Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Work to do as south gives Sinn Fein a second chance

Republican electoral success in Donegal South West is a timely lesson for the party, says Chris Donnelly

Following on from the 2007 General Election in the Republic, much was made of the dire performance of Sinn Fein, with many suggesting that the bubble had burst for the party south of the border.

Sinn Fein was reduced to just four seats in the Dail, with its southern leader-in-waiting, Mary Lou McDonald, suffering a particular humiliation when she failed to gain election to a constituency the party had parachuted her into.

Subsequent European and local elections confirmed the effective marginalisation of the party in the Republic and throughout the intervening period between then and now, southern Sinn Fein has experienced many setbacks.

Sinn Fein's all-Ireland brand appeared to be under severe threat.

Fast forward to last week in Donegal, where the party's Great Southern Hope (or, to be geographically accurate, Great Northern Hope), Pearse Doherty, made history by decisively defeating candidates from across the political spectrum.

The result has instantly transformed the profile of the party in the Republic, providing it with a favourable gust of wind as the state's beleaguered and disgruntled electorate faces the first of many winters of discontent.

The Sinn Fein project north of the border will receive a welcome fillip by this electoral triumph - though the republican leadership and party strategists would do well to spend some time pondering the significance of the message being delivered by the electors of Donegal.

Sinn Fein took the strategic decision to brand itself as a protest party in the Republic throughout the past decade - a decision which ultimately proved the party's undoing as the electorate sought out those providing seemingly plausible solutions to the impending crises which have engulfed southern Irish society since 2007.

The Doherty by-election victory was locally manufactured, a product of the constituency graft and skillful political manoeuvrings of a republican politician we are likely to become more familiar with in the years to follow.

Yet it has had nationwide implications. Sinn Fein has effectively been given a second chance to make an impact and establish a firmer foothold in southern politics and it has now found a leader-in-waiting who is not only indigenous to the southern state but - crucially - of the post-conflict generation.

Whether it capitalises on the opportunity it has been presented with is another matter and the northern experience to date would give cause for concern in this regard.

Sinn Fein's greatest challenge at present is to transform itself into an effective political party tailored to meet the challenges of modern Ireland through a republican prism.

This means moving away from the default urge to protest and towards a mindset which is more interested with devising, articulating and delivering on constructive and credible policies.

Perhaps, most importantly, it will mean completing the transition from a political 'movement', characterised by an authoritarian political culture which encouraged discipline and deference at the expense of innovation and enterprise, to a modern political party, defined by a willingness to effect change through governance, requiring a dedication to policy formulation and implementation and attracting personnel capable of sharpening both the content and delivery of the party's policy platform.

Republicans are once again being offered a receptive ear in the south. The party would do well to ensure it does not waste this opportunity.

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