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20 May 2004 Edition

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Election countdown: Sinn Féin rise makes it a battle for hearts and minds

BY ROBBIE SMYTH

We have had the Fianna Fáil poster battles, the PDs in an open-top bus saying they have no paper candidates, Bertie Ahern allegedly attacking lazy party candidates for letting the 'Shinners' steal their council seats. Labour have been promising that they would do a better job and a cryptic website message from Pat Rabbitte tells us that "the challenge for Labour is to encourage those who think Labour to vote Labour".

The Fine Gael election theme was lost in the turbulence of yet more poor poll showings, but what all of these parties have been on message about in recent weeks, whether in press conferences, campaign launches, on the floor of Leinster House - and in the case of the PDs all of the above - is to attack Sinn Féin. In the Six Counties, the DUP have made it the centrepiece of their election campaign.

The upcoming local and EU parliament elections have focused political parties and commentators primarily on the rise of the Sinn Féin vote. Alongside this is the question of can Fine Gael stem the losses of 2002 and how many seats will Fianna Fáil lose after two very unpopular years of jobs losses, spending cutbacks, broken promises, corrupt TDs, need we go on?

Alongside this is the infighting between parties, driven partly by constituency boundary changes but mostly by the reduction of EU Parliament seats from 15 to 13. In the new East, (formerly Leinster), South (Munster without Cork) and West, (Connacht Ulster with Clare), infighting between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael candidates is highlighting the lack of any real ideology in either party except that of getting power and holding onto it.

So how has the Sinn Féin vote grown in the last seven years since Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats threw their lot together?

1997 Cavan Monaghan breakthrough

In 1997, Sinn Féin won 45,614 first preferences, running candidates in 14 out of 41 constituencies. The party elected its first TD since the 1950s and 16 years after the H-Block campaign fielded hunger strikers in the 1981 Leinster House elections, the poll topping performance of Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin in Cavan Monaghan was a massive electoral breakthrough for the party. The election also saw Martin Ferris in Kerry North and Seán Crowe in Dublin South West narrowly missing seats.

6% in 1999

The 1999 local and EU elections delivered more gains, with the party contesting all of the Irish EU constituencies. Mitchel McLaughlin's 117,643 votes consolidated the gains made in the Six Counties in the previous year's Assembly elections.

In the 26 Counties, the party's 88,162 votes translated into 6.13% of first preferences and in the local elections there were five new seats in Dublin's City and Fingal Councils, while new council seats were added in Louth, Meath, Kerry and Sligo/Leitrim.

The 1999 elections were all the more important given the fact that the Labour Party, after absorbing the remnants of Democratic Left, didn't manage to translate this into any extra votes, while the Green Party local election vote had only marginally grown, despite a 25% increase in candidates fielded. It was this election that showed the 26-County political establishment that Sinn Féin was the one of the key dynamics in future election trends. The 2001 Nice referendum, where Sinn Féin campaigned for a No vote and won, reinforced the growing potency of the party's support.

Five TDs

The 2002 Leinster House elections were another milestone as Sinn Féin's 121,020 votes showed a trebling of the 1997 poll, running this time in 34 constituencies. The party elected five TDs, three of whom had been elected to county councils in 1999.

The 2001 Westminster and 2003 Assembly elections consolidated Sinn Féin's position in the Six Counties as the largest nationalist party. In 2001, Sinn Féin bypassed the SDLP, winning four seats compared to the SDLP's two and in last November's Assembly election the party won six new seats, bringing the party total to 24.

Third largest party

The combination of these results means that Sinn Féin is the now the third largest party on the island, with 188 elected representatives. This growth has set the theme for the coming election, meaning that for some parties, particularly the Progressive Democrats, this is more than just a contest for votes; it's for hearts and minds.

Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams highlighted this point on RTÉ's Morning Ireland programme this week. Responding to yet another attack on Sinn Féin by PD Justice Minister Michael McDowell, Adams asked why, when the PDs were launching their local government election campaign, the keynote address was not centred on Progressive Democrats policies but on attacking Sinn Féin.

The answer is a simple one; the Progressive Democrats, and the more right wing elements in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, have all realised that in the development of the peace process, the impact of economic growth on voters and of post cold war international relations, there has been a consolidating of a green, left republican electorate on the island.

500,000 say No

There were over 500,000 voters who said No to Nice twice, and 100,000 plus people took to the streets in Dublin to protest against the US/British war in Iraq. The last thing the McDowells and others want is this vote to coalesce into a potent political force.

The conservative right in Ireland deliberately don't want to talk about day to day politics like housing, healthcare, education, transport and job creation. Politics for them is either attacks on Sinn Féin or choreographed PR announcements hyping the slightest positive outcome, while ignoring all of the broken promises and policy failures.

The unequal status quo is slipping. McDowell knows this, but does he really think his ceaseless barking will halt the possible landslide?

What this coming election could show is that increasing numbers of voters can see through the charade and the smokescreen. Time will tell, and we await the next installment from those who fear change and the wrath of the voters.

Next week: Where will the Sinn Féin gains be made?

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