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25 November 2004 Edition

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Looking to the future - New electoral department up and running

At the end of a year dominated by local and European elections, most Southern political parties are looking forward to a well-earned break from the electoral process. But when you're in the unique position of being an all-island party in a country forcibly divided, the chances of having any time off from elections are slim. Sinn Féin is in that position and only a few short months after celebrating massive success in the aforementioned elections, the party is already contemplating the very long year of polling ahead. This week, Sinn Féin Vice President Pat Doherty talked to An Phoblacht's Joanne Corcoran about the newly-formed Electoral Department, which will be trying to deal with the neverending task of managing elections North and South of the border

An Phoblacht: Pat, tell us how this department came about and what role you'll be playing in it.

Pat Doherty: Well, I'll be heading it up.

What we're trying to do is move from the position of appointing a director of elections six months before an election to creating a permanent department that will help the party better prepare for elections.

Lucilita Bhreatnach initially had the brief and she brought the project on a fair way, then Eamonn Nolan had it and he advanced it more, even writing a position paper on how the department should develop.

So I brought forward a proposal to the officer board in September and argued for a full-time director and co-ordinator. Out of the experience of me being director of elections from Christmas of last year, I ended up being given the role of head of department.

We also have a full-time co-ordinator, Shane Mac Thomáis and Eamonn Nolan will be deputy head of department.

Does the party need an electoral department?

The basic logic behind setting up the department is that being an all-Ireland party, we're facing an election almost every single year. For us to be totally prepared we need a department to deal exclusively with that.

I mean, if you just look at the next six months, we'll be involved in a massive amount of elections. There are two by-elections, in Meath and North Kildare. Then we have Údarás na Gaeltachta elections. There'll be seven constituencies fought for those, Donegal, Mayo, Galway, Meath, Kerry, Cork and Waterford.

In the Six Counties, we've council elections on 5 May. Already we've cleared the first batch of candidates. And then we will probably have a Westminster election also.

So what will the department be dealing with and where will it be based?

We'll be based in Dublin and we'll have a room in head office.

We have already decided that there are some areas the party needs to develop, outside of having cúigí directors of elections and a training programme, that will help us improve our electoral performance

For example, we need to develop a 32-county IT system.

Eamonn will be directly in charge of that and it will be used for register and canvass systems and so on. Our members will be able to use it and we think they'll find it very useful.

In addition to this, we've identified the need to have someone working on the legalities involved in elections, like deadlines and entitlements and so on.

We're already involved in a big debate about the Six-County Cúige and the Connacht/Ulster Cúige and whether or not the former should be expanded to take in the other three Ulster counties. Obviously, that would have a big effect on organising for elections.

Will cumainn be dealing exclusively with the electoral department in the run-up to the elections?

No, everything in place at the moment, like the ratification of candidates, etc, will stay in place. All we'll be doing is making sure everything is co-ordinated and people are doing what they should be doing.

Do other parties have electoral departments?

I don't know. My observation of other parties is that their sole focus is on elections. We see elections as part of what we do, a growing part, but only part of what we do as Irish republicans, it's not the beginning and the end of it.

There are many, many other aspects to our organisation. There are campaigns and issues that we have to keep running parallel with elections. But we need to stay on top of our electoral growth.

Is there a threat of the party becoming absorbed by elections?

I think as you expand and take on new projects, particularly elections, you have to be very careful, one, that they don't become everything to the party, and two, that people don't start thinking being elected is a career for them.

To their credit, I don't thing any of our elected representatives have allowed that to happen and that has a lot to do with their own individual sense of republicanism, but also the structures we have in place to protect us from it.

Just take the salaries our reps are paid. None of the TDs or MLAs take home more than the average salary, the same as any other full-time person in the party. That means people don't see their roles as different to anyone else's — it's just another job.

In the end, whoever gets nominated for us, they would go nowhere if they didn't have the rest of the team behind them.

Is it one thing to say we're not becoming absorbed in elections, but another thing in practice? For example, some cumainn will tell you that they spend most of their time planning and preparing for elections.

We're relating more and more to elections so that will happen. But I think if you keep your point of contact with people purely to elections, that's dangerous. If your contact with people in the community is continuous, then you see the benefit and elections fit into that.

I suppose we've always suffered from what I would call uneven political development. Some areas have it figured out, other areas focus on different aspects, like elections or campaigns. You're balancing all those things all the time. And we want people to be good at all those things.

Are we punching above our weight when it comes to elections?

I think we're punching below our weight. In negotiations we're punching above our weight and that's where we want to get with elections. Look at our numbers, look how many people support us. We can really develop electorally. And elections and negotiations are directly related. The punch you deliver in talks is a reflection of your mandate.

Will the new department be dealing with the issue of gender balance?

Yes. I think we're very bad on the issue of gender balance. Sometimes, I think the fact that we had two great women candidates elected to Europe, and that there are women in so many key positions within the party, almost blinds us to the reality of us being generally bad at bringing forward women candidates in winnable seats.

There is some barrier that we find difficult to get past and I think it's worse in the rural areas than in the urban areas.

In my own constituency of West Tyrone, we have 15 councillors — the eight in Omagh are male and six of the seven in Strabane are male also. It doesn't reflect the reality of those who vote for us.

Is it the lack of women members in the party overall that's causing the problem of not having enough women candidates?

Well there are probably more women in cumainn than there are candidates. But you're right, I've never seen a cumann where there were more women than men. And why shouldn't there be — there are as many women in the world as there are men.

This is a very live issue in the Six-County Cúige because they're dealing with the council elections and they have made it known that if the panels coming forward to them do not deal with gender balance, then they'll be sent back.

But they had that for last May's local elections in the 26 Counties and it didn't work everywhere. What makes you think it will work now?

I think all the time we're moving forward on this issue. Unless we turn theory into reality, unless we face up to the problem of why young women members, especially those with families, won't run, we'll never fix it. We realise that just shouting numbers doesn't work. And we plan to fix it. The electoral department will be thinking about this issue, but the whole party will be reflecting on it also. Even if it means financial implications for the party, we will have to do it.

An Phoblacht
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