10 July 2008 Edition
Regaining political momentum
Conference : Latest step in party overhaul in the South
BY SEÁN Mac BRÁDAIGH & ELLA O’DWYER
In his opening remarks to the meeting, Gerry Adams set the tone for what marked the latest step in a major overhaul of Sinn Féin in the South.
Reviewing progress over past 12 months and setting out an ambitious work plan for the next eight, the gathering at Dublin Airport’s Radisson Hotel built on work carried out since a meeting last November began an 18-month rebuilding process.
With the first phase of that process now concluded, the second – taking stock and preparing organisationally – will take the party up to the Ard Fheis. The third phase will be marked by the countdown to local government and EU elections in 2009.
Following a successful campaign against the Lisbon Treaty, key priorities in the rebuilding programme include work carried out by a newly-established Economy Strategy Group, conventions for local government and EU elections and key campaigns around community safety, the West of Ireland and Irish unity.
Consultation within Sinn Féin in 2007 identified the fact that the party is not strong enough on the ground in many constituencies in the 26 Counties. Other findings were that the party needs a truly national leadership and that Sinn Féin must widen its political appeal, setting out solutions to the challenges facing modern Ireland.
The party also identified the necessity to present its message in a more coherent way. It looked at the more fundamental issues that influence and generate political change in Ireland and reassessed what contribution Sinn Féin can make to that process. The Lisbon Treaty campaign put a lot of these conclusions into practice.
The coming months will see Sinn Féin continue the campaign at national and EU level for the issues raised during the Lisbon campaign to be addressed in a new treaty. The party is currently distributing hundreds of thousands of leaflets setting out what Sinn Féin thinks should be delivered in a new treaty. Party representatives are also meeting a range of political voices across the EU and will host a major conference in the autumn on the way forward.
An Economic Strategy Group, established by the Ard Chomhairle, will engage with a wide range of groups – workers, employers, self-employed, farmers, anti-poverty groups – and bring forward a major position paper on the economy.
The party identified some time back the difficulties the Irish economy is now facing and intends to present a critique of it and outline what needs to be done to reverse the current malaise.
Campaigns in the autumn will see Martin Ferris and Pearse Doherty bring together groups and individuals across the west of Ireland around a common platform to rejuvenate the West, socially and economically, while Aengus Ó Snodaigh will head up a series of initiatives around community safety and the party’s engagement with Joint Policing Committees in the 26 Counties.
In preparing for local government and EU elections, Sinn Féin’s objective is to retain its representation in the European Parliament. With the reduction in the number of seats this will be a huge task but the party intends to fight a good election. It is also looking to build on its current local government representation of 125 councillors.
Also in the autumn, the party will hold a series of local public meetings across the South similar to those held in the North earlier this year.
A major revamp of party organisation is aimed at having a Sinn Féin structure in every parish in Ireland over the next two years.
Addressing Saturday’s conference, Declan Kearney (Organisational Development Unit) pointed out that this month marks the third anniversary of the IRA’s announcement in July 2005 of an end to its armed campaign. In time, he said, this will arguably be assessed as historically “epoch making”.
“The 28 July statement unequivocally established the primacy of political and democratic struggle and it established the primacy of Sinn Féin as the vehicle to advance republicanism.”
Kearney said the current context for building republican politics is shaped by the popular expectations and popular opinion of 21st century Irish society.
“In an Ireland where the cost of living will increasingly compete with the cause of the Republic, Sinn Féin has to popularise our vision whilst delivering a sense of hope, change and mission.”
He said Sinn Féin now has to balance a seasoned revolutionary purpose with an intelligent grasp of realpolitik.
“These are more dangerous phases because our political opposition has witnessed our resilience and ability to change but it also glimpsed our potential. We are viewed as a potent threat to the reconfigured status quo, South and North.
Kearney said Fianna Fáil’s setback from the Lisbon ‘No’ vote, and Sinn Féin’s role in the campaign – allied to the tactic of shifting blame for the recession onto the ‘No’ vote – will inevitably provoke a renewed anti-Sinn Féin offensive.
While the party temporarily broke the Establishment’s isolation strategy during the Lisbon campaign, it needs to find new initiatives to prevent it being reimposed.
The popularity of the Peace Process, Kearney said, would not work as a catch-all brand for Sinn Féin. The party in the time ahead needs to be positioned with a commonsense, republican economic and political agenda and to communicate how change is achievable.
“The critical mass of popular support needed to achieve our primary and ultimate aims rests in the 26 Counties. That means we have to vastly grow our voter base here. Sinn Féin must get to the point where our main, popular, electoral base of support is in the South. Regaining political momentum is about putting this party onto that trajectory.”
Party Chair and Dublin MEP Mary Lou McDonald commended everyone in the party on the victory achieved in the campaign against the Lisbon Treaty. She said that lots of people across the European continent are very grateful to Ireland and in particular to Sinn Féin for delivering the ‘No’ vote. Sinn Féin, while clearly not the only force in delivering a ‘No’ victory, had set the agenda and shaped the politics of the campaign, she said.
Sinn Féin’s 26-County Director of Political Operations, Dawn Doyle, said a lot has happened between the Lisbon campaign and the run-up to the conference. The party’s new Organisational Development Unit (ODU) is in place and is carrying out a reorganisation across the state. Important work is also being carried out by the Election Department. Doyle outlined the range of campaigns with which the party is currently engaging.
“We have a huge amount of work ahead of us if we are to put ourselves on the strongest possible footing for next year’s local government and EU elections.”
The head of Sinn Féin’s Organisational Development Unit, Seán Hughes, outlined the work and progress made by the department since its establishment in late January 2008 when the party identified the need to build more effective structures in the South.
“At cumann level we need to get our existing cumainn working more efficiently and become more active on national and local issues of concern,” he said.
Hughes pointed to the need to induct new members while retaining the existing membership.
Speaking to a power-point presentation, he identified uneven party development across the state but demonstrated significant recent expansion in terms of new members and cumainn.
He indicated the intention to extend the ODU to Cúige Uladh.
On the need for increased membership, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams said the party is too small and pointed out that if each party member persuaded one person to join Sinn Féin, it would double not just in numerical terms but in terms of bringing new skills and talents to the party.
Sinn Féin’s Director of Elections, Brian Tumilty, said that 2009 could be a hugely important milestone in the development of republican struggle with EU elections North and South, 26-County local government campaigns, and a Westminster and possibly even an Assembly campaign in the North.
In the aftermath of the 26-County general election campaign, the party’s Electoral Planning Commission had made certain recommendations. As a result, he said:
“For the first time in the history of Sinn Féin, a critical core is being formed of full-time staffers whose primary responsibility will be to focus the energies of Sinn Féin in such a way as to greatly enhance our collective ability to successfully contest and advance our electoral ambitions.”
Tumilty said that over the next period of months, and with a keen eye on the electoral challenges of next year, the Election Department, along with the ODU and the heads of political development, will lay the foundations for an efficient Sinn Féin machine.
Sinn Féin Dáil leader Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD said the economic downturn has vindicated much of what Sinn Féin has been saying about the gross mismanagement of the economy by Fianna Fáil-led governments over the past decade. Having failed during the boom to deliver greater equity and the public services people need, the Government is now preparing to cut back public services.
“Sinn Féin must monitor the effects of cutbacks and economic recession on our communities and in the daily lives of the people. We must use that information to equip vigorous campaigns in defence of public services. We must link up local campaigns such as those in support of hospital services throughout the 26 Counties. As public services are cut back, especially in healthcare, it is likely that the pace of privatisation will increase and this too needs to be targeted by effective campaigning.
“The campaigns I have cited are essentially defensive in nature. But we must be on the offensive also. We need to present in ever-clearer and stronger terms our analysis of the way forward and our demands for real equality and the fair distribution of wealth. We need to show to communities our ability to provide effective leadership and representation at local, regional and national level.
Above all, we need to speak directly to and work directly with the people in our communities.”
Judging by the mood of last weekend’s one-day conference, Sinn Féin in the 26 Counties is more than up for the challenge of the European and local government elections next year. Flushed with the significant success of the campaign against the Lisbon Treaty, a thorough reorganisation of structures and renewed engagement in campaigns, the organisation is resilient and growing throughout the South.