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19 May 2005 Edition

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Hearts and minds: the Six-County elections and what next? - BY DECLAN KEARNEY

Sinn Féin doubled its representation on Moyle Council in the local elections

Sinn Féin doubled its representation on Moyle Council in the local elections

Last week's election results were nothing short of remarkable! It's a typical trait of our irrepressible election workers that we're all now sitting down to parse our campaign with a self-critical zeal, just as we would with any other election. Except this election wasn't just like any other campaign. Sinn Féin has probably never fought any other election in such negative political circumstances, and in which the strategic stakes were so high.

No assessment of our overall performance, or any constituency or local campaign can be accurately conducted without factoring into the review the sustained political and propaganda campaign to demonise Sinn Féin since December 2004.

The real story of these elections, which hasn't earned column inches or broadcast time, but will certainly dominate discussion among Whitehall mandarins, the gombeen policy makers in the nether world of Leinster House, and the spooks in the NIO, is how Sinn Féin managed to confound their inspired onslaught of the last five months, and produce such exceptional results. Because, make no mistake about it, the script prepared by the British and Dublin establishments for this election was predicted upon Sinn Féin losses, reversals and decline.

It's worth briefly considering the results in a comparative sense. The local government elections (LGEs) in particular reveal a steady consolidation and expansion of the electoral base in traditionally strong district electoral areas (DEAs) and identify the real potential in many others for future development.

Although it seems like yesteryear, it is in fact 20 years ago since Sinn Féin contested its first full LGEs. On that occasion, we won 59 seats and 11.8% share of the vote.I was the party Director of Elections in Antrim Northwest, and we elected Henry Cushinan as our first councillor to Antrim Council. This singular local advance was quite historic in itself, but it was also emblematic of a Sinn Féin surge across the North, then described as a massive breakthrough.

Twenty years later, last week's elections delivered 126 seats, representing over a 100% increase in seat share from 1985, and 23.2% of the vote. More significantly perhaps, Sinn Féin is now also represented on Ballymena, Banbridge and Coleraine councils; raising our presence to 21 out of 26 councils overall. Additionally, the party's advance in Westminster seat share continued, with the gain of Newry and Armagh, and important benchmarks set down in Foyle, North Belfast and South Down. The fact of all this will not be lost on those mentioned earlier, who approach their study of elections with a security mindset.

The subtext is that Sinn Féin now has representation on 80% of all district councils in the North, and a host of half and third quotas located in areas such as Skerries, Killultagh, and Braid, which we had never contested before.

A Changed Strategic Landscape

The immediate political significance of these results becomes sharper when set in context with all which preceded this election campaign.

Prior to December 2004, the political initiative was undoubtedly with Sinn Féin. Republicans injected a momentum to the negotiations of the autumn and winter, which arguably created the highest stage of negotiations since the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). However, the collapse of the negotiations heralded an immediate change in the strategic political landscape. A vacuum was created by the two governments, and both, but in particular the Dublin administration, identified in the political stalemate an opportunity to reverse the momentum that had become synonymous with Sinn Féin since the 2002 Leinster House general election and latterly the 2003 Assembly and 2004 European elections.

These seemingly unremitting surges in republican electoral support crystallised for the governments with the European results last year in the form of a Rubicon being crossed. In their view and that of conservative nationalism generally, Sinn Féin had a momentum in the battle for the hearts and minds of Irish popular opinion which had to be stopped. The pretexts of Paisley's demand for photographs and the Northern Bank robbery became the key components of a developing counter strategy to impact upon the direction of popular opinion, and in a specifically targeted way, to damage the republican leadership and overall integrity of the struggle.

The criminal brutality used in the events which led to the killing of Robert McCartney and serious injury of others in Belfast, later fed directly into the efforts of our political opponents to criminalise Sinn Féin and impugn the integrity of the IRA.

It was within the turbulence of all of this unparalleled demonisation and criminalisation that we fought the elections. While thousands of republican supporters rallied to a campaign of democratic resistance, a discernible notion co-existed that these attacks were somehow momentary and would pass in time. Paradoxically, the election campaign has possibly even put some artificial distance between the present and the previous five months.

But just as it is a mistake not to analyse the election results in context, so too would it be a mistake to assume the establishment offensive is over. There is no reason to think this might happen. It is more likely that the attacks will continue, because the strategic basis for the offensive of our opponents is governed by the logic that Sinn Féin's political appeal and the potency of our peace strategy must be brought to an end, even if that results in terminal damage for the Peace Process.

Indeed, it is arguable that the establishment parties have already started the 26-County general election campaign vis-a-vis Sinn Féin. In notable but little publicised remarks, Dermot Ahern had hardly let the ink dry on the election results before attacking republicans again.

So, the battle for ideas, hearts and minds, and Irish popular opinion is on. Our opponents have determined that Sinn Féin's growing popularity poses too much of a threat to the broad status quo which they all variously represent and underpin. Their tactical approach is very simple, to seek to deny Sinn Féin the political initiative, to curb our momentum, to reduce our political strength, and to propagandise issues to discredit the historic moral and political basis of the republican struggle.

Hollowing Out the Process

These election results were particularly hard fought for, and they indicate that our future success in persuading more popular opinion to the Sinn Féin alternative will involve increased hard and tedious work in these new political conditions.

Conservative nationalism is now locked into a trajectory that promises more negative campaigning against republicans. It and unionism now recognise that the popularity of the Peace Process itself has the potential to release the greatest political dynamic for change in Ireland since the Tan War. Their shared strategic approach is, therefore, to tactically hollow out the process, by frustrating the GFA and simultaneously criminalising Sinn Féin.

Confirmation of this is reflected in aspects of the election campaign and the results themselves, which reveal a new polarisation within nationalism, as shown in the reduced transfer pattern from the SDLP to Sinn Féin and increased SDLP transfers to unionism. There is also a political significance in the fact of unionist votes for the SDLP in the Westminster election. Further implications arise from the shifts within unionism itself, in terms of an increased hegemony for the DUP, and what this means for future relations between nationalism and unionism.

Much consideration must flow from these developments. There is as much reflection for our opponents as for Sinn Féin activists and supporters. The SDLP has to make a judgement about what its future political relationship to Sinn Féin is going to be and whether it is now set to be permanently tactical in its commitment to the inexorable direction of the Peace Process. When the euphoria settles around its defence of Foyle, South Down and gain in South Belfast, it has big issues to confront organisationally and electorally.

Unionism, and specifically the DUP, have hard decisions to address about the conduct of future negotiations and the inescapable leadership role which the latter's mandate bestows.

The biggest questions arise, however, for the two governments. For the British, as to whether powerful sectional interests of the establishment can continue to frustrate others in government with an innate sense of history and conflict resolution, and importantly, the skill to conclude negotiations. The Dublin Government, as to whether it can adapt to the permanent political reality of Sinn Féin and cease being held hostage to sectional party political interests or other influences from within the establishment which fundamentally fear the re-alignments inherent to a successful Peace Process.

Party Building, Campaigns and Recruitment

None of this should deflect republicans from what we need to do. For us, the struggle continues, irregardless of the decisions or actions of others. An enormous cross section of Irish popular opinion still remains to be persuaded of the viability of Sinn Féin as the alternative leadership in Irish society. We now need to be strategising, about how we politically and organisationally position ourselves to influence even greater sections of national popular opinion as to the reasonableness and achievability of republican objectives on the new landscape of struggle. If we apply ourselves correctly to this process, even against the odds, we can expect to increase our political strength in Irish society and continue to grow electorally.

To do so requires us to look beyond our election reviews and, in Six-County terms, develop party structures where they presently do not exist and improve and enhance those that do. In the context of a new council term, and many new first-time councillors elected, a review into how we organise our council groups within the wider party is required.

If political stalemate is to continue and the political institutions remain in abeyance, one of the key arenas to create momentum is by ensuring our councillors punch their collective strategic weight.

Both elected and unelected activists need to be focused on developing campaign issues which advance the equality agenda and maximise the relevance of Sinn Féin representation in publicity terms. Now, more than ever, the project of recruiting members on a mass basis throughout the country becomes a priority, to expand the breadth of our organisation and stimulate the process and quality of our policy output and campaign work.

At the same time, consideration needs given in this period to how our all-Ireland agenda is advanced within district councils nationally and also in the core party structures. We also need to become more involved in externalising its potential in wider Irish society.

Additionally, despite the likelihood of heightened political polarisation, our work on unionist outreach also takes on a renewed premium. In short, dialogue between Sinn Féin and all sectors in Irish society, towards developing new progressive alliances and strategies, around equality, the Peace Process and the future shape of a united Ireland, should be our response to the negativity of others.

In turn, this period of strategising needs to heed other political scenarios we may confront in the time ahead. These include the prospect of a non-legislative Assembly emerging and/or the appointment of quasi-executive ministers in lieu of Direct Rule Ministers, and the response Sinn Féin should adopt to such a development.

Include also the ramifications of DUP hegemony within the wider unionist community and what this may mean for the future of unionism itself, and how it relates to nationalism and republicanism.

And, if negotiations are forestalled indefinitely due to DUP obduracy or continued dereliction of responsibility by the two governments, whether the GFA and future of the Peace Process itself?

Moreover, there may even be elements within both the DUP and the Dublin Government who will contemplate frustrating the onset of new negotiations until after a politically hobbled Tony Blair vacates Downing Street, on the calculation that a different British Prime Minister might better suit their respective strategic objectives.

Constructing a New Initiative

It is from this panorama that a clear view needs to be taken by party activists and supporters of Gerry Adams' speech on 6 April, when he spoke directly to Óglaigh na hÉireann.

The statement has been characterised with varying degrees of misunderstanding, doubt and cynicism, both from within and outside republicanism. One key misconception is that the delivery of the speech was the initiative itself, and that beyond that it had no further role; or, that it was a speech which concerned the Óglaigh alone, and exhorted no responsibility to other republicans.

Ironically, it is in the aftermath of the elections that the seminal, strategic importance of this speech and its corollary may become clearer. While obviously the speech spoke to the IRA, which in turn will consult within its own ranks, other republicans within Sinn Féin and the republican base need to embark upon a dynamic process of debate and dialogue among themselves, but primarily with wider Irish society.

The party needs to promote a new externalised consultation on the ideas, platforms and strategies which possess the potential for maximum democratic change in Ireland, and then transform this dialogue into political action. As well as appealing to the Óglaigh to assess its role in relation to prosecuting republican objectives, Gerry Adams' speech beckons Sinn Féin activists to recognise the potential for taking a massive strategic initiative in the Peace Process. On too many occasions, party activists have unfairly presumed an onus upon the IRA to take the big risk and turn things around once again.

The import of this speech is that it behoves all republican activists to shoulder a responsibility in developing an initiative to galvanise the Peace Process and put republicans once more into the driving seat of creating and sustaining political momentum. While undoubtedly the outcome of Óglaigh deliberations can be the most decisive in relation to introducing a new dynamic, other republican activists should not be found wanting or waiting in their approach to constructing this new initiative.

Risk Taking and Change

The project of delivering change in Ireland through a vibrant Peace Process is now at a decisive point. Its future now depends on which political forces are most successful in winning the battle for hearts and minds. Sinn Féin's project is to persuade the greater number in Irish society of our commitment to create a better quality society for everyone in our country. The establishment parties not only oppose that project, they reject this democratic vision. They are resolved, by whatever means, to terminally frustrate our efforts.

We should remind ourselves of the maxim that "revolution advances by giving rise to a stronger and more determined counter revolution, which in turn compels revolutionaries to seek more effective methods of struggle".

Republicans' historic responsibility must be to strategically and politically outmanoeuvre their tactics. There is no risk for the establishment in standing still — standing still maintains the status quo. Risk taking and change are two sides of the one coin.

So if we are to sue for change in this climate of stasis, republican activists should prepare once more to take the maximum risk for the maximum progressive change. The recent election results create a new opportunity to do just that, to seize the initiative once more and move dramatically forward.

This is not a time for introspective navel gazing for republicans; there is work to be done, and yes, a debate to be had, but the priorities to be addressed by Sinn Féin are clear and compelling. There's a saying that tomorrow is another country. It can be so for us in Ireland if republicans move decisively now, today, to take back the political initiative; to do so "later on", however, is too late!

Incidentally, Henry Cushinan was re-elected as a councillor in Antrim Northwest this year. This time, however, he returns to Antrim Council with two other newly-elected comrades. Maith sibh uilig. Hearts and minds; hearts and minds...

An Phoblacht
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