Republican News · Thursday 8 May 1997

[An Phoblacht]

Sinn Féin triumph

Mícheál MacDonncha analyses a momentous week

Two Sinn Féin MPs. Sinn Féin overtaking the DUP as the third party in the Six Counties. The Tories reduced to a parliamentary rump with no seats in Wales or Scotland. Who would have believed it could happen even a week ago?

It is difficult fully to appreciate the enormity of what has taken place. For republicans of course the achievement of Sinn Féin is a cause of celebration and an enormous sign of hope for the future. It is important to examine the full signifigance of that achievement.

The Daily Telegraph said on its front page that Sinn Féin had achieved its best electoral result in the Six Counties for 40 years. Technically that is true as in 1955 Sinn Féin got two MPs and 25% of the vote. But that was an exceptional election in an era when Sinn Féin intervened rarely in elections and deployed no consistent electoral strategy. It was not until 1982 that such a consistent strategy began to be developed.

In 1983 Gerry Adams was elected for West Belfast for the first time and Danny Morrison missed Mid-Ulster by only 78 votes. But that was only the beginning of a long period of building a party. Initial fears in British and Dublin government circles that the SDLP would be eclipsed by Sinn Féin eventually subsided. At times they were to be followed with predictions of a Sinn Féin decline. But in election after election, both local and Westminster over 15 years Sinn Féin has firmly established its base of support and then expanded upon it.

What Sinn Féin has now is a seasoned, experienced election machine. It is thus better placed than it could ever have been in 1983 or at any time in the past to consolidate its gains, retain its parliamentary seats and win more.

Those in the SDLP who were most negative about the Hume-Adams dialogue, such as Seamus Mallon and Joe Hendron, realise the signifigance of the Sinn Féin achievement and their post-election bitterness shows it. In a pathetic whinge to the Irish News Hendron spoke of the ingratitude of the voters he had helped over so many years. He called Sinn Féin fascist in one breath and in the next he said he believed Gerry Adams was sincere about peace. Mallon called the high Sinn Féin vote an aberration.

The muted coverage in much of the media in Dublin was also caused by overindulgence in sour grapes. The Irish Times on the day after the count pointedly carried no photographs of the Sinn Féin MPs or the celebrations of supporters and ran a venomous cartoon by Martyn Turner which depicted Mitchel McLaughlin with a Hitler moustache. Editorial scorn was also poured on Sinn Féin by the Irish Times and the Irish Independent spoke of what a bad result it was.

It seems that 15 years after Sinn Féin entered the electoral arena in the Six Counties certain elements still have big problems coming to terms with the chosen representatives of the nationalist people. One such is John Bruton. His only comment on the electoral verdict of nationalists was to falsely accuse Gerry Adams of making a menacing comment at the hunger-strike commemoration in Belfast last Sunday.

Having made the mistake of telling nationalists how to vote and getting a short answer, Bruton is now electioneering on the southern side of the border. He dreads Sinn Féin success there as well. The point Adams was making was that his party has seen off Margaret Thatcher and John Major, both of whom for years had tried to destroy Sinn Féin. Bruton would be better advised to accept that fact and to address the new reality.

d what a new reality it is. One commentator pointed out that with no seats in Scotland or Wales the Tories are now the English National Party. John Major fought his election campaign on the basis of defence of the Union. He was turfed out. Remember Major's dire prediction at the start of the campaign that a Labour victory would mean the end of ``1000 years of British history''? This is the beginning of the end. Labour and the Liberal Democrats are committed to constitutional reform and parliaments for Scotland and Wales. Next month the Union Jack will be lowered in Hong Kong, the last significant outpost of the British Empire (apart from the Six Counties of course).

Now put yourself in the minds of the unionists in Ireland in this scenario. Gone is their parliamentary leverage on John Major. Their Tory allies have been devastated and face a long period in the opposition wilderness, racked by division. The new Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair has a huge majority and a free hand to deal with Ireland. Of course the unionists have friends in Labour. Of course that party's policy on Irish unity has been watered down. Of course such a strong majority could be turned against republicans. But the key factor now is the momentum for change.

The only way for all party leaders to lead their followers is to the talks table. The status quo is not an option. All mandates must be recognised, a fact that Tony Blair and new British Secretary of State Mo Mowlam must accept.

It is republicans who have created the momentum for change. It must be maintained now both in the local government elections across the Six Counties on 21 May and in the general election in the 26 Counties which is expected to be held on 6 June. The election of a Sinn Féin TD or TDs would be another force for change. After such a momentous week who can doubt the ability of Sinn Féin to do the business once again?

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