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21 June 2007 Edition

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OPINION : This isn't push over politics - political strength is key

Political strength, elections and popular opinion

BY Declan Kearney

Discussions within the party since the general election and forthright opinions being expressed across the membership are to be welcomed.  But we also need to get our analysis right and draw the correct strategic conclusions.  Analysing the situation from a sectional perspective on policy or publicity issues, or with a niche view of popular opinion, or even too narrow an ideological emphasis, will skew our assessment and conclusions.  The most accurate perspective will be achieved by conducting our analysis within the framework of overall republican strategy.
Yes, the election was disappointing, and the results represent a setback: but we need to get the proper balance into that assertion.
This election was never going to be the election for Sinn Féin.  Substantial electoral growth in this state needs to be approached with a long-term election strategy. Electoralism is simply a means to an end, by which we seek with other democratic strategies to build political strength and realign politics in a permanent way.  Real political and economic change, political strength, and electoral growth, all come slowly – and that is how it should be because the political and social forces opposed to our vision of change for now, remain too powerful.
There is a seanfhocal “an té nach bhfuil láidir, cathfidh sé a bheith glic.”  And, we need to get smart too.
Consider briefly our electoral development.  In 1985 Sinn Féin got 11.8 % of the vote in the north and elected 59 councillors.  One in 10 voted Sinn Féin, but at that point in our development it was arguably as much a vote for armed struggle; it certainly didn’t represent political strength.  It took 22 years before we achieved 26% of the vote and created conditions where our vote does reflect durable political strength.  In 1992 the Party recorded 700 votes in North Kerry, but it took 10 years before Martin Ferris was elected a TD.  And it was 11 years after we ended abstentionism before our first TD ever was elected.
Comparatively then our electoral strategy in the South is still fledgling.
Much goodwill was reported for Sinn Féin in this election, but it was just that, goodwill. It came from the political thaw for republicans due to progress in the peace process.  It should not be misunderstood as political strength. Electoral support grows out of political strength. The big lesson from this campaign is that we are not politically strong enough in the 26 counties.
Fianna Fáil pursued a sophisticated election strategy and maximised their air war with successful constituency ground wars.  Consequently 41% of electors voted Fianna Fáil, because doing so made commonsense to them in this economic and political context.  Fianna Fáil launched a political tidal wave in pursuit of a third term in power and sought to sweep away all opposition before them.
However, where Sinn Féin had firmly established our political strength, or focused upon it’s development, our vote stayed solid, and we produced remarkable results in Limerick, Clare, Tipperary, Meath, and Donegal, to name a few.  Conversely we became casualties where our political strength wasn’t sufficiently embedded.

The strategic conclusion from this election is that the durability of our political strength determined where we successfully withstood Fianna Fáil attrition.  No single factor underpins real political strength. It is a combination of activists being rooted within local communities; solid, active organisation; quality leadership; good local campaign politics; and a focus on making republicanism relevant.
Our first priority now must be to concentrate energies on consolidating and building new political strength across the South; to develop the profile of a 26 County public leadership; expand party structures and prepare for the 2009 elections.
This election was also characterised by an unprecedented ideological offensive from the establishment parties, a relentless battle for hearts and minds.  Its outcome will define the balance of political forces for the coming period.
The formation of the new coalition has been conducted with the objective of marginalising effective opposition in Leinster House, and weakening the basis for political alternatives in Irish society.  The principal target is Sinn Féin.  This is designed to strengthen the conservative hegemony in the 26 counties.  In turn a range of new strategic challenges surface with regard to dislodging the power base of the status quo.
For activists, the election has brought sharply into focus that we are now embarked on the most difficult phase of our struggle.  The era of armed struggle; peace negotiations; and heavy lifting of groundbreaking initiatives will be dwarfed by the intensity of building the republican alternative amidst the distinct and new political/economic conditions in this state.
The strategic gravity pull of our struggle is now clearly the South.  That’s where the national struggle is.  Of course we have to continue building and using our political strength in the North to its full potential.  But we should also realise that our opponents have also analysed the gravity pull, and its strategic importance to our overall Party development, and aims of equality and national independence.  They will attempt to frustrate our efforts to become bigger.
Sinn Féin's aims are anathema to the vested political and economic interests of the 26 County state. We must come to terms with the dynamics of this state and its symbiotic relationship with Fianna Fáil; and, in turn, the unique political character and purpose of that organisation in the life of the state.  It embodies the motive force of Dev’s “Legion of the Rearguard” legacy, with the most sophisticated political techniques of the modern European centre right.
This isn’t ‘push over’ politics.  It’s long haul stuff, and a new phase of struggle for all activists, north and south!  The election should be a wake up call as to what the republican project is really up against.
Getting our strategic and tactical heads around this will be key to properly relating to and engaging with popular opinion in this part of the island. Properly understanding popular opinion is the basis upon which we will expand our political strength.
Therefore our second priority must be to correctly position Sinn Féin to promote a republican commonsense, which undercuts the conservative status quo.  And if our parliamentary entitlements and influence are to be marginalised, then let’s maximise our campaign efforts in all rural and urban communities, and get on with preparing systematically for the elections in 2009.

Many new opportunities are already emerging; as the Greens become surrogates to FF in government; the reduced independents become coalition crutches; Labour convulses itself with contradictions of having become hostage to the electoral growth of Fine Gael; and, we identify the potential to win many new council seats.
Our strategic analysis, and dual priorities of building political strength, and positioning ourselves correctly in the South also throws up an important corollary.  That is the emphasis required on the party’s ideological, political and organisational development.
Consider briefly in conclusion, whether, despite our strengths, if our Party is organisationally ready and sufficiently disciplined for the period ahead?  Are we ideologically prepared for the battle of hearts and minds with our opponents? And, can we use our political experience to bring forward a distinct republican common sense to popular opinion in the south, which promotes opportunity, equality, and national independence?
The answer of course is that we are equal to sorting out these issues and more, if we do the right things quickly.
So let’s get this electoral set back into perspective.  In the bigger scheme of republican struggle it’s a mere heartbeat.  It’s a temporary roadblock, and they never stopped us in the past - sure they didn’t? 

• Declan Kearney is Chairperson of Sinn Féin’s Cuige Uladh

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