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Sinn Fein gets outflanked on the Left in its very heartlands


Malachi O'Doherty

Malachi O'Doherty

Malachi O'Doherty

Sinn Fein will have done the sums and anticipated that it was going to get its eye wiped in West Belfast and Foyle. There is nobody better than itself at that.

But still it must sting.

Presenting itself as the radical Left party standing up to the Tories in the UK and to the big two in the Republic, it can't but read like a message it didn't want to hear when it is outflanked on the Left.

Yes, it is far bigger than People Before Profit, and there is no danger at all of it being supplanted in the Executive - but that's not the point.

The point is that in the heartlands where it should best have made its case that it does, itself, put people before profit, the poor and the struggling before capital, thousands have told it that that is not how they see the party at all.

These are the constituencies in which the republicans had their roots. These are the areas which suffered most during the Troubles, and yet where people were most amenable to the idea that the IRA had a legitimate campaign.

These are the areas in which Sinn Fein converted violent republican struggle into political party action. They are the springboards from which it made the great leap from radical opposition to taking power, first in the councils and then in the Assembly.

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And it was the champion of the struggle in West Belfast, Gerry Adams, who moved south to inject huge energy into the party's efforts in the Republic.

True, he appears to be flagging now, but the party is still growing, and while Fianna Fail is facilitating a Fine Gael-led government there, Sinn Fein will make the case that it is the real Opposition now.

And as the party evolved in Belfast and Derry, experience will have taught it that the key hindrance to its growth and to the validation of the IRA was the fact that, historically, both areas were more inclined towards constitutional nationalism than to republicanism.

That is how Sinn Fein traditionally framed its own challenge to represent West Belfast and Derry.

It rounded on the SDLP as the Stoop Down Low Party, the "lickspittles" who would have betrayed the hunger strike, the "west Brits" who took a seat in the House of Lords. The republicans grew and sharpened their political skills fighting a rival to the Right of them, not to the Left.

The votes for Gerry Carroll and Eamonn McCann are a coherent statement that Sinn Fein is now viewed as Establishment.

People Before Profit is no great challenge to its supremacy in the nationalist community, but it presents an argument republicans will not like to hear - that they have gone soft, that they have failed the poor, that they have squandered the credit they were given as the party that would fight, that would rather keep its soul than grow.

And, of course, there is a simple answer to this, that this is the real world, in which politics is the art of the possible. It's just that that is not an argument the Shinners paid much heed to when it was made against them.

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