11 December 2003 Edition
Assembly elections 2003 - A strategic watershed - BY DECLAN KEARNEY, CHAIRPERSON CÚIGE NA SÉ CHONDAE
As republicans return to activism after a brief but deserved respite from intense campaigning over the preceding five weeks, we should lose no time taking stock of the new tactical and strategic considerations arising in the coming period. The Six-County Assembly election results are defining and landmark in proportion, not just for our struggle, but the national political landscape.
Several weeks before last Wednesday's election, I suggested to a meeting of Cúige na Sé Chondae that we faced an electoral contest the implications of which, from a republican perspective, potentially paralleled the historic significance of the party's participation in the 1918 General Election. The strategic stakes of this particular election for the republican struggle could not have been higher. It was announced on the cusp of what was to be an agreed sequence of political initiatives pregnant with political significance for the Peace Process, and then took place against a backdrop of a negotiation subverted by unionism and compromised by the British and Dublin Governments' acquiescence.
Our strategy in this election was clear. We aimed to further popularise republicanism; to conclusively establish Sinn Féin as the largest nationalist party in the North; to increase our level of political strength to continue prosecuting the republican project within the northern institutions; and, to create a political jump off for the launch of islandwide European parliament elections and 26-County local council elections in 2004. In each of these respects, our results brought success; but they are also a testament to the commitment and perseverance of all our candidates, activists, election workers, their partners and families who sustained this campaign.
The strategic effect and consequence of this election will resound and impact for weeks and months to come. Sinn Féin's national political programme in the intervening period needs to be geared towards capitalising on the strategic outcomes and unfolding opportunities, and ensuring these are integrated into the rollout of our Road Map to a United Ireland.
No More No-Go Areas
From its outset, the campaign in the Six Counties displayed a number of defining characteristics. Our election campaign extended into every constituency and canvass teams worked areas never before visited by Sinn Féin. Nationalists, non-unionists and even unionists in Moira, Coleraine, Katesbridge, and Ballymena, to name but a few, as well as the republican heartlands, heard the Sinn Féin message. This fact, linked to the positive reception for our campaign teams, evidenced the mainstreaming of republican politics throughout northern society as the campaign progressed.
The entire republican family was successfully mobilised in an unprecedented way behind all facets of this campaign. We should take important note of these factors with regard to all future elections. They need to be incorporated into the institutional memory of our electoral site of struggle. Of greatest significance, however, was the seminal political message emerging that there are now no no-go areas for Sinn Féin and the republican project anywhere in the North.
It is this critical reality that reflects the dynamic context within which republican strategy now operates. A new republican dialectic has been released in the Six Counties. It is indisputable that Sinn Féin's role as a party has shaped and mobilised not just political conditions, through our approach to negotiations, campaign work and other sites of struggle, but it has also mobilised and persuaded popular opinion far beyond traditional nationalist redoubts, and arguably so, even within broad unionism. In a quite profound way, our performance in this election is set to further dramatically affect the overall political landscape.
These results build upon the development and growth of our overall political strength and in doing so open up a new revolutionary phase for the struggle nationally. They will prove to be a strategic watershed beyond which Sinn Féin can exert further influence over the complexion of national politics.
Consider for a moment the historical, political resonance of our party assuming the position of Deputy First Minister in the event of the institutions being reinstated. Republican accession to a seat of power that evokes the historic imagery of unionist hegemony, Carson, Craig, and Brookeborough, will embody a massive political challenge to the traditional definition of northern politics. In the most profound, strategic terms our entitlement to the post of Deputy First Minister, other Ministries, and our mandate to govern in the Six-County executive and all-Ireland Ministerial Council constitutes a fast forward for the terminal state of partition. There will not be a townland or town in any of the 32 Counties left unaffected by the symbolism of such a prospect.
New political realities now obtain in terms of the DUP's ascendancy; the sharpening contradictions within the UUP; the ramifications these bring to the cohesion of political and civic unionism; and the unassailable mandate held by Sinn Féin. Immediate imperatives also arise; these relate to the challenge for the London and Dublin Governments to defend the Good Friday Agreement and deliver upon their extant commitments from last October's negotiation, and to return to overall negotiations. Our job description as activists in struggle remains unchanged. We need to carefully evaluate how we proceed strategically within these realities and continue to build political strength, whilst ensuring no deflection in focus from the immediate imperatives.
Challenges and Responsibilities
This developing phase also unpacks a range of key challenges for party activists, and with these come important political responsibilities.
The deepened polarisation within political unionism means that republicans will need to further intensify our engagement with the broad Protestant community, and its unionist and loyalist expressions. We need to find ways to ensure that Sinn Féin's commitment to creating new relationships and building accommodation and reconciliation with unionism is heard beyond the bellicose rhetoric of the anti-Agreement leaderships.
We will need to take a long-headed look at how to integrate the gains of this election into the growth of the party nationally. The revolutionary challenge for us will be to identify new opportunities thrown up by the impact of the results throughout the island to articulate and popularise the republican message in local communities, notwithstanding the imminence of new electoral contests. Now, more than ever, we need to heed the political health warning to avoid becoming preoccupied with electoralism. The sustainability of our project will depend upon politicising new supporters, in short, republicanising the hearts and minds of even more Irish people.
Management of the popular swing to Sinn Féin should be premised on our resolve to neither take the popular mood for granted, or to become complacent and assume that electoral gains naturally and inexorably lead to more electoral gains.
Republicanising the Centre Ground
In the same vein, we as a party need to reflect strategically upon the range of factors that motivated so many nationalists and non-unionists to vote and transfer to Sinn Féin; and, in turn absorb their expectations of us.
Our work in the period ahead must politically consolidate our growth and position the party to secure further electoral gains. Part of this work should address the articulation of the key political dynamic that this election has brought into sharp relief: it is that the nationalist centre ground did not shrink in the North. Instead, Sinn Féin's growth has expanded the centre ground, and so has developed a new space for us to bring radical and strategic leadership to popular nationalism.
Internalising these considerations properly is crucial to the strategies we formulate for managing our challenges and continuing to bring a revolutionary effect to the prevailing political conditions.
A Period for Initiative and Dynamic
A common refrain in recent days for republicans, non-unionists and media commentators alike has been to question what the political future holds. In short, no one knows for sure, but all the indications point to the likelihood of a period dominated by unionism, in the form of anti-Agreement belligerence and veto and intra-unionist crisis. We should also take cognisance of the probability that those wedded to the traditional security and intelligence agenda within the NIO and British establishment will seek on the back of unionism's catharsis to engineer conditions for normalising direct rule for the long term once more. All the available evidence points to the fact that such elements in the shape of REMIT, the neo-Special Branch, and British military Intelligence, remain ascendant and totally committed to continuing their political war against republicans.
The real potential for stagnation and stasis being introduced to the northern political process by strategic intent and even by default, needs to be repelled by republican activists. There is no strategic gain for our struggle in such conditions. Unionism, the British and the Dublin governments have long recognised this fact. Therefore, any attempt to park, stall or stagnate needs to be unpicked and undermined by republicans.
We have a revolutionary responsibility to bring dynamic and initiative to defend and maximise our new electoral gains, in order to fully realise the potential of this period as a strategic watershed. Circumstances may well arise in which republicans will have to be far sighted and dig deep into our strategic reserves to place our opponents on their back foot once more. Because come at us they will!
The corollary to the issue of responsibilities is that we as a party need to ensure our newly elected MLAs are equipped with a strategic programme of work, notwithstanding continued suspension. Whether or not the institutions are reinstated, those who voted Sinn Féin deserve, need, and will receive a standard of political representation and leadership commensurate with the party of government we personify. All of our structures must rise to this specific responsibility. Moreover, it is essential that we continue to review the state of political integration between the elected and unelected activists; the efficacy of current political and constituency management arrangements in local areas; and, how we deploy all of our elected activists and resources in the constituencies throughout the Six Counties. This is a period in which no local political structure or particular site of struggle is beyond mature and comradely review.
Ultimately, we are all responsible for the defence of our electoral gains. Thus, the work on voter registration, voter IDs, and overall electoral preparation means local election directorates need to be back at work already. While we won 24 seats, we also missed up to four others by dozens of votes due to registration, lack of photographic IDs and other controllable variables. We need to quickly identify the weaknesses in our local campaigns and begin to take corrective action now, well in advance of the electoral contests in 2004.
Future of the Struggle in our Hands
Attention to the possibility of Irish unity by 2016 arose once more during the press conference to launch Sinn Féin's election manifesto. We have long since recognised that managed transition is the optimum basis for moving beyond partition. Our long-term strategy needs to be geared towards bringing the weight of popular opinion behind a progressive and revolutionary influence in this process, and reducing that of minimalist constitutionalism. It is in this particular context, best characterised by the Road Map to the Republic, that the election results need to be viewed as a watershed.
In the final anaysis, however, it is up to grassroots republican activists to get our collective heads around the fact that we do shape the reality of our struggle. Leadership initiatives and high wire negotiations can indeed impact directly on the progress of the struggle, but equally, producing election results such as we did, and then what we do next, literally places the future of the struggle in all our hands. Achieving Irish unity by 2016 is achievable, but only by ensuring watersheds such as this are used to create still more revolutionary opportunities for republicanism to advance throughout the country.