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16 May 2002 Edition

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Vótáil Sinn Féin

Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams says that a vote for Sinn Féin is a vote for change.

Sinn Féin leaders and candidates go large as they unveil an election banner at An Phoblacht's Dublin offices on Tuesday.

"I have been canvassing widely through many of the 34 constituencies in which Sinn Féin are standing candidates and the response has been very positive," he reports.

"People are very conscious of the issues facing them. What they want to know is how the wealth which is being created will be used to address their concerns.

"There have been many positive changes in the last five years, but there have also been many missed opportunities. It is a scandal that although we are now the third richest state in the EU we have a health system which is among the worst. People are concerned that 30% of elderly people here live below the poverty line.

"People are concerned that we have:

the lowest life expectancy in the EU
the lowest number of acute hospital beds per capita in the EU
the highest rate of child poverty in the EU
four times more golf courses than children's playgrounds
seen a doubling in the number of homeless people in the past five years
20% of our population living in relative poverty.
"It is clear that people over the last two weeks that a lot of these people have made up their mind to vote Sinn Féin.

"They know that we are delivering on the Peace Process. They share our view on Irish unity. This morning I want to address that substantial section of the electorate who may have decided that this election is not relevant for them.

"These people are not apathetic. They are concerned with the revelations of corruption. They are concerned about the arrogant, dismissive attitude of all the establishment parities to the Nice referendum result and they are deeply concerned at the lack of fairness in social and economic policy.

"Next Friday the voters have the opportunity to bring about political change. If they really want change it is in their hands. Not voting guarantees the status quo. A vote for Sinn Féin is a vote for a real alternative."


Ahern's transfer call exposes McDowell

The Taoiseach's call for Fianna Fáil vote transfers to the PDs should put an end to what it called the "tough-guy play-acting" of the PDs' President, Attorney General Michael McDowell, says Sinn Féin candidate for Dublin South-West, Councillor Seán Crowe.

"The Taoiseach's call has exposed Michael McDowell's mini-series of election dramas for the farce that it is," he said. "After five years of sharing the limelight with them, the PDs' star performer tells us that Fianna Fáil cannot be trusted on its own. So why does Bertie Ahern still want his supporters to help bring Michael McDowell back as part of their Little and Large, PDs/Fianna Fáil double act?

"Bertie Ahern and Charlie McCreevy obviously aren't afraid of Michael McDowell because they know his 'Mr Angry' publicity stunts are all an act. The Coalition should admit that."


The last lap - SF team closes the gap

Bairbre de Brún, Gerry Adams, Seán Crowe and Frances McCole at a press conference on Tuesday

A couple of weeks ago I travelled by bus from Dublin city centre to Monaghan town. On the way I saw posters of Sinn Féin candidates and in every case, in every constituency along the main road from Dublin to Derry through Monaghan, the Sinn Féin candidate is well capable of capturing a Dáil seat for the party tomorrow.

I travelled through Dublin Central, where Bertie Ahern's machine is so worried about the challenge from Sinn Féin's Nicky Kehoe that they put up special posters to tell voters that Fianna Fáil is "the republican party". In Dublin North West Sinn Féin's Dessie Ellis is a serious contender in a three-seater, an achievement on a par with Martin Ferris in Kerry North. Across the county line in Meath, Joe Reilly is poised to snatch victory in a second Battle of the Boyne. In Collon and Ardee, Arthur Morgan's posters reminded me that the Wee County can make Big News on Friday. And as I crossed the Louth/Monaghan boundary a home-made hoarding told me "You are now entering Ó Caoláin country".

I got off at Monaghan bus depot but if I had continued I would have been into Tyrone, a county split between two Westminster constituencies, both represented by a Sinn Féin MP. During the last Westminster election we spoke of the Greening of the West of the Bann. But on Friday 17 May we might well be seeing the Greening of the Liffeyside, the Boyne and Dundalk Bay. Such is the progress of Sinn Féin.

Mind you, breaths are still bated. No seat is a certainty and so much will depend on turnout this Friday. But in the final week of this general election campaign, I for one have never seen such confidence among Sinn Féiners in any previous election in the 26 Counties. That is on-the-ground confidence, not based on polls or spins or tired pundits.

I have seen this confidence at several levels.

My own work has let me see many angles. Here in the Dáil, where I have worked with Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin for the past five years, the 'threat' from Sinn Féin is a deep undercurrent among our opponents. In Cavan/Monaghan our campaign has been motoring for months. Caoimhghín has been getting a great response on the canvass, especially in Cavan and South Monaghan, where our vote is expected to rise significantly.

Gerry Adams with Dublin candidates Daithí Doolan, Aengus Ó Snodaigh and Larry O'Toole
My home constituency is Dublin North East, where Larry O'Toole is in a very tight contest for the third seat in a three-seater. The driving force behind Larry's campaign is Andy Kavanagh. If there were Oscars for Best Director of Elections Andy would be already making his (untearful) acceptance speech. It was said of James Joyce that should Dublin be destroyed it could be rebuilt from his books. If Dublin North East was flattened Andy could provide the blueprint, as there is not an inch of footpath that he and his teams have not traversed dozens of times at the cracking pace he sets. Andy's young daughter Lindsey last week won the Silver Medal in the World Kickboxing Championship in Greece. In Dublin North East, the Bronze Medal for Larry will do fine.

I am sure Sinn Féin workers in every key constituency can tell similar stories of huge progress made and the hard work of recent years about to be reaped. Of course these are not the stories being told in the media. RTÉ has given Sinn Féin minimal coverage. In the print media our opponents have been given the widest scope for the most scurrilous attacks on us.

The nadir was reached last weekend, when Attorney General Michael McDowell used the columns of the Sunday Independent not to set out the policies of the PDs but to tell people of the "wasteland" that would be created if they voted for Sinn Féin, complete with a mock-up photo of a punishment attack.

I recall the early days of the peace process, when McDowell was foremost among those opposing dialogue with Sinn Féin. Albert Reynolds was a particular target of his vilification. Eight years ago next week, loyalist paramilitaries and/or British agents attempted to massacre hundreds of people attending a republican social function in Pearse Street in the Dublin South East constituency for which McDowell was then a TD. A republican from Finglas, Martin Doherty, was killed by the attackers he prevented from carrying out their bombing, thus saving many lives. The Dáil record shows that McDowell's reaction was to call for the banning of republican social functions in his constituency.

Like many others, McDowell changed course when he saw the way the wind was blowing and I recall sharing a platform with him in a UCD debate, where I welcomed him on board the peace process. Little of McDowell's anti-republican venom was heard in the intervening period when, we are told, he enjoyed his well-paid job as Attorney General. But as he scrambled for attention from the voters of Dublin South East, McDowell rediscovered his old McCarthyism and the Attorney General became the Witchfinder General.

From tomorrow, the poisonous McDowell and his ilk will have many more witches, reds under beds, subversives and upstarts to worry about.


A 'hatful' of seats


Dublin Central Sinn Féin give Fianna Fáil the message

A sporting theme emerged in the Sinn Féin camp in the last week of the election campaign. Gerry Adams was on TV playing a mixture of soccer and football with an eight-year-old boy in Daithí Doolan's constituency of Dublin South East. His 'fancy footwork' on the negotiating field travels well to a ball, but then again he had a slight height and weight advantage here.

Mitchel Mc Laughlin took to a pugilistic arena when he entered a boxing ring on Sunday night in a Dublin Hotel, not to punch mind you, just to rally support for Nicky Kehoe. And Sinn Féin declared at their social inclusion press conference that there are "four times more golf courses than children's playgrounds" here.

I was awakened abruptly from an election fatigue induced slumber in the back of Dawn Doyle's car by her excited voice, "You're first", "You're first". It was Seán Crowe, Dublin South West candidate on the mobile telling Dawn that a local poll had him coming in first, ahead of all other candidates. I got an immediate rush of adrenaline.

Us hard-nosed election campaigners aren't supposed to bristle, not even slightly, when the pollsters make their pronouncements but I like 'good news', even if it is based on the fickle finger of public opinion polls. So Seán Crowe TD had joined Martin Ferris TD, Arthur Morgan TD and Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD as the punters' front runners. I got out my magnifying glass for the following day's national media coverage of Sean's result but I needn't have bothered. It wasn't mentioned.

Moving posters

I know this part of Ireland is well known for moving statues but moving posters is another thing. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael candidates in Carlow-Kilkenny accused Sinn Féin of roving around North Kerry systematically removing Fianna Fáil's Dan Kiely's posters, shipping them to Carlow-Kilkenny and using them to promote local Sinn Féin candidate Tom Kiernan.

The local media, ever eager to put Sinn Féin in a 'suspicious' frame, ran the story. It dominated radios in Kilkenny and Kerry all day on Tuesday, with all the players, including the printer, getting their spoke in. Not surprisingly, the explanation is somewhat different.

A rather rotund Dan Kiely ordered posters from a Kerry printer. The printer was too busy and passed the order to a printer in Kilkenny. The posters were printed but Dan didn't like his 'Kilkenny visage' and refused to pay for them. Not to be out of coin, the printer sold them cheap to whoever could use them.

Never to miss out on a bargain, in walks Sinn Féin and bought a lot of 400 and used the back of them to promote their candidate. Appropriately enough, given the way the story took off, close on their heels was the promoter of a local circus. He bought another lot and with Dan's face on one side and the circus on the other, he promoted his line of business. Elections are a bit like that... a circus.

Joe Reilly of Meath will be pleased to know that he has a new convert to rely on. Out canvassing in Trim I met the son of an 85-year-old man who had voted Fianna Fáil all his life. This time he wasn't. Joe has his vote.

Other heart warming anecdotes from the stump. Two seasoned campaigners and Assembly members, Darra O'Hagan and Gerry Kelly, fresh from the campaign in Wexford, are pointing at Sinn Féin's John Dwyer making a dramatic breakthrough there or coming extremely close.

Short changed

We were told for a week it was the debate of all debates. It was likened with US Presidential contests, compared with previous tussles, Haughey and Fitzgerald, Bertie and Bruton. It was described as 'gladiatorial' by one commentator. Now there's an image to play with: Bertie or Michael as Russell Crowe's stand in? Bertie would have to dress in Ku Klux Klan garb to lose ground, said a guest on Vincent Brown's radio chat show. But in the event, the great debate resembled a bar room brawl, more heat than light. Not for the frist time in this election the electorate were short changed.

Electoral migration

Migration comes with climatic changes. This week political migration from the north southwards has coincided thankfully with the needle of the baramoter moving towards 'warm'. My sense is this reflects the mood for Sinn Féin among the people. Whatever happens, hundreds of northern migrants are flocking to help their southern comrades. And a great thanks for putting this operation together should go to the Six-County Cúige and in particular Paud Devenny, Chairperson of Belfast Sinn Fein, who is in intensive care in the hospital following a savage beaten by members of the RUC/PSNI, in the Short Strand last weekend. Get well soon Paud. We're all rooting for you. Keep and eye to the results on Saturday. Your efforts will not be in vain.

To call it or not: minimun three, maximum? who can tell? I'll leave it to that wily old 'Bird', Charlie of RTÉ. Asked how many seats would Sinn Féin get, he said "a hatful".

Roll on Saturday.


Fine Gael stare down the barrel


Fine Gael don't seem to understand that their picky politics have little meaning for the electorate and using a TV broadcast to promise car pooling drivers access to bus lanes shows how out of touch and redundant they are
How did it go wrong for Fine Gael? As they gnaw over a television debate that a lot of self appointed media pundits believe was won by Michael Noonan, how will they compare that with two polls that show voter support haemorrhaging.

Polls by Irish Marketing Surveys in the Independent and the Market Research Bureau of Ireland in the Times show Fine Gael's vote share at 18% and 21%, respectively.

This is all the more remarkable given that the party won nearly 28% of the vote in 1997 and has been in opposition for five years. Even New Labour lost some vote share to the squabbling and divided Conservatives in last year's Westminster elections, yet Fianna Fáil are set to widen the gap between them and Fine Gael.

In the key Dublin region, support is falling to the 1992 low of 17%. Up until the 1950s, Fine Gael support in Dublin outstripped its national standing with the exception of the three Garret FitzGerald elections between 1981 and 1982.

As the electorate has grown and Irish society has evolved becoming more urban, middle class and educated there has at the same time been a continual decline in party support in this key area.

Fine Gael's problems stem from three roots, ideology, image and leadership. 16f

Ideologically, Fine Gael were outflanked. Fine Gael's finest hours were during the three elections in 1981 and 1982. The party won support on the basis of FitzGerald's supposed leadership ability, liberal credentials and a manifesto steeped in the new right monetarism so popular at the time. This brought them 39% of the vote in November 1982, exactly where Fianna Fáil were five years ago.

These elections were crucial because up until then the party's terms in office only came after long periods of uninterrupted Fianna Fáil government and Fine Gael never managed two consecutive terms in office.

1982 should have been the beginning of a two or three election sequence in government for "Garret the Good". They blew it spectacularly with badly planned and mistimed referenda on divorce and abortion. Add to this a huge dollop of economic turmoil mixed with a general inability to take action and we ended up with three Fianna Fail lead governments in 1987, '89 and '93.

Garret retired prematurely in 1987 and Fine Gael, who had led the way in the use of opinion poll technology in the 1970s, now seemed to unlearn all of the lessons of the late 1970s and early '80s, when they finally began to make up serious ground on Fianna Fáil.

With FitzGerald shuffling off, Fine Gael lost their key electoral asset. Then new leader Alan Dukes made perhaps their greatest blunder and the one from which it seems they will ultimately never recover. Fianna Fáil in 1987 was in a minority government. They began to implement what was then seen as Fine Gael type policies of cutting public spending, while beginning to cut income and business taxes also.

Dukes, in what is now called the "Tallaght Strategy", agreed that Fine Gael TDs would not bring down Fianna Fáil as long as they implemented Fine Gael type policies. He had undermined the reason for Fine Gael's existence. How would an electorate be able to decide between two centre right parties with identical policies? Now it was down to personality.

This was difficult for Fine Gael, as now we had a political elite using sound bite television, radio and print media appearances as the main method of communicating with its audiences. Fine Gael were, with Dukes, Bruton and even more so with Noonan, falling way behind in the charisma and communication stakes.

The dumping of Bruton because of poor opinion poll performance showed a directionless party, ineffective in opposition and unconvincing as an alternative government.

Think back to the Bruton-led government of 1994 to '97. What stands out? Nothing. Fianna Fáil, for better or worse, are the masters of focusing in on the big image. They leave their mark, whether in the public mind or even the physical spaces we live in.

For example, of all the Leinster House parties, Fianna Fáil have made the running on the peace process and have used that in billboards, ads and broadcasts. It was they who in the 1980s built the Financial Services Centre, understanding way more than Fine Gael would its symbolic value in years to come. It was they who gave the go ahead for and marked the start of the port tunnel last week.

In some sense, you can understand Bertie's obsession with the 'national' stadium. Had the Millennium Dome been a success in Britain, it would have been the physical hallmark of New Labour. Fine Gael don't seem to understand that their picky politics have little meaning for the electorate and using a TV broadcast to promise car pooling drivers access to bus lanes shows how out of touch and redundant they are.

The only people who don't want Fine Gael to implode are Fianna Fáil. With Fine Gael they can avoid real debate with the Left in Ireland and score points over their diet coke rivals. This time around Fine Gael is hanging over the precipice and the rope is chafing.



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