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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Sinn Féin loses its appeal

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

Sinn Féin's number-cruncher in Donegal North East on Friday is best known as a member of the Balcombe Street gang, who bombed their way across London and the south of England in the 1970s. It was Hugh Doherty who was among the first to realise that Padraig Mac Lochlainn, the party's candidate, might not take a seat as had been scripted.

"He will be fighting for the last one," Doherty predicted after the first tallies. Tallymen from other parties were still assuming that Mac Lochlainn was a shoo-in for the second seat in the three-seater constituency.

The trick was repeated down the road in Donegal South West where Tom Dignam, a former Sinn Féin candidate, was ruefully concluding that the much-fancied Pearse Doherty definitely wouldn't make it either.

After that was confirmed, Dignam pointed out: "We doubled our vote in Donegal and that is a basis on which to push forward in the council. It is a big achievement to get about 20% of the vote in both constituencies."

It would have been, if expectations of two seats for the party in Donegal hadn't been so high. Sinn Féin's public post-election analysis has been that it was swamped by the Fianna Fail machine, and that the election became a contest for taoiseach between Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny, leaving the smaller parties squeezed.

That is not the whole story. Sinn Féin's machine was formidable enough, and dedicated activists were poured into Donegal and Dublin Central, where Mary Lou McDonald received the help of busloads of workers from west Belfast. Backroom men, such as Doherty and Dignam, were the equal of anyone in the other parties in terms of dedication.

It was hardly a surprise that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael would promote their leaders as taoiseach. Anyway Sinn Féin played the same game, and lost, by putting its leader in a beauty contest with the others. Gerry Adams, who was riding high in national opinion ratings, dominated the TV coverage and canvassed all 41 constituencies the party contested. He presumed that approval for what he had achieved in the north would translate into votes south of the border.

The party's electoral strategy was devised by the party's ard comhairle, of which 10 of the 12 ordinary members are northerners and whose officer board contains no TDs but two Westminster MPs. It was enunciated and delivered by Adams.

There were three big ideas – improved public services, equality and civil rights, plus the prospect of a united Ireland which could be achieved by putting Sinn Féin into government north and south.

In their first meeting Ian Paisley told Adams that his preferred May 8 deadline for devolution might be helpful in the context of the Irish election. Mitchel McLaughlin, national chairperson for Sinn Féin, later said that this was "one of the clinching arguments" to secure an agreement. But not with the Irish electorate.

Sinn Féin was a party of government north and south and its success would be the main story to emerge from the election, Martin McGuinness had predicted before the poll. He had miscalculated. The strategy depended on a weakened Fianna Fail, from whom Sinn Féin won seats and votes in the local and European elections two years ago, and Bertie Ahern needing their TDs to make up his numbers.

That prospect didn't appeal to Fianna Fail. "It's great that we have bollixed Sinn Féin out here," Brian Lenihan, minister for children, was overheard saying at the count in Dublin West. Mary Hanafin, the education minister, says that on the last week of the canvass in Dun Laoghaire, voters were demanding a guarantee that Fianna Fail wouldn't go into government with Sinn Féin. It was a guarantee she and her party were happy to give.

Instead of the five seats targeted in Dublin constituencies, one is the most they can hope for. They hoped for as many as 12 TDs but they will end up with less than they started with. The unstoppable Sinn Féin bandwagon, which is still supposed to deliver Irish unity by 2016, is off the tracks and needs a refit.

Community workers in Dublin say Sinn Féin has lost some of its appeal in working-class communities. "The party is not as active in these areas as people would believe," one former Sinn Féin activist said. "They are no longer associated with the anti-drugs movement, or even most community groups. Gerry Adams rambles on about the scourge of heroin in the city but on the ground the Shinners are doing nothing about it.

"They do a lot of talking but nobody believes a word they say round here. Local community groups see Sinn Féin in the same light as the other parties. They show up when they want something."

Robert Ballagh, the artist, voted for Sinn Féin and the Greens in Dublin Central and believes it was a mistake for the party to concentrate so heavily on the north. "The vast number of people would be pleased with what happened in Stormont, but the only time in my memory that the north actually had an impact on Irish politics was during the hunger strikes when some prisoners were elected," he said.

"My overall analysis is that the Irish people have truly taken on board the values of the Celtic Tiger. Any parties which espoused a challenge to the status quo – the Greens on ecological grounds or Sinn Féin and Labour on issues of equity – have done badly while the status-quo parties have done fairly well."

Debating on RTE with the leaders of the other small parties, Adams depicted his grand vision with broad brushstrokes and instead left the impression that he wasn't on top of southern issues. His efforts to strike a high moral tone – saying he only drew the minimum wage – were undermined by Michael McDowell's references to Adams' holiday home in Donegal. Furthermore, he had no coherent response to McDowell's allegation that republicans had earned €25m from training a drug/terror group in Colombia.

"It is a learning curve for them, becoming part of normal Irish politics," Ballagh commented. This particular lesson has set Sinn Féin's strategy back five years, maybe even derailed it for good.

May 27, 2007

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on May 27, 2007.