Ireland’s elections: a bad day at the office for Sinn Féin – ISN

With Sinn Féin faring poorly in Ireland’s recent elections, the party’s long-term ambitions are in jeopardy.

Commentary by Simon Roughneen for ISN Security Watch

“Tiocfaidh ár lá!” is a well-known Irish rallying cry in Sinn Féin neighborhoods in Northern Ireland. Translated into English as “Our Day Will Come,” this piece of political eschatology points to the day when Northern Ireland will form part of a unified all-Ireland state joined to the Republic of Ireland, which takes up most of the island.

But after a dismal performance in the 24 May parliamentary election in the Republic, Sinn Féin’s meager four seats in the new Irish Parliament (out of 166 up-for-grabs) means that the day envisioned remains somewhat distant.

While Sinn Féin’s role in Northern Ireland is relatively well-known, and its ambitions to merge the mini-province with its larger neighbor to the south are long-held, less clear to outside observers is its presence in the Republic of Ireland and the centrality of its Dublin strategy for achieving its aims in Belfast.

Sinn Féin had hoped to gain 10 to 12 seats in the Republic – potentially enough to make itself a viable coalition partner for the larger parties. Becoming even a minor coalition partner in a sovereign state – which has been Europe’s most dynamic economy for almost a decade – has been a long-standing ambition for the party.

Such an outcome would enhance its leverage over the Republic’s policy on Northern Ireland, which has always maintained the aspiration of unity, but in practice shelved this ambition in favor of a pragmatic relationship with the UK.

The group has hoped that its increased profile in the Republic – on the back of the Northern Ireland peace process and the positive spin generated by the IRA ceasefires – would enable it to acquire real political power in Dublin and alter Irish policy on Northern Ireland.

Its continued dominance of Irish nationalist politics in Northern Ireland seemed to point in that direction, at least superficially.

On May 8 2007, devolved regional government was restored to Belfast, with Sinn Féin chief negotiator and deputy leader Martin McGuinness nominated as deputy first minister, second in rank to the Reverend Ian Paisley, the Protestant Unionist firebrand who for years opposed any deal with Catholic nationalists in Northern Ireland, much less Sinn Féin, the political party linked to the Provisional IRA, which implemented a long terrorist war of attrition with British armed forces and Unionist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland.

In July 2005, however, the IRA announced that it was ending its almost 40-year long armed campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland. Three months later, it handed in its cache of weaponry to be destroyed by Northern Ireland’s disarmament body.

Late in 2006 and early in 2007, Sinn Féin and Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) apparently overcame their policy differences on Northern Ireland’s politically divisive police service to facilitate the return of devolved government to Belfast.

The police in the region had always been regarded as a pro-Protestant, pro-Unionist force, despite reforms initiated after the 1998 peace agreement.

Beyond that, both have since overlooked their long-standing political enmities based on their divergent nationalisms and the violent nature of Northern Ireland’s recent history.

While Sinn Féin’s poor showing in the Republic’s election should not be taken as an automatic referendum on the Irish electorate’s views on Irish unity, it does reinforce the reality that the Irish electorate has more pressing concerns, and that Sinn Féin failed to present itself as a party comfortable with issues like Ireland’s failing health service and overburdened infrastructure.

Moreover, Sinn Féin’s quasi-socialist rhetoric is regarded as quaint at best, potentially damaging at worst – as over a decade of 6 percent average economic growth has been based on Ireland having an economy open to foreign investment, with low corporate tax rates and a practical attachment to neo-liberalism.

With little apparent room for growth in Northern Ireland, and having gone backwards in the Republic, the party will have to enhance its hitherto diligent grassroots activism, and more importantly, develop a series of policy proposals attractive to the Irish electorate. However, this does not offer a huge amount of growth-room either.

By far the two largest parties in the Republic – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – are best described as politically “center-right.” Both are offshoots of the old Sinn Féin movement that led the campaign for Irish independence from the UK in the early 20th century. And Fianna Fáil describes itself as “The Republican Party” – a reference to its own militant roots and a rhetorical challenge to Sinn Féin’s image as the focal point of Irish nationalism.

This leaves Sinn Féin in a strategic and spin quandary: To increase its relevance to Irish voters it may have to emulate the pragmatic, business-friendly economic profile of its rivals.

However, the single transferable vote-proportional representation voting system used in the Republic lends itself to coalition governments which can be difficult to manage and prone to minority interests. Irish voters will not see the point in voting for a smaller replica of existing parties, further dividing the political spectrum and exacerbating the dependence on coalitions.

So while Sinn Féin’s day certainly has not come yet, the question on people’s lips is now whether its day is almost over.

Simon Roughneen was ISN Security Watch Correspondent in Northern Ireland in 2004-5. He has worked in and reported from Australia, DRC, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Somalia, Niger, Pakistan, Timor Leste, Uganda and elsewhere.

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