 per cent.

Three weeks ago, the most recent Sunday Business Post/Red C poll put the party at 9 per cent.

There are two things to be said about Sinn Fein’s poll performance.

The first is that it represents steady gains from election to election.

The other is that its support appears to have levelled out in the last 12-18 months from which it isn’t moving. This suggests that Adams and Co have a lock on about 10 per cent of the voters, but they’re finding it hard to break out of that neighbourhood.

It makes the party a player in southern politics certainly but, at this stage, a minor one, and not one likely to feature in government for at least the immediate future.

Pulling in 9 to 10 per cent of the vote should certainly bring the party extra seats, and it’s entitled to feel confident about challenging strongly in Donegal South West, Mayo, and several constituencies on the northside of Dublin.

Wexford and/or Waterford would be a bonus. Sinn Fe¤ in may have missed the boat in Meath where one five-seater has become two three-seaters.

Both these constituencies have become three-seaters which are a much more difficult proposition for small parties.

Television viewers will be able to judge which candidates the party believes have the best chance of a seat by their proximity to Gerry Adams this weekend.

Success in individual constituencies depends on two things: strong candidates and their ability to attract transfers. For smaller parties, the challenge is always to find strong candidates which outperform the party - few candidates would be elected with just 10 per cent of the vote in their constituency.

Sinn Fe¤ in has strong challengers. Although - with the exception of O Caolain - its TDs have had little or no impact on the national stage, they are big presences in their constituencies.

Candidates such as Mary Lou McDonald and Pearse Doherty will be serious players.

Transfers are a different business.

Research conducted by The Sunday Business Post last year showed that, while events in the North didn’t affect Sinn Fein’s top-line or first preference support (the 9 to 10 per cent figure), those events did have an effect on the attitudes of other parties’ voters to the party.

It is these second-tier or lower preference voters to whom Sinn Fein seeks to appeal this weekend.

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