By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)
Any doubts that Sinn Fein has been transformed in the past couple of years were dispelled by the weekend ard fheis in Castlebar. It was by far the best choreographed, colour-coordinated conference on the island. Stage-managed and disciplined down to the last camera shot, it left other parties in the north in the halfpenny place.
The speech by party leader Gerry Adams, televised live, was timed to the last second with enough time to capture the beginning of the obligatory standing ovation and congratulations from the immaculately presented platform parties carefully arranged on each side of the podium.
There wasn’t an empty seat in the auditorium, everyone in their best bib and tucker and no-one trailing in and out during the speech. Compare that with the few score ancient rickety arthritics attending the UUP conference or the chaotic incoherent undisciplined SDLP conference with an instantly forgettable leader’s offering or the knockabout nonsense at the DUP’s annual revivalist meeting. Note further that these conferences take place in hotels because none is big enough to fill a conference centre. Indeed they can’t even fill the biggest room in the hotels they book.
No, last weekend was quite obviously the ard fheis of a national party benefitting from the money 14 seats in the Dail and 29 in the north’s assembly provides -- professional advice, stage management and presentational know-how. Even the ard fheis location, in Enda Kenny’s constituency, was carefully and deliberately chosen.
It’s all a long, long way from Aran sweaters and big hairy tweed jackets looking like a pre-1914 Irish Aonach. It’s clear Sinn Fein is trying to attract a different kind of voter from the party’s supporters of yesteryear. Their private polls show them who they need and what they need to do to get them.
However, it’s not just a presentational and professional transformation that you can see taking place both north and south. Sinn Fein is ever wary that the party can be accused of adopting different positions on both sides or the border. To that end speakers were careful to point out actions the party had taken to oppose austerity north and south with a promise from Martin McGuinness to use a petition of concern to prevent the Conservative-Lib Dem bedroom tax being brought in north of the border.
Nevertheless, it’s in the controversial area of social legislation that Sinn Fein is pulling away from other parties in the north and it’s the southern dimension which is driving that change. The proposed legislation on the X case in the south and the issue of same-sex marriage (which has just been endorsed by the constitutional convention) means Sinn Fein will take up the same modern liberal secular position north and south. The most critical resolution at the ard fheis rejected an attempt to have a free vote on abortion. Mary-Lou McOonald accepted it was a ‘fiercely difficult’ issue but ‘a republican party couldn’t allow an opt-out clause on policy’ and Sinn Fein didn’t allow that either in the Dail or the northern assembly. In these areas Sinn Fein has more in common now with the Alliance Party rather than the religious fundamentalism of the DUP and SOLP which has been demonstrated in recent months.
The imperative of southern social legislation has allowed Sinn Fein to take up a courageous position in the north for which, like the Alliance Party which has taken a similar line, they will be rewarded.
They are able to present themselves as a modern, forward looking party in contrast to the rural conservatives and older urban religious conservatives who dominate their former nationalist rivals in the SDLP.
Whether Sinn Fein will be in a position to opt to form a coalition government in 2016 or whether they will agree to that is still a moot point but last weekend’s ard fheis showed beyond peradventure that the party is now a recognisably modern political presence on the national stage and has to be taken seriously as a contender for government.
The aim of the ard fheis was to send that message to the other parties in the south, especially Labour whom Gerry Adams challenged directly, but the spectacle must have been deeply demoralising for the SDLP.