29 May 2008 Edition
CAMPAIGNS : Policing and justice, education and Lisbon
Challenging the status quo, North and South
BY DECLAN KEARNEY
Leas Ard Rúnai Shinn Féin
THE Lisbon Treaty campaign occurs at a time of increasing political complexity across the island. A diversity of new dynamics now impinges on the political landscape and both defines and shapes popular opinion. Our republican analysis needs to continually take stock of these factors.
The accession of Brian Cowen to the Fianna Fáil leadership and his frontbench reshuffle will, at least in the short- to mid-term, consolidate his party’s formidable hegemony in Southern society notwithstanding the developing economic slow-down. The vista of weakening economic fundamentals, rising energy, fuel, and food prices, and increasing job losses for the new Fianna Fáil administration will act as a powerful incentive to achieve a ‘Yes’ vote in the forthcoming referendum if only to avoid having to manage too many problems at once.
The unyielding dominance of the 26-County establishment and the unchanging political and economic status quo in this state have successfully conditioned popular attitudes and expectations. The effect is that a general apathy towards political ideas and change is increasingly the norm. Small wonder, then, that wider opinion greets the Lisbon Treaty debate with such disinterest and confusion.
This referendum campaign environment is not designed to facilitate a real discourse on the ramifications of the Treaty for sovereignty, democracy and national independence in Ireland or across Europe. Instead, the wider political context and the parameters of the debate itself suit the Southern establishment.
Despite all this, Sinn Féin’s campaign has successfully placed a political spotlight on the most regressive features of this compact. The threat to economic democracy, public services, rural economy, representative equality, neutrality and sovereignty is not only confined to the 26 Counties. Lisbon’s implications pose a direct challenge to Ireland’s national interests. And it is for these reasons that Sinn Féin’s analysis and argument for a ‘No’ vote must be brought to ordinary citizens across the South with all the energy that republican activists can produce in the coming weeks.
This treaty campaign is a new front in the national battle for hearts and minds. Its outcome in turn will shape the political paradigm which influences popular opinion and expectations in this part of Ireland for the coming period.
Simultaneously, in the Six Counties a new political paradigm has begun to emerge, sharply illustrated by the divisions on post-primary educational transfer and unionist opposition to the transfer of policing and justice powers.
Both situations are also deeply rooted in the same battle for hearts and minds which sees the republican momentum for maximum change confronted by political opposition to Sinn Féin’s strategic agenda within the Northern institutions.
The resistance towards our commitment to reform social injustice within the Six-County education system stems not just from unionist social policy agenda but also strategic opposition to Sinn Féin’s overall role within the Executive.
And whilst opposition to the transfer of powers is significantly influenced by a volatility within unionism, it is also based upon a political calculation that short-term failure to achieve transfer will damage our strategy to democratise policing in the North. This, in turn, conceals a more insidious objective of deliberately playing transfer long in order to reduce the numbers of young republicans and nationalists recruited to the PSNI and consequent influence on its critical mass.
The shorthand for the current political situations, North and South, is that the dominant conservative political forces opposed to change in each state have an agenda to ‘dumb down’ and frustrate ideas and campaigns which can serve as dynamics for change in order to foster a popular disengagement from politics in wider society.
Sinn Féin’s call for a ‘No’ vote on Lisbon and commitment to education reform and transfer of powers in the North all directly challenge the establishments’ objectives, North and South, of pacifying popular opinion and copper-fastening the status quo.
So, challenging times lie before republicans in the diverse conditions of modern Ireland but opportunities also exist if we keep our nerve and carefully organise our tactics. Consequently, it is crucial that we constantly review our strategic position in society in relation to popular opinion.
Listening to wider society and refining how Sinn Féin communicates its message are the flip sides to our project of building political strength across the 32 Counties.
We need to be able to take each contemporary political challenge and filter it through our strategy. Changing the political paradigm as set by the establishments will not come about by allowing our strategic objectives to be conditioned by circumstances defined by our political opponents. We need the flexibility to constantly reposition and outmanoeuvre opposition or adversity in order to continue growing in political strength.
Our immediate priorities in the North must be to build a dynamic campaign focus around reform of the education system and to maximise the popular demand for transfer of policing and justice powers to maintain the momentum for political change.
In the South, our Lisbon Treaty campaign needs to continue mainstreaming the Sinn Féin analysis of the referendum issues within all sectors and communities across the state. Our overall campaign purpose needs to be geared towards regaining political momentum in the 26 Counties because when this referendum concludes the republican project of continuing to realign Southern politics will remain.
The efforts of the economic and political elite in the South to depoliticise wider society will not abate regardless of the referendum outcome or changing economic conditions. Their focus post-Lisbon will revert to designing new techniques aimed at shoring up the status quo.
The function of Sinn Féin activists must be to frustrate these efforts and popularise the need for change by communicating a political message which is simultaneously reasonable and achievable and strikes a chord in wider society.
Our politics need to be relevant and commonsense in equal measure both in times of economic boom and bust.
Whether the immediate future is defined by the outcome of the Lisbon vote or some other issue, republicans need to ensure we are not ‘boxed in’ by the Southern establishment. It is more important than ever that we do not allow ourselves to become static in this period.
The Lisbon Treaty campaign is an important opportunity to put Sinn Féin’s analysis into the mainstream, to popularise our politics and to keep moving forward.
However, win, lose or draw in the referendum, our campaign thrust needs to be directed towards ensuring Sinn Féin is strategically positioned in the 26 Counties to present and communicate our political message with increasing effect and influence.
The ability to successfully do so is essential to regaining political momentum in 2008.