21 June 2007 Edition
OPINION : Convey progressive policy in terms people relate to and build the party
Tiocfaidh ár lá
BY Cllr. PÁDRAIG Mac LOCHLAINN
Picture the scene. It’s past three o’clock in the morning at the Donegal North East count centre in the Mount Errigal Hotel, Letterkenny. The battle for the last two seats is a cliffhanger between three candidates, the two outgoing Fianna Fáil TDs, Jim McDaid, Niall Blaney, and myself.
A group of us including Martin McGuiness are anxiously awaiting the result of the distribution of transfers from the last candidate to be eliminated, another outgoing Fianna Fáil TD, Cecilia Keaveney. We are getting mixed signals. Some of our people are saying we’ve done it but no one is getting carried away. Then over walks my good comrade and Letterkenny Town Councillor, Gerry McMonagle. “That’s it. We’re beat”, he exclaims. He was informing us in typical no nonsense language that Jim McDaid and Niall Blaney had both taken enough of Keaveney’s transfers to stay ahead of us and overtake us respectively.
Many hours earlier, we became aware that Donegal North East was the only remaining hope of a Sinn Féin gain across the state. It was a day of profound disappointment and Gerry Mac’s four short words only served to confirm it further. However, what happened in the moments after the realisation of defeat in that count centre points to the reason why we Irish republicans are going to achieve our objectives and why we are going to win. I looked around at my many assembled comrades, men and women, young and old. The hurt and the pain were evident on their faces but it was that fiercely determined republican pride that shone through. It’s a look I have seen on many republican faces over the years of struggle and challenges. That look, encapsulated best in Bobby Sands words “Tiocfaidh ár lá”.
Over the next few months, a frank and open debate on this election and its implications will ensue across the republican base. I would call on all comrades to constructively and positively engage in this process. What follows is my initial personal contribution.
The hardest lesson that we have learnt is that partition has had a profound impact on the 26 counties. While, of course, we knew that the battle for hearts and minds was a different battle in the Six and 26 counties, I believe that we have underestimated the extent of the difference.
In particular, the last decade of increased economic prosperity in the South has created a completely new dynamic that we in Sinn Féin have to come to terms with. The social commentator, David McWilliams, in his book, The Pope’s Children touched on it somewhat. A large section of our electorate voted with their pocket on Thursday, 24 May. They had one eye on their mortgages, hire purchase agreements, or loans as they marked that ballot paper. A vision of equality for the whole Island went out the window. The reality of coping in this debt-ridden place called modern Ireland, preoccupied them and they moved in bulk to the centre ground. To the “safe and stable” option as the mainstream media (Funded in the main by the big businesses who thrive on consumerism and debt) advised them ever so discreetly.
So are our arguments wrong? Is republicanism, as we know it wrong?
The answer to both questions is an emphatic NO. But we have to work on how we communicate our people and community centred policies to our people and our communities.
We need to bypass the aforementioned media by getting out on the doorsteps, not just at election time. We need to tell them that we won’t be reckless with the economy. After all our members and activists share their experiences and concerns about paying the bills and just coping from week to week.
Like them, we want to build and sustain a strong economy that delivers the world-class public services that we all deserve. We need to talk to them in a language that reflects the reality of their lives and we can do all of this without sacrificing one iota of our progressive left perspective.
We don’t need to move to the centre ground. That’s a crowded place and it’s not our place. We need to mark out in clear terms what separates us from the tweedle dums and tweedle dees of Irish politics. We need to explain why and how our policies will improve their lives and the lives of their communities.
We have to accept that our failure to convey our progressive policy platform in terms that our people relate to and in turn, win their hearts and minds is the very reason that we are not politically strong enough to retain all of our seats and win those extra ones.
We need to visit our supporters, street-by-street, townland-by-townland, parish-by-parish. We need to ask them now, not weeks before an election, to join us in building a dream that has been smothered since it first spoke to us at the steps of the GPO in Easter 1916.
If we examine the votes in the various boxes from this election, constituency by constituency, we can clearly see where we are strong and where we are weak. We need to build or rebuild the party where we are weak and consolidate the party where we are strong. Both strategies involve hard work. But did we ever believe that it would be easy?
In the areas where we are weak, we need to identify supporters, community activists, and republicans. A clear programme of work must be set in train in those areas. Why should the people vote for Sinn Féin if we are not working in their communities?
This is not a lofty thesis, comrades. I speak from the knowledge that these practices deliver results.
In the local elections of 1999, only eight years ago, Donegal appeared to be a wilderness in terms of Sinn Féin support. We elected only two town councillors, one in Buncrana and one in Bundoran. We lost our sole county council seat, the seat the late great Eddie Fullerton had won through a ferocious appetite for hard work. We were in disarray.
Then a small committed group of republicans came together and decided to change things. We set about a complete reorganisation and rebuilding of the party in the county, street-by-street, townland-by-townland, parish-by-parish. Sound familiar?
Our first challenge was the general election of 2002. With an existing base of political representation of only one town councillor in each of the two Donegal constituencies, we emerged from that election with 10% support in Donegal North East (3611 votes) and almost 11% in Donegal South West (3829 votes). We could see the potential and the reward for focus, strategy, discipline, cohesion, and good old-fashioned hard work.
We continued to build the party in the same manner and in the local elections of 2004, we won four county council seats, five town council seats, and in the European elections of the same day, our candidate Pearse Doherty won the support of around one in four voters in the county. Then in early 2005, we elected Grainne Mhic Éidigh on to Udarás na Gaeltachta from Donegal, our party’s first representative on the board.
This significant upward trajectory continued in to the recent election. Despite our failure to win a Dáil seat in the county, we took over 15,000 first preference votes and ended up with around 18,000 and the last candidate standing in each constituency. We essentially doubled our vote from 2002.
So why has Donegal Sinn Féin witnessed such a dramatic transformation in fortunes over the last decade. It’s not rocket science. We learned from other comrades who had paved the way for us, particularly Sinn Féin in County Monaghan. We listened to and took advice from organisational sages like our party Vice President Pat Doherty. Most importantly, we learned to believe in ourselves again.
One final point. I would ask all comrades to read the gloating articles written by our political opponents in the Sunday Independent after the election (You can do so online). If that doesn’t motivate you to build this party across the Island in the time ahead then nothing will.
• Pádraig Mac Lochlainn is Donegal County Councillor and was Sinn Féin candidate for Donegal North East in the general election