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23 July 2009 Edition

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Debate, strategy and leadership

Can we do it in the South? Of course we can!

Sinn Féin National Chairperson

THE political frontline of any struggle is a challenging place to be – it tests political nerve, character and patience. Meeting the demands it throws up can often mean having to dig deep and to keep our nerve... often more than once.
The primary theatre of political struggle for Sinn Féin today is the 26 Counties. That’s not to say that the North can be taken for granted. Far from it. In fact, more so than in recent years, the DUP political leadership appears less committed to equality and partnership in government; unionism overall is fractured and directionless; and the political institutions are becoming increasingly unstable.
But, with regard to the overall national project of building support for Sinn Féin and republican objectives, the southern state is crucial, and no less challenging.
As comrades often observe, the South is not the North. They are absolutely right. The southern state has existed for almost 90 years. It has a political legitimacy, identity and culture of its own.
It developed economically and socially apart from the North and these dynamics, along with other international economic and geo-political influences, modernised the 26-County state in a very distinct way. Party political traditions and voter allegiance have all, inevitably, developed within that context.
So, we should never underestimate the scale of what Sinn Féin has embarked upon: to mainstream, popularise and build real political support for our vision in the 26 Counties.
The political opposition to Sinn Féin is immense, South and North. While our ideological core values tap into the pulse of the South in a very potent way, Sinn Féin, as an organised party, has been largely outside the political mainstream in this state for 83 years. Make no mistake about it, we’re playing a form of historical political ‘catch up’ to become more relevant to the lives of ordinary people here in this part of Ireland.
All of these reasons make frontline political activism in the South much more difficult today. But we have strengths in our favour. Our identity is clear – it always has been – we are definitively socialist republican, and our political strategy provides a framework to guide our political activism within the real world of Irish society.
It follows the basic formula of ‘getting our ducks lined up’ in terms of political planning, organisation and activism, in all its forms; to build political strength, and grow popular support; and to use this to change the political context, and reduce, limit, or neutralise the room for manoeuvre by our political opposition.
Those opposed to Sinn Féin in the South have long since recognised those strengths, and that our historical political republican roots resonate with a deeply-ingrained republican sentiment at the heart of Irish society. But these big business, political and status quo interests which are so fite fuaite, aren’t going to run scared in the face of our potential alone.
Sinn Féin’s big weakness is that we have been inconsistent in developing a coherent strategic plan for the South and in pulling our project together and maintaining its cohesion.
In the past, the political priorities of the Peace Process and sheer scale of developing Sinn Féin with limited resources and less capacity (as well as contending with internal opposition and political opportunists) have all distracted our focus from what was needed across the South.
And we have surely politically underestimated the actual durability of the electoral surges in support we enjoyed here since 2002.
In some ways, all that is part and parcel of struggle.
But, a number of things are now clear. There are no short-cuts or quick-fixes for what needs to be done in the South. This is arguably a watershed for our overall political development. Debate and discussion is crucial. That gives us the process with which to hone the focus of developing a coherent 26 Counties strategy.
But we also need to hold our nerve.
Questions and doubts inevitably arise in seminal periods of struggle. Back at the turn of the 1990s, I and other young activists had doubts about our strategic direction. Few, if any, arenas for internal debate existed then. But that reflected the realities of the time.
We relied upon a few really sound, individual leadership figures for comradely advice and guidance. And we learned then that to argue for particular political positions meant accepting the responsibility to ‘step up to the plate’, to later accept leadership positions, and then translate those views into real world strategy and tactics.
By contrast, there are many arenas for discussion in the party today, but as important, a genuine commitment exists within this leadership to facilitate as much democratic discussion and consensus as possible.
Unless ideas and opinions are shaped into coherent strategies, they remain just that. Championing and winning internal and popular support for particular strategic options does mean ‘stepping up to the plate’ and accepting responsibility for being involved in party leadership.
What’s required now is a shared and revolutionary perspective across the party on what needs to be done. Yes, it does mean recognising that our political ideas need to be crunched down into accessible political messages: we do need to become smarter and more scientific about how we target that message; we need to become far more relevant in this state – but with more, not fewer, ordinary citizens.
It also means recognising that this is another, even more complex, phase of struggle which is going to be long-term in nature. There will be high and low points. So we also need a political consensus, maximum cohesion and unity, and organisational coherence. And we need a great deal of political patience, maturity and comradeship.
Sinn Féin in the South, especially, suffers from organisational under-development. That, and our lack of capacity, needs to be fixed. We need to constantly regenerate on a national basis and not just when others hit retirement.
These remarks are not clichés. They need to be understood as real live priorities for every activist. Unless we become fit for purpose we can have debates until the cows come home. Debate needs to be a catalyst for action, political and organisational growth and renewal... and a willingness to share and assume responsibility for leadership.
Political leadership means leading from the front and taking the rough with the smooth. Political frontlines can be forbidding places but less so when the leadership is increasingly collective and representative.
Leadership isn’t a political vocation: it’s a choice and responsibility. This is a phase of struggle for us all to stand up and share that responsibility at the Ard Chomhairle, cúigí, comhairlí ceantair and cumainn.
Good leaderships need to collectively strategise and consistently set out a positive vision, realistic objectives and then use these to inspire and create momentum.
Self-belief, passion and enthusiasm are very important in struggle. We constantly need them. One of the jobs of leadership has to be to cultivate and sustain those qualities among party activists who know what they are about, are self-confident and absolutely resolute in their determination to build the South.
Can we do it?  Of course we can!

 SOCIALIST REPUBLICAN: Sinn Féin needs to build political strength, and grow popular support


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