Why wooing votes in South is still a headache for SInn Fein
Gerry Adams’ Ard Fheis address was a model of media management. But away from the conference hall things are less predictable for his party, says Mary Minihan
Sinn Fein’s strategy to grow its vote in the Republic is to capitalise on the abrupt end of the honeymoon voters granted to the Irish government parties after last year’s election.
Not long after the International Monetary Fund (IMF) arrived in Dublin to try to repair the shattered economy, the Fianna Fail party was kicked out of power by a merciless electorate.
The coalition of Fine Gael and the Labour Party that replaced the unpopular administration was robustly criticised by Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams at his party conference in Killarney, Co Kerry at the weekend.
“Fine Gael and Labour were elected to change the disastrous policies of Fianna Fail leaderships. Instead they embraced these policies,” he told cheering delegates.
Sinn Fein is attempting to tap into declining confidence in the Republic’s political establishment by trying to persuade people that other parties, both in opposition and in power, are “all the same”.
Voters go back to the polls on Thursday to cast their ballots in an important referendum on the European Fiscal Treaty.
The government parties, along with Fianna Fail, which is now the largest Opposition party, are advocating a Yes vote.
This has left Sinn Fein leading the charge on the No side.
The party has opposed every European referendum since the Republic joined the community in 1973.
Polls show that the Yes side will probably win. But the ongoing campaign has provided the Sinn Fein with a valuable platform.
Party activists have seized the opportunity to canvass in uncharted territory.
Sinn Fein’s working-class base is secure, and the party is busy introducing itself to middle-class voters who have become disillusioned with the performance of the government. Disgruntled Labour voters are a particular target.
Mr Adams made a pointed reference to Labour’s under-performance at the weekend when he asked: “What is the point of the Labour Party in this government?”
The party’s Donegal-based finance spokesman Pearse Doherty has recently argued that Sinn Fein is “stereotyped” as being concerned only about those on social welfare.
He has been using “business-friendly” language lately in an attempt to reach out to entrepreneurs and enterprise leaders. He also stressed his support for the beleaguered Euro currency. Mr Doherty, (34), was one of two parliamentarians who had to rush away from the party conference because their wives were having babies. Sinn Fein has cultivated a youthful cohort of politicians in the Republic.
Adams has been surprisingly tolerant in allowing young pretenders such as Mr Doherty to ventilate their desire to step into his shoes in future. The party’s deputy leader Mary-Lou McDonald, (43), has also done so.
Adams’ performance in the Dail has failed to impress. But figures like Doherty and McDonald, with their firmer grasp of economic concepts, are viewed as much more formidable opponents by other politicians.
Other parties in the Republic constantly rebuke what they describe as Sinn Fein’s “twin-track strategy” of opposing cuts in the Republic while implementing them in government in Northern Ireland.
Sinn Fein’s defence is that Stormont does not have control of fiscal authority or budgetary matters.
At the party conference, Ms McDonald boldly called on the Irish government to join it in “fighting the Tory cut-back agenda”.
She said Taoiseach Enda Kenny should pick up the phone to Prime Minister David Cameron and argue against a reduction in the block grant given to Northern Ireland.
“Downing Street is just a call away,” she chided.
Mr Adams told the conference Sinn Fein “wants to demonstrate to unionists that a united Ireland is also in their interests”.
Arguably, the party faces an even greater challenge in the cash-strapped Republic.
Quite aside from the Republic’s financial difficulties, the party still faces staunch pockets of resistance.
Sinn Fein’s refusal to meet the Queen during her historic and successful visit to the Republic last year showed it to be out of sync with the public mood.
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness failed in his attempt to secure the position of President at the end of last year and the resistance to him shocked Sinn Fein activists from Northern Ireland.
Mr McGuinness reacted indignantly to being asked perfectly reasonable questions about his past.
At the weekend, he continued to express surprise that the media in the Republic was “fixated by the IRA”. He should not be surprised. The memory of the murder by the IRA of members of the Irish police force and army still has the power to shock. Reconciliation must begin at home, but the party has much work to do elsewhere.
Sinn Fein, which portrays itself as whiter than white in the Republic, has not been immune from embarrassing controversies. Earlier this year it emerged that one Dublin-based parliamentarian, Aengus O Snodaigh, had controversially used more than €50,000-worth (approx £40,000) of ink cartridges provided by the State — enough to print some three million leaflets.
The controversy was christened “inkgate” and O Snodaigh dubbed “Wolfe Toner”, after the revolutionary leader Wolfe Tone.
O Snodaigh did not attend the party conference.
He used his Twitter account to post a photograph of himself climbing Mount Kilimanjaro for charity.
Mary Minihan writes on politics for The Irish Times in Dublin