From the ecstasy of March to the agony of May, 2007 is turning out to be quite the rollercoaster year for republicans. Whilst the Assembly election results gave Sinn Féin much to cheer, this one’s a big disappointment, and there can be no denying that fact.
Sinn Féin entered the election with five seats and a real prospect of doubling that tally - based on opinion polls and advances made in the 2004 European and local elections. Instead, we’ve fallen back by one seat in Leinster House, with a couple of candidates just missing out and others coming in well short of expectations.
In one sense, there’s a need to be philosophical about the results. The legacy of this election will be the drive back towards a bipolar system in the 26 counties, with Enda having nearly as many reasons to be pleased as Bertie after Fine Gael’s leap forward to its pre-2002 seat tally. Sinn Féin weren’t alone amongst the small parties in experiencing the squeeze, though in itself that shouldn’t merit much consolation.
In another sense, however, this will necessitate a rigorous analysis of the way forward for the party in the 26 Counties. Concerns about policy positions, leadership strategies and structural development will need to be aired and honestly debated.
Honest scrutiny must be the way forward as anything less would be to repeat the mistakes of other parties who preferred denial to reality when it came to explaining away electoral setbacks - in this regard, let no republican speak of ‘borrowed votes...’
The moment I first realised that we were in for a setback was about one minute past seven on Friday morning, the moment I heard the result of the RTE Exit Poll. With Sinn Féin targeting primarily Fianna Fail and Fine Gael seats across the state, news that both had performed well - coupled with our own sluggish returns from the Exit Poll - suggested that the day ahead wouldn’t be bringing the best of news for republicans.
Whilst the border county vote remains solid - and indeed growing in the case of Donegal- there must be real concern at the failure to retain the voters in the capital and in the numerous other target constituencies across the state.
My own instincts and experiences ensure I avoid simple ‘after the event’ explanations. In this regard, I’m highly suspect of the media consensus which is promoting the view that Adams’ performance in the ‘First Debate’ was a critical moment in the campaign, for a number of reasons.
Having watched the debate, I came away content with Gerry Adams’ performance. Whilst he did use broad brush language when answering a number of questions, the debate never really got down to matters of fine detail. The post-debate media consensus that Adams somehow got battered by Michael McDowell conveniently ignores the fact that McDowell lost his own seat and that of three-quarters of his party in this election - hardly the spoils of victory.
If truth be told, I think there were a number of contributing factors to the poor election result for Sinn Féin. There is undoubtedly a need for republicans to develop and promote 26 county figures within the upper echelons of the party leadership, and these individuals must be equipped with a policy platform which is viewed as being sharp, deliverable and, uniquely, reflective of the all-Ireland character of Sinn Féin.
Republicans are perhaps better positioned now to develop the latter due to the onset of devolved governance in the Six Counties, where republicans - like all other parties in the Six Counties - will be increasingly focused on coming to terms with the responsibilities of day-to-day management of the administration and all that entails for policy development.
A feature of this campaign was that, as a small player in the south of Ireland, Sinn Féin was simply cast to the side in terms of relevancy as the campaign spotlight focused firmly on the choice of who to put in charge of the still growing and prospering economy. The fact that Sinn Féin was dismissed by all other parties as a potential coalition partner also played a significant part - in this sense, Fianna Fail’s decision in the final days to forcefully rule out any role for republicans in a potential administration was an excellent tactical move: faced with voting for a party who could lead the government and one dismissed as an irrelevance by all parts of the political mainstream, those floating between Sinn Féin and Fianna Fail in the former’s target constituencies decisively shifted behind Bertie, with emphatic results.
For republicans of a younger generation, this is the first significant electoral setback, and I’ve no doubt they will feel absolutely gutted. But for those with longer memories and experiences, there will at least be the comfort of knowing that there was not so long ago a time when returning four TDs and just missing out on another two in Donegal with an increased overall vote would’ve been regarded as an unparalleled success.
But we are where we are, and there’s no room for complacency nor consolation prizes. Sinn Féin can take solace in the fact that 2007 reaffirmed the party’s unassailable position as leaders of the northern nationalist community; but the lesson of the past week is that republicans need to think long and hard about how to develop and expand the party’s appeal across the southern state.
In the 26 Counties, there will be local government elections within the next two years, which should provide the impressively young panel of election candidates time to dust themselves down and prepare for the challenge of making that vital breakthrough in 2009 across the state.
Whilst it has been pointed out that Sinn Féin’s appeal and electoral return in the 26 counties broadly reflects the size and mandate of a party of Alliance Party stature in the north, the parallel ends there. The fact remains that small parties have increasingly played a critical, influential role in the governance of the southern state whilst the height of Alliance’s ambition in our new political framework would be to secure a solitary ministry- which in itself remains a somewhat fanciful ambition given their limited electoral appeal to date.
As the northern administration beds down, republican experiences of governance will grow as the lingering hostility to a post-IRA Sinn Féin fades in the 26 Counties, factors which should better position the party to attract both first preferences/ transfers and, as crucially, willing coalition partners in the period of years ahead.
In this regard, it is instructive that, although Sinn Féin remain bitterly disappointed at the ‘miserly’ return of four TDs to Leinster House, Fianna Fail looks like being on the verge of entering into government with a party of 2 TDs coupled with a pocket of Independents.
With a distance of five years between today and the formation of the next administration, who would doubt that Sinn Féin would be courted by Fianna Fail if the electoral arithmetic remained the same after republicans had spent five years sharing power in the north and working in tandem with southern ministers in the North/South Ministerial Council?
So, my parting message to fellow republicans out there would be to take this one on the chin: don’t deny it’s a setback, but rather learn from the experience and get better prepared for the challenges that lie ahead.