Sinn Féin strategists take stock ahead of Ard Fheis

Thursday 11 April 2013 15.06
There's much to ponder for Mr Adams and his party colleagues this weekend
There's much to ponder for Mr Adams and his party colleagues this weekend

There won't be tributes to Margaret Thatcher at this weekend's Ard Fheis in Castlebar, even though the Iron Lady played her own part in setting the party on the political path that has garnered it over a dozen seats in the Dáil and put it at the centre of power in Stormont.

Mrs Thatcher's obduracy in dealing with the 1981 hunger strikes engendered a poison that still laces Republican attitudes to her legacy.

However, at the time she also unwittingly strengthened the hands of the embryonic cohort of Sinn Féin strategists struggling to make headway with the twin track armalite and ballot box approach.

RTÉ's Political Correspondent David Davin-Power assesses the strength of Sinn Féin ahead of their Ard Fheis this weekend.

North and South, hunger strike candidates took seats in the Dail and Westminster, swept in on a tidal wave of revulsion for the British Prime Minister.

Those victories gave Republican politicos a powerful argument in the debate on the merits of the 'unarmed struggle' with the then dominant IRA.

Taking that political path has brought them to the top in Northern Ireland, albeit in a dysfunctional administration that has few achievements to boast.

But the party remains in a somewhat strange place in the Republic, or the "26 Counties" as speakers this weekend will prefer.

On the credit side, Sinn Féin has 14 TDs, and as the second party of opposition has a secure platform. In 2011, it played its part in sweeping Fianna Fáil from power with a share of the vote just shy of one in ten voters.

Since then opinion polls have seen that share grown briefly cresting a high watermark of 20% - largely it seems at the expense of Labour.

But since then, like the lotto ball when the wheel stops turning, those numbers have hopped back and forward, currently settling at 14%.

Moreover the party will have been disappointed with their candidate's performance in the Meath East by election.

Sinn Féin strategists were whispering privately that their own polls showed Darren O'Rourke challenging Fianna Fáil's Thomas Byrne a week out.

In the event he secured just 13% to Byrne's 32%, a good 5,000 votes behind Fianna Fáil in a constituency that should have been more fertile ground for the party.

So is Sinn Féin becalmed as the midpoint of this Dáil hoves into view? Certainly Fianna Fáil in opposition have now regrouped, many of their front bench spokesmen outshining Gerry Adam's team.

True, Mary Lou McDonald is impressive, particularly in committees, and there are signs that Pearse Doherty is modulating his 'Mr Angry' approach. But the party leader still seems more comfortable dealing with issues north of the border.

Mr Adams' denunciation of the late Mrs Thatcher this week, for instance, was forceful and pungent, and will have resonated strongly with his support base.

However, Mr Adams says he will lead Sinn Féin into the next election here, and we must take his word for that. And speaking to him a couple of months ago he positively bridled at the suggestion that the baggage of his involvement in 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland might be a drag on his leadership in the Republic.

When the general election comes around he will have to deal with a revived - if perhaps less than resurgent - Fianna Fáil, a party that will also be seeking to coax back those voters temporarily wooed by Fine Gael.

Before that, Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil have the testing ground of the local elections; in 2009, despite Brian Cowen's government's grisly ratings, the party amazingly gained just two seats in contrast to Fine Gael's 88. They will want to improve on that.

So much to ponder for Mr Adams and his party colleagues this weekend. Calls for a border poll will be centre stage, but that's unlikely to strike a chord with the mass of the electorate here.

Some argue that the party needs to sharpen its economic policies - to give more convincing detail of how they might be funded if they are to fend off the challenge from Fianna Fail.

But more than any other party, Sinn Féin takes the long view; its strategists won't worry about undulating opinion poll ratings that for them will represent nothing more than a pebble on the road to the ultimate goal of Irish unity.

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