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7 June 2007 Edition

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OPINION : Sinn Féin growth to be found as a republican, left alternative

Election aftermath and the task ahead 

In a personal assessment of Sinn Féin’s general election performance, EOIN Ó BROIN argues that the weaknesses and limitations of the party’s election campaign need to be corrected by an immediate return to community-based campaigning and radical republican politics.

There is much I agree with in Mícheál Mac Donncha’s election analysis in last week’s An Phoblacht. The most important question he asked was why Sinn Féin was not in a better position to weather the storm that was Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s election success.
Much discussion since the count has focused on the smaller parties being squeezed by the presidential-style campaign waged by the two larger parties and the national media.
However, while this is certainly the case for the PDs and Independents, for the parties of the left no squeeze occurred. Rather Labour, the Greens and Sinn Féin simply remained stagnant. In our case progress was halted, not simply by a Fianna Fáil fightback, but by weaknesses and limitations in our campaign which with the benefit of hindsight we need to analyse, understand and correct.
Fianna Fáil’s gains were at our expense. Across the country, their percentage increases almost matched our decrease constituency for constituency. Our gains in 2004 were primarily at their expense, and our target seats for 2007 likewise.
There is little doubt that their party strategists and local organisation understood the nature of the Sinn Féin threat. Fianna Fáil set out to convince these floating republican voters to return to the Fianna Fáil fold through a combination of the Enda Kenny fear factor, anger at the PDs, the rejection of Sinn Féin in government and effective, on-the-ground organisation.
The degree to which this strategy succeeded surprised everyone, including Fianna Fáil, but clearly it worked. In effect Fianna Fáil set out to halt and reverse the trend set by Sinn Féin in 2004.
Sinn Féin weren’t squeezed by a presidential-style campaign. We were held back by an experienced Fianna Fáil electoral machine that understood its vulnerabilities and responded effectively. That we failed even to notice this in the course of the campaign is a consequence of our own organisational weaknesses and inexperience in the 26 Counties.
It is important to acknowledge the relative size and inexperience of our election machine in the South. It is equally important to grasp that as we grow our understanding of the differences between electoral realities North and South will become clearer.
Our understanding of our electorate in the 26 Counties, both core and potential, is only developing, as is our understanding of how and why they vote in both local and Leinster House elections. The assumption that we can simply translate positive feedback on the doors or previous election results into polling day gains clearly isn’t adequate.
In future we need to be more circumspect and more sophisticated in assessing and projecting our core strength and potential growth, and develop our constituency and media campaigns accordingly.
We also need to be mindful that our electoral growth has and continues to be built on slow, gradual, grassroots campaigning and community work. Our dramatic failure to poll well in Dublin Central, let alone win a seat, should be a lesson to us for the future not to deviate from what has worked in the past.
This was the first election in which Sinn Féin fought the public and media battle primarily on the basis of policies. A substantial reduction in negative media coverage coupled with significant progress in the peace process ensured that on television and radio, in the papers and on the doors, we were involved in policy debates about the economy, taxation, health, housing and crime.
On all of these areas we have strong, radical, left-of- centre republican positions. However, we clearly failed to defend these positions effectively. The leaders debate on RTÉ was just one of a number of interviews post Ard Fheis in which senior party spokespersons appeared weak and uncomfortable with our policy positions.
Our attempt to avoid the issue of taxation was seen by the media for what it was: an exercise in evasion. The pre-election abandonment of our policies on corporation tax, capital gains tax and a 50% upper band made us appear inconsistent to many, irrespective of their actual view on the policy.
More importantly, it also alienated left-of-centre voters, who chose instead left independents such as Brid Smyth and Joan Collins, almost costing Aengus Ó Snodaigh his seat.
The centre ground is a crowded political place. Sinn Féin does not belong there and should not be in the business of trading fundamental redistributive policies in the hope of short-term electoral gain. That’s a kind of politics that we should leave to Fianna Fáil.
If we want to build an Ireland of equals, we need to be able and willing to explain to the electorate exactly how much this will cost and where the money will come from, including those instances when increased taxes are the most appropriate course of action.
Without trying to spin our way out of what was undoubtedly a bad election, we nonetheless need to find positives from which to build for the future.
Firstly the most important fact of the election must be that the 143,410 people who voted for Sinn Féin on 24 May  can now be considered our core vote. That in itself is an important achievement and a solid base to build from.
Secondly, in a number of constituencies our vote increased, most significantly in Donegal. All of this growth bodes well for the upcoming local government elections in two years’ time.
Thirdly, for those areas where growth was small or nonexistent it should be a good incentive to focus on the task ahead and immediately return to what we do best: community-based campaigning and radical republican politics.
Finally, and probably most importantly, we need a serious and open debate about the political and economic position that Sinn Féin wants to occupy into the future. Mícheál Mac Donncha was absolutely right when he said in last week’s An Phoblacht that ‘Sinn Féin is a part of the left in Irish politics.’
To those activists who thought that a shift to the centre would benefit us in this election, I would say that you were proved wrong. Avoiding and then abandoning sound policies in the mouth of an election is bad politics.
Sinn Féin should continue to develop and defend our platform as a radical, left-wing republican party, building Irish unity and an Ireland of equals. Fianna Fáil’s success in this election was made in spite of growing public discontent at the quality of public services. The absence of a clear and meaningful alternative was Fine Gael and Labour’s weakness. That is the space where Sinn Féin belongs and where our future growth is to be found.

• Eoin Ó Broin is Director of Sinn Féin’s European Department

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