14 June 2007 Edition
Election 2007 : Ard Chomhairle meeting initiates widespread discussion
Leadership meets amid strong sense of purpose
BY SEÁN Mac BRÁDAIGH
Against an election result that fell below expectations and with the make-up of the new Irish Government sill unclear, members of the Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle met in Dublin last Saturday to begin a wide process of consultation within the party at all levels. This consultation process will take stock of Sinn Féin’s performance and chart a way forward for the republican political project in the 26 Counties. Crucially these discussions will focus on what needs to be done between now and 2009 when 26 County Local Government and European elections will take place.
The well-attended Ard Chomhairle meeting saw a thorough and wide-ranging discussion with contributions from a majority of members. The gathering of the party’s national leadership was marked by a strong sense of purpose that republicans, following a consultation period and consensus on what needs to be done, needed to move forward again.
The meeting in the party’s Ard Oifig in Dublin’s Parnell Square, dealt with the election campaign, political and organisational issues and a range of ideas, critical analysis and suggestions on the way forward.
Party President Gerry Adams made clear from the outset that the meeting should be seen as the initiation of a much wider process of consultation and discussion within the party. As such, it was a good start and the quality of the contributions showed a great depth of political understanding between republicans from across the island.
There was a strong commitment by all present to maintain the level of political engagement and work by the party throughout the island as a whole. There was a clear recognition of the need to continually adapt the struggle to objective conditions.
Gerry Adams re-iterated his position that Sinn Féin had entered the election in a strong position. He maintained that in the first two to three weeks of the campaign the party had made headway on the need for strong public services and greater social equality, and in making the case that Sinn Féin was ready to be in a government that would deliver on these issues. Like other parties Sinn Féin was squeezed as the election progressed.
There were external factors over which the party had little control, which affected the Sinn Féin performance, but there were also issues to do with the party’s own campaign, which needed to be looked at critically.
Adams said that the party as a whole needed to analyse the reasons behind the outcome of the election. Factors that had to be examined included why in some constituencies Sinn Féin had advanced and came within a whisker of taking a Dáil seat while in other areas the party’s vote had dropped. The party also needed to analyse its political message and electoral strategy.
He said the election was always going to be a difficult one for Sinn Féin but that the party had entered it better prepared than in previous campaigns. From early on the establishment media and political parties in the 26 Counties had sought to sideline Sinn Féin and convey the message that the party was irrelevant to the issue of government formation. He said ‘a leadership which takes credit when things go right also has to take responsibility when they don’t.
Many other speakers at the Ard Chomhairle meeting made the point that though there was a tremendous amount of goodwill toward Sinn Féin throughout the 26 Counties, not least because of its work on the peace process, this did not necessarily translate into votes.
Several speakers argued that republicanism had to be made relevant to people within the objective conditions pertaining in the 26 Counties.
There was agreement that the task Sinn Féin has been attempting to carry out in Ireland is huge and unprecedented. The party needed to be built in two jurisdictions and Sinn Féin had to increase both its political and its electoral strength. This was throwing up huge challenges, which needed to be understood and dealt with.
One member said that he had always held the view that for republicans fighting the British forces of occupation was the easier part of the struggle and that the hardest part was always going be the political battle in the 26 Counties.
A range of views was expressed regarding the presentation of the party’s message, political positioning, manifesto and policy issues, organisational strengths and weaknesses, local and statewide tactics and strategy.
Several Ard Chomhairle members expressed concerns and disagreements with the promotion and presentation of party policy during the campaign and pointed to difficulties caused in the interpretation of this while others expressed strong support for the election platform and manifesto.
The need for an integrated party strategy, linking the work of elected representatives at all levels with local, on-the-ground party structures and a coherent, progressive republican message was stressed. A number of speakers pointed to the party’s healthcare campaign over the past 12 months as an example of good, co-ordinated political work, which should be used as a template for future activity in the 26 Counties.
Speakers made the point that a core vote of 143,000 was one that provided great scope for future Leinster House seat gains.
A number of speakers made the point that within the organisation there had been very high, and often unrealistic expectations about seat gains. The disappointment felt since the election was more to do with these high republican expectations, than with any collapse in the campaign.
While some members questioned the tactic of contesting almost every constituency in the state, others persuasively argued against any claw back in the amount constituencies that Sinn Féin contested with at least one Ard Chomhairle member saying that Sinn Féin owed it to the electorate to continue to provide the option of voting for Sinn Féin in all of the constituencies.
There was a strong desire to avoid any element of partitionism within the party and the need to develop Southern leadership for the party was expressed. Organisational difficulties in specific geographical areas were identified and a ‘task force approach’ to resolving these was strongly advocated.
It was stated that the party in its discussions in the coming weeks must reach a consensus on what the political project in the 26 Counties is and come back with a programme of work to achieve this.
Significantly, the Ard Chomhairle made two important new political appointments. Leo Green and Dawn Doyle were appointed as Directors of Political Operations in the Six Counties and the 26 Counties respectively.
The Directors of Political Operations will have responsibility for political activity in the 26 Counties both inside and outside Leinster House and in the Six Counties both inside and outside the Assembly. They will be responsible for producing, in conjunction with the Dáil team and Assembly team, Election Department and Ard Runaí’s department, Sinn Féin’s programme of work for the next two years and its implementation.
The meeting also approved putting the Ard Rúnaí’s Department on a solid footing with responsibility for crucial areas such as party development, recruitment, education and skills training. Rita O’Hare is in charge of this Department and joining her will be Declan Kearney and Shane MacThomais.
The meeting was conducted in an atmosphere of positive comradeship. It concluded with Ard Chomhairle members departing to various parts of Ireland with a strong determination, not just to continue this vital discussion among various other levels of the party but to drive forward the task of re-focusing Sinn Féin on the task ahead with renewed vigour.