SF must learn quickly from election results

By Jim Gibney (for the Irish News)

The most difficult task facing the republicans of this country has been to bring about an independent Ireland. For more than two centuries republicans have put this objective at the centre of their political existence. The fact that the objective has not been achieved after such a protracted period of time merely highlights how difficult it has been to bring about Irish reunification.

If it was solely down to commitment, self-sacrifice and determination then we would be living in a united and free country – republicans had, and have, all of these qualities in abundance.

The most problematical impediment to the achievement of a united Ireland today is partition.

Partition not only fragmented the country – it broke up the national movement for independence and over many decades slowly pushed republicans to the margins of political life.

However, it was the injustice of partition, particularly in the six counties where unionists set up a one-party sectarian state, which ultimately led to the revival of the republican struggle.

Partition also created two states, two establishments, two distinct and separate political realities.

And while northern republicans and nationalists have had to deal with the consequences of living in an unjust and undemocratic society, they did so mainly on their own.

For almost 80 years the political establishment in the 26 counties, including successive Irish governments and parties like Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the Labour Party, were indifferent to what Peter Barry, a Fine Gael minister for foreign affairs, described as a “nightmare” existence for nationalists and Catholics.

It was not until the emergence of the peace process following the IRA’s cessation in August 1994 that the Irish government began to seriously tackle the issues at the heart of the conflict – the issues at the heart of partition.

They did so reluctantly and on many occasions under pressure from the Sinn Féin leadership.

From 1994 until now is a short period of time but it is also a very important period of time because the political life of the six-county state has been turned upside down. It has been repositioned into an all-Ireland setting with the Irish government playing a prominent part.

Sinn Féin has played a leading role in bringing about these new circumstances to the point where the DUP and Sinn Féin are heading up a northern administration.

The objective of the Sinn Féin leadership over the last 10 years has been to bring about these remarkable conditions. It required a concentration of time, effort and energy.

And the northern nationalist electorate rewarded Sinn Féin for its efforts by placing it in poll position inside the nationalist community.

Alongside this Herculean effort Sinn Féin, as the only major all-Ireland party in the country, has been trying to build a political constituency in the 26 counties.

And although republicans will be disappointed at last week’s election result, they have to be set in the above context and assessed against other factors.

For example Sinn Féin remains the third largest party across this island, next to Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. Almost one-third of a million people vote for Sinn Féin north and south.

In last week’s election more than 140,000 people voted for Sinn Féin candidates, an increase of 21,000 on the last general election.

Compare this with the PDs, Michael McDowell’s party which was in government at a time of unprecedented economic prosperity. They secured 56,000 votes and lost six of their eight seats including McDowell’s. The Labour Party picked up 200,000 votes and the Greens just under 100,000.

Sinn Féin’s electoral project was squeezed by an electorate concerned about Fianna Fail being replaced in government by a Fine Gael-Labour coalition.

The electorate were frightened about their economic future. They have a clear memory of the bad economic times and were not prepared to take unpredictable risks.

Sinn Féin is trying to do what all other parties with a nationalist electorate should be doing – ending partition and bringing about the reunification of the country.

It is a mighty task but republicans have had setbacks more serious than last week’s election results.

They will not be deflected from the task in hand.

There are lessons to be learned from the election and Sinn Féin must learn them quickly.

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© 2007 Irish Republican News