Irish election: Sinn Féin’s moment?

Kevin Meagher looks ahead to the Irish General Election, taking place on Friday, examining the evidence and looking at whether this might be Sinn Fein's moment.

Ireland’s Celtic Tiger economy may have grown mangy – but it remains luminescent next to the reputation of the Irish political class. Irish voters now have such low regard for their political masters that a recent poll showed only Greeks, Israelis, Nigerians and Romanians rated their political parties as being more corrupt.

The general election on Friday is potentially, then, the equivalent of a political ducking stool. Pre-empting the possibility of an early immersion, Irish Fianna Fail premier, Brian Cowan, finds himself the first sitting taoiseach in the history of the state not to stand for re-election, his stock fatally depleted by the fallout from last November’s humiliating bail-out from the International Monetary Fund and European Union.

Correspondingly, the fortunes of his Fianna Fail party have plummeted too. Once the electoral juggernaut of Irish politics, governing for 61 of the last 79 years, current opinion polls have them trailing in third place.

In Irish politics’ fairly predictable pattern, Fianna Fail’s misfortune will be to Fine Gael’s benefit. Bookmaker Paddy Power recently halved the odds on them winning an overall majority from 16/1 to 8/1. They need 84 seats in Ireland’s 166-member Dail for that to happen (however a coalition with the Irish Labour party remains the most likely scenario).

But in some respects, the most interesting aspects of the campaign lie elsewhere. What impact will the record number of independent candidates have on the result? Will current junior coalition partners, The Greens, be wiped out? How far will Fianna Fail actually drop? And what about Sinn Fein?

One thing is already certain about 2011: this is the year Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the IRA, got serious about the south.

Widely regarded as a Northern Ireland party by many Southern Irish voters, Sinn Fein is mounting its most determined effort ever to burnish its all-Ireland credentials. It has a lot of rowing to do; the party did not even recognise the Irish state before 1986, determined to do nothing that accepted the partition of the country imposed in 1922.

Yet Sinn Fein – Irish for “ourselves alone” – is positioning itself as the antidote to the cosy club of Irish political parties accused of bringing the Republic to its knees. The sense of national humiliation is palpable; and symptomatic, voters believe, of the corrupting nexus between the Irish political and business elites. Last Thursday, the party published its election manifesto, titled ‘There is a Better Way’, reminiscent, it has to be said, of New Labour’s 1997 manifesto, ‘Because Britain Deserves Better’.

Sinn Fein’s pitch is three-fold: left-wing economic populism; an attack on the complacency and nepotism of the old political class of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael; and an appeal to patriotic self-respect (they promise to “burn the bondholders” who have humiliated Ireland).

Their economic policy consists of slower deficit reduction; a seven billion euro job-creation programme which includes a “labour–intensive” essential infrastructure programme; and a wage subsidy to protect small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). They also want a wealth tax on non-farmland assets worth more than one million euros; the restoration of the minimum wage; and the return of social welfare payments to 2010 levels.

To cover their flank, they have also sounded upbeat about the importance of entrepreneurs.

But with 50,000 young people set to leave Ireland to search for work this year and next, reminiscent of darker days in Ireland, even the more radical aspects of Sinn Fein’s prospectus do not seem that outlandish to many angry voters.

Predictions of their gains vary. An early poll had them projected to win up to 22 seats in the Dail. A more granular constituency-based analysis has them winning around 13 seats under Ireland’s Single Transferable Vote system. What is inevitable, however, is that they will increase their parliamentary representation markedly from the five seats they currently hold – and they are certain to get the seven seats the party needs to have full speaking rights in the next Dail.

Some party insiders readily concede theirs is a “two election” strategy, reminiscent of how they clawed their way past the SDLP over time north of the border.

But there is no shortage of ambition this time around, even if it may turn out to be far-fetched. Party president, Gerry Adams, himself leading the party’s charge standing as a candidate in Louth has called for nothing less than a realignment of Irish politics, claiming:

“It… makes sense for progressive politics. It is time for all those who believe that a government without Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael can deliver a better Ireland – to work together.

“A hundred years ago James Connolly appealed for unity among the left in Ireland. It made sense then. It makes sense today.”

But it is not as comradely as Adams suggests; the Irish Labour Party, although widely expected to end up in government as a junior coalition partner, is locked in combat with Sinn Fein for centre-left voters. The Sunday Business Post recently ran a piece titled:

‘Labour and Sinn Féin in fight for left supremacy’

And it doesn’t stop there. Despite still classing itself as:

“A radical, campaigning, activist party dedicated to achieving a society free from prejudice and discrimination, and providing justice, equal opportunity for all in a 32-County democratic, socialist, united Ireland.”

…Sinn Fein shares the centre left spectrum not only with Labour but with other leftist groupings and a record number of independents. This looks likely to split the anti-establishment vote that Sinn Fein needs to solidify.

And there have been false dawns before. In the 2007 general election, early predictions of a Sinn Fein breakthrough proved unfounded as the party failed to make any headway. And in 2009, Sinn Fein’s Mary-Lou McDonald lost their only seat in the European elections.

Sinn Fein traditionally suffers from a pincer attack with Fianna Fail providing a ‘respectable’ vehicle for voters with republican sympathies, while the Irish Labour party provides a credible centre-left alternative. But behind the hubris of the election campaign, there is a confluence of factors and anniversaries that may provide grist to Sinn Fein’s mill.

The general election in the Republic will be followed by elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly on 5th May. Given the enduring schisms within unionism, there remains a prospect of Sinn Fein topping the poll for the first time ever north of the border and thereby making a claim on the role of first minister.

Northern Ireland secretary, Owen Paterson, recently indicated the government would not block that appointment if that were to happen, despite angst from some unionist quarters.

Later this year, the Irish will elect their next president when Mary McAleese’s term expires. A weak field may see Gerry Adams enter the fray. Although largely symbolic, the role would be powerful validation that Sinn Fein had emerged as a respectable, mainstream party.

Whatever lingering reservations some Irish voters may have about Sinn Fein, there is no doubt that the party’s leaders have star wattage. These are the international faces of Irish politics, meeting presidents and prime ministers, shading the parochial backwoodsmen of the Irish political parties; it is Sinn Fein’s website that has Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness posing with a smiling Nelson Mandela.

Indeed, the most spectacular example of this came last year when former IRA commander Martin McGuinness was judged Northern Ireland’s “most impressive” political leader, even gaining approval from many unionists. It all goes a long way in helping mainstream the Sinn Fein brand, the party’s most immediate strategic priority.

Sinn Fein’s trio of electoral opportunities is set against a brace of important anniversaries in recent Irish history.

Next month sees the thirtieth anniversary of the start of the Hunger Strike when ten republican prisoners in the Maze prison starved themselves to death in protest at the British government’s refusal to grant them status as political prisoners. The anniversary has enduring emotional resonance – and political significance too, as the strikes catapulted republicans into politics, spawning the “ballot box and the armalite” strategy that has led Sinn Fein, inexorably, to this point.

2011 is also the fortieth anniversary of the imposition of internment without trial in Northern Ireland, which saw hundreds of innocent Catholics dragged from their beds and imprisoned without trial. Such anniversaries underscore the scale of British policy failures in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s and 1980s.

There will be no earthquakes in Ireland’s election. They will lose decisively, but speculation about the annihilation of Fianna Fail will prove hyperbolic. Fine Gael, led by the lacklustre Enda Kenny, will prove no more popular or successful over the medium term. But the result may well signal the point that the mould of Irish politics cracked and Sinn Fein emerged as a political force in southern Ireland for the first time since the party won three-quarters of the parliamentary seats in Ireland at the 1918 general election.

To watchers on this side of the Irish Sea, that seems like an eternity ago; in Irish politics, however, it is the blink of an eye.

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