By Jack Holland
In 1995, I was talking with former Irish Ambassador to the U.S. Sean Donlon in his new offices in government buildings, Dublin. He had recently been appointed as special adviser on Northern Ireland matters to the Taoiseach John Bruton. Since the Provisional IRA’s cease-fire of August 1994, there had been a series of meetings between Irish government officials and Sinn Fein. I was curious to know what Donlon, renowned as a tough, shrewd diplomat, made of the Shinners.
He surmised that never before in the history of the state had so much orange juice been consumed at official meetings, since Sinn Fein delegates eschewed any other form of refreshment. But at a more serious level, Donlon told me he was deeply impressed by the preparedness of their negotiators, and their ability to ask the right questions. He believed that given the right circumstances, the new-look Sinn Fein could indeed become a threat to the major parties in the South. It was their zeal, more than anything, which arrested his attention.
That zeal is beginning to have an impact. The recent local elections in the Irish Republic saw the Shinners more than double their number of local councilors — from 28 to 62. It is still a modest number, of course, and represents only 3.5 percent of the overall vote. But then, as the old Irish saying goes, all beginnings are weak. And after decades of being in the political doldrums south of the border, Sinn Fein has most definitely made a beginning.
For Sinn Fein, the South has always proven to be a hard political nut to crack. For a start, the party had to overcome the effects of a policy of abstentionism, maintained for more than 50 years, which induced a kind of political torpor. Then its links to the Provisional IRA hobbled its efforts to run a successful political machine.
The armed campaign did not command much support in the 26 counties, and atrocities such as the Enniskillen bombing alienated the vast majority of Southern voters. Ironically, the bombing came just a year after Sinn Fein ditched its policy on non-recognition of the Dail, and was setting out to make a serious impact in the South. Instead, it saw its already small vote decline disastrously during the 1980s and early 1990s. The party’s intervention in the June 1981 general election, when two of its supporters (one of them a prisoner) won seats in the Dublin parliament was the only occasion in recent decades that it enjoyed any success in the South. But that was during the hunger strikes, when nationalist emotions were running high, and the vote was seen as was a sympathy vote. It soon evaporated.
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It took a long time for republicans to face up to two unpleasant facts. The first was that its policy of abstentionism had effectively isolated it from the mass of Southern voters. The second was that the armed campaign would have to end before Sinn Fein could expect any kind of political breakthrough.
These are not the only factors that helped Sinn Fein to gain momentum in the South, though they were necessary preconditions. There are at least two other important things that have influenced the shape of Southern politics.
The first is the change that has come over the traditional political structures. For the better part of 20 years, no single party in the Irish Republic has been strong enough to govern alone. Since 1981, nearly every government that has come to power has been able to do so only as a result of coalitions with smaller parties. This has included the Democratic Left — offshoot of the Workers’ Party, which is itself a development of Official Sinn Fein. The decline of the South’s major party, Fianna Fail, has been steady, until it now commands less than 40 percent of the popular vote. (In last week’s elections it hit 37 percent.) Neither Fine Gael nor the Labor Party have been able to pick up the support that Fianna Fail has been loosing.
The fragmenting of the political establishment means that smaller parties with only a handful of seats can find opportunities to get into government and thus have the kind of influence over state policy that would have been unthinkable 30 years ago. By 1982, the Workers’ Party had seven deputies in the Dail; just over 10 years later, the Democratic Left, with the same number, was in coalition government. The determination of Sinn Fein to build a solid political base in the South is sustained by such possibilities.
The other major factor that helps the Shinners to make headway is the pool of deprivation in Dublin, where it now has six councilors (up from one). In desolate areas like Tallaght, where the Celtic Tiger is about as believable as the Lough Ness monster, Sinn Fein is taking over the political ground once occupied by the old Workers’ Party and Democratic Left. Since the latter merged with the Labor Party at the beginning of the year, there is room for a more radical anti-establishment party, of the sort which the Workers’ Party/DL originally aspired to be but never did become.
Sinn Fein has this advantage over its former comrades in the Workers’ Party. It can appeal to the nationalist sentiment. This is a decided bonus when campaigning in rural areas around the border counties in particular. Cavan-Monaghan is the most obvious example, where the party now has one TD and 23 local councilors. In such districts, traditionally part of the fiefdom of Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein can eat into the larger party’s support base.
Many years ago, republican leader Seamus Costello theorized that it was possible for Sinn Fein to tap into what he believed was the still strong grassroots nationalist sentiment that had gone over to Fianna Fail, while at the same time maintaining a radical position on social and economic issues. As a member of the Officials, he never had the opportunity to test that hypothesis, as his movement abandoned the national question altogether. Later ,the party he founded, the Irish Republican Socialist Party, which was supposed to pursue this agenda, was too riven by dissension to be an effective political vehicle. And in any case, that unpredictable and mysterious factor, the "times," were not ripe for such an undertaking.
Some 20 years on, the times have changed. It remains to be seen how successful Sinn Fein will be in taking advantage of them. But one thing is certain: Donlon’s predictions were not so farfetched as they may have once seemed.