28 June 2007 Edition

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OPINION : Sinn Féin failed to profile itself as having distinctive message

‘Big squeeze’ does not fully explain election result


Ever since 25 May when the results of the General Election started filtering through to count centres around the state a myth has emerged and gained the status of the “official” explanation for Sinn Féin's disappointing performance in the general election. It is the myth of the great squeeze.
It claims the election came down to a choice between two alternative governments, and the smaller parties were automatically squeezed. The squeeze explains everything, and there is no need to look further to account for our failure. Scratch the surface and delve a little deeper into why we failed to make the gains we expected and a different story unfolds.
Yes, the resurgence of Fine Gael and the strong performance of Fianna Fáil did nothing to help Sinn Féin. But if we had convinced more people that we stood for something that deserved their support, or could make a difference for the better to their lives, they would have voted for us nonetheless. 
The difference in the performance of the party across the country is telling. The anticipated increase in Sinn Féin’s vote in Dublin never materialised, in all but one constituency the vote regressed. In the border counties it increased. Across the rest of the 26 counties it was mixed-up in some constituencies, down in others, and there were a number of constituencies we were contesting for the first time.
Leadership figures seemed less than fully briefed on the economic and social realities of the South. This in itself though was not the reason we failed to make the gains we anticipated in this election. The decision to drop aspects of the party’s taxation policy mid-way through the campaign did not help our credibility. It sent out an image of a party so desperate to be viewed as ‘respectable’ to potential coalition partners that we were willing to drop agreed policy at the drop of a hat. In an election campaign focused on issues of economic competence and who should lead the country into the future, Sinn Féin lost out.
Sinn Féin failed to profile itself as a party with a distinctive message on the social and economic issues of the day. The continued insistence that Sinn Féin was “ready for government” and would consider all approaches left us looking opportunist and only too willing to prop up Fianna Fáil in government given half a chance. Most critically, Sinn Féin – in common with the other parties of the Left – failed to offer people a vision for an alternative Ireland compelling enough to make them risk the bird in the hand of achieved prosperity. In the absence of such an alternative, they played safe and opted to retain the status quo.
Why did Sinn Féin not do better in the election? Because we could not compete with the established parties either on the terrain of economic competence or in organisation on the ground; and we failed to put forward an argument for political change compelling enough to counterbalance these weaknesses. In the end, Fianna Fáil connected with the electorate and Sinn Féin did not. Sinn Féin's leadership are respected for their role in the Peace Process, they are also too closely associated with the North and a conflict most people view as resolved and simply want to forget. Politics in the 26 Counties and politics in the Six are two different realities.
So what are the lessons to be learned? To begin with, we need to understand that the task facing Sinn Féin is fundamentally different from that facing any of the established parties.
The established parties can afford to take their core vote for granted and focus their efforts on a relatively small group of floating voters at the centre. If Sinn Féin tries to fish in the same pool, we will have to content ourselves with a very small catch. Our task is the more difficult one of building a substantial core vote across the 26 counties.
This won’t be done by clever sound bytes, or by shifting our policies to the centre. There is only one way to increase our core vote, and that is by persuading more people to share our politics. As a party we need to decide which direction we want to go, is it gradually more to the centre or further to the Left? For me any attempts to move to the centre is misguided and potentially terminal for us a party. A move to the Left is the best possible option for the party to build real political strength. To seek to advance in any other way is to build upon sand.  
Certainly, we need to place more emphasis on the development of credible and coherent economic policies. And we need more Southern-based spokespersons to articulate them.
But this work is primarily defensive. Sinn Féin will not motivate people to vote for us on the basis that we are better managers than Fianna Fáil. The centre ground of Irish politics is a crowded place. Sinn Féin would not fit there comfortably, and we will not succeed in a competition for votes based on perceptions of economic competence and offending as few people as possible.
If we cannot win on the terrain of managerialism, the only option left to us is to compete on the grounds of conviction. Sinn Féin must shift political debate from the question of “Who is best fitted to manage the country?” to “What kind of country do we want it to be?” We need to ensure that in future elections the choice facing voters is between two different sets of values, two different visions of what Ireland ought to be.
The other imperative is the need to grow the organisation. A political party is a network with elected representatives and full-time activists at its centre, paid-up members clustered around them, and families, friends, neighbours, workmates and supporters radiating outwards in widening arcs. The more people there are at the centre of the network, the further its tendrils will stretch into the wider community, and the more votes it will garner. 
But how do we go about motivating people to make time in their busy lives to be active in Sinn Féin? Only by convincing them they will be making a difference to society. Again, we face the reality that Sinn Féin cannot hope to grow in the long term by moving towards the centre and striving to offend no-one. The only way we can succeed is by offering people a choice – a type of politics and a vision of society they will find nowhere else. To do that we must first agree on that vision, build the policy platform needed to achieve it and then convince people to put their confidence in it, encourage people onto our ground and not be tempted to move onto other parties ground for short term gains.

• Councillor Jonathan O’Brien was the Sinn Féin candidate for Cork North Central in the recent general election 

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