AFTER decades in the political wilderness, Sinn Féin seems to be on the verge of a political breakthrough in the Republic. If the polls are to be believed, it should win anything from 10 to 15 seats. By Peter Mooney.
However the political landscape of the Republic is littered with the corpses of parties that were once, allegedly, poised to change the mould of politics. Who now remembers the National League, Clann na Talmhan or Clann na Phoblachta, and how long before the names Democratic Left and Progressive Democrats fade from our memory? Peter Mooney looks backward - and forward.
What is the prognosis for Sinn Féin? Like all political parties, Sinn Féin is a coalition of interests. Those who have their eye on power in the Republic have clearly seen the need to distance themselves from the party's paramilitary past. They have shifted the party away from its purely nationalist agenda and shifted it somewhat to the left. However, the green (as in republican) credentials are still important. Have a look at the merchandise in the Sinn Féin shop in Parnell Square; and there's plenty of older party members and supporters who would be happier saying the Rosary at Bodenstown than nationalising the banks.
As Sinn Féin moves further into the mainstream of political life in this State, the stress on the coalition of forces within the party will begin to show: choices will have to be made. Issues such as legislating for abortion (as required by the recent European Court judgement) or any proposal to extend civil marriage to all, while they may be supported by the leadership. will not go down well with older members and supporters. However, the ultimate stress-test will come from the realities of political life in opposition.
Sinn Féin has adopted the strategy formerly followed by its predecessor, Sinn Féin The Workers Party, which became simply The Workers Party. That party initially targeted marginal communities and became active in local campaigns and struggles. Many of their prominent activists took part in the armed struggle. Later, they succeeded in winning local authority seats.
However as the party moved closer to the mainstream and began to win Dáil seats, older activists were often sidelined. Those who came to prominence in the Dáil had little or no connection with the armed struggle or the feuds with the Provos. Proinsias De Rossa was the exception. Nonetheless, for some there was still a smell of sulphur about them; after the 1992 election Fine Gael refused to deal with them. The party split in 1992, with a large part of the parliamentary party leaving to become Democratic Left. In 1999 this was subsumed in to the Labour Party. The Workers Party has since then returned to the margins of Irish politics.
Sinn Féin is in the same position as The Workers Party in the eighties. It is active on the ground in local communities, and can promise radical measures that it will not be called upon to deliver. This has delivered a few Dáil seats. Candidates now seem poised to break out of that situation - but there will be a cost to that.
The party has succeeded in attracting a whole new membership of well-educated and articulate members, and candidates untouched by the party's paramilitary past. Quietly, old community activists are being sidelined. In my own constituency, Dublin Central, Nicky Kehoe and Christy Burke after years of loyal service were asked to step aside after years of loyal service to make way for Mary Lou McDonald. This younger generation such, as Pearse Doherty, did not join the party to languish on the opposition benches for 15 or 20 years. Some have already shown disaffection with the older Northern oriented leadership and there have been defections, particularly in Dublin.
By the time the next election comes around Sinn Féin will have been well sanitised from its paramilitary past. We will have had a number of years of harsh budgets. Whoever is in government is going to have to struggle to be re-elected, and the likelihood is that no party will have an overall majority. Sinn Féin will then have to choose five more years in opposition or doing a deal with another party to get into government. In 1992 the parliamentary party of Workers Party were willing to do deals, and it is arguable that this willingness was one of the factors that led to their split.
In such a scenario I can see some of the young bucks with more green inclinations tempted into coalition with Fianna Fáil or indeed tempted to join Fianna Fáil. The choice will be maintaining their radical credentials or getting their hands on the levers of power.
Michael McDowell once said that the Progressive Democrats had to be radical or they would become irrelevant. Indeed, that's what happened to them. Their policies were appropriated by other parties and there was no ground left for them to occupy exclusively. Inevitably, as Sinn Féin moves closer to the centre, it will encounter the same situation. On one end they will become indistinguishable from Fianna Fáil and on the other to the Labour Party (the survey of voters on Votamatic.ie already shows this).
I predict that Sinn Féin will inevitably split, with the more ambitious members heading into Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party.
In their book 'The Lost Revolution', Brian Hanley and Scott Millar quote a Workers Party member on the subject of his party and Sinn Féin: "We had the good ideas but we had them too soon. They have good ideas now but they had them too late." Sinn Féin now occupies the same ground as the Workers Party in the late 1980s –early 1990s. Having ended up with pretty much the same positions and policies as the Workers Party, I see no reason why they will not continue down the same path.
Peter Mooney is standing for the Seanad on the National University of Ireland (NUI) panel. He runs an independent media company, Genii, with his daughter, Meabh, and blogs at http://petermooney.eu/