Tja, aber dann gewöhnt man sich dran, und man sieht es ein

While we’re waiting for the formation of the next Free State government – and I retain my position that FF-Labour is the only stable alternative, although Rabbitte is retaining an admirable poker face – it’s worthwhile having a look back at a couple of the election outcomes, in the first place how the Provos fared. I would direct readers to the very intelligent remarks on this question by Wednesday and Chris, both of whom are closer to the action than myself. I’ll simply add in my two cents in the form of some more or less unstructured observations.

Firstly, I agree with Wednesday that the Dublin media have been spinning heavily against their whipping boys of the moment. A gain of 20,000 votes doesn’t look much like humiliation (Labour actually having dropped in absolute votes), and PSF simply had rotten luck that they didn’t pull in at least one seat in Donegal to counterbalance the loss of Seán Crowe in Tallaght. However, having been hyped up to expect massive gains – and my hands are in the air here too, I expected a much better performance – a rise of only half a percent and the loss of a seat feels like a bitter defeat. This is particularly so if you’ve been a party member for less than, oh, 15 years and have only experienced continuous advance. The post-mortem in the Phoblacht, with Gerry being wise after the event, and Gibney in the Irish News doing his Young Mr Grace routine, simply papers over the cracks.

Chris argues, and he’s onto something here, that there was a serious lack of policy in the South, and too much reliance on Northern figureheads and reflected glory from the peace process. I’d unpack that a little and say that there are a few elements contained in what Chris says. Firstly, as I’ve pointed out before, the Provos’ electoral success in the North is not contingent on their social and economic policies, but on them being the Catholic party. Even in the few areas where the South Down and Londonderry Party is still competitive, the main issue at contest is who is most effective at defending Catholic rights. Not so in the Free State, where a serious party actually needs to have some policies.

We’ve actually been here before, following the 1986 split. There was a spin from the Ard Chomhairle that, having ditched abstentionism and the doctrinaires who defended it, growth in the South would be automatic. In fact, the doctrinaires were more of a loss than you might expect. Not just in the sense that strong candidates like Joe O’Neill and Des Long were lost, not just in the loss of activists, but in a whole layer of cadre leaving who had some feel for Southern realities. This is a vast generalisation I know, but the Southern membership who stayed behind in ’86 tended to be deeply Northern-centric, and in fact Southern election campaigns for the next decade or so, except for a couple of areas like Dublin Central, were very much focused on the North. Not surprising, given a skeletal organisation, a lack of strong candidates and a near total reliance on Belfast for a political line, and not surprising that in ’87 the vote remained extremely low.

The growth in party membership in the South, and the emergence of some strong leading figures, counteracts that to some degree but it remains the truth, however we may dislike the fact, that the reality of the two states imposes different tasks. No all-Ireland political organisation has been able to avoid this – not the Sticks, not the Irps, not the Communist Party, even the British far-left franchises have been affected to some degree. Gerry’s disastrous performance in the leaders’ debate was just a symptom of this, and my view is that Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin would have put up a much stronger showing. Caoimhghín may be dull as batshit, but he does know his stuff when it comes to Southern politics, and could have offered something more substantial than abstract nouns.

So we come to the problem of identity, especially for those young people in Dublin who reckon an organisation called Sinn Féin ought to have some relation to, y’know, radical politics. This was never really resolved. You can’t be middle-class and working-class at the same time. You can’t be a radical, leftwing party of opposition and a centrist safe pair of hands. You can’t be anti-establishment and part of the establishment. Actually, I tell a lie. You can be all those things, but only if you’re Fianna Fáil, and there are no prizes for being the poor man’s Fianna Fáil. Just look at the history of Clann na Poblachta, and shudder.

The Provos’ self-image as a rising national movement has taken a hell of a knock. In the South, they remain a niche party. One notes their continuing failure to get transfers, which is how Pearse Doherty could poll nearly five-sixths of a quota and still miss out – four seats and five runners-up tells a story. But a failure to win transfers from establishment parties is one thing – the failure to win transfers from radical candidates in Dublin, as Wednesday points out, is possibly more serious. Aengus Ó Snodaigh’s close call was almost entirely due to the interventions of Bríd Smith and Joan Collins, and Aengus had trouble enough getting their preferences, despite him having leftwing credentials every bit as good as Joan or Bríd.

Dublin is worth looking at, because that’s where the vote actually went down. There is an idea doing the rounds in Belfast that the rural republican vote stayed firm while the urban socialist vote dropped, and the answer (as per our favourite tycoon Máirtín Ó Millionaire) is to be more business-friendly. This is a very bad idea, not least because it may correspond to Máirtín’s interests but doesn’t address the needs of the Cabra wretched of the earth. The PSF base in Dublin remains extremely working-class, and Dublin activists can testify that dropping the party’s progressive tax proposals went down like a lead balloon in those areas where the party’s greatest strength lies. Not to mention parachuting bland, middle-class Mary Lou into the most working-class constituency in the state, only to find that the inner-city macho men didn’t warm to her. Mary Lou may have been an ideal candidate for Dublin South, but only a Northerner could see her representing Central.

Chris remarks that the way out of this rut is by overcoming serious weaknesses in policy development. Maybe so, and it’ll be interesting to see if the Southern cadre can convince the Northern-dominated Ard Chomhairle of that. I’m rather more cynical than Chris about the possibility of a happy outcome, for reasons that will be obvious to regular readers of this blog. The question is: who do you want to be? Do you want to build a party of republican labour, or do you want to build a wishy-washy centrist Sinn Féin Nua? Answer the big question, and the detail isn’t such a challenge. For my part, my instinct would be to say, if people think you’re the bogeyman, you may as well be the bogeyman.

8 Comments

  1. Ed Hayes said,

    June 11, 2007 at 4:20 pm

    Cabra ain’t that wretched. But I get your point. A further point may be that the anti-drugs issue is no longer capable of moving people on the streets. It was for some years an SF entry into the poorest areas of Dublin. Also quite a few middle ranking Dublin SF’ers left over the last year because of political disagreements. More problematically there is some truth in the media reports about extra-curricular activities by the Dublin Brigade.

  2. ejh said,

    June 11, 2007 at 5:13 pm

    parachuting bland, middle-class Mary Lou into the most working-class constituency

    Still, Barbara Follett has manged to win elections in my home town of Stevenage for more than a decade now. Still, that’s first-past-the-post for you. Mind you, rather that than the corrupt party list system we have over here.

    (Stevenage eh? We produce nobody famous for millions of years – the estimable Gary Younge aside – and now we might end up having the world Formula One champion to our name. I only found this out the other day. I suppose I shall have to start watching the bloody races now.)

  3. WorldbyStorm said,

    June 11, 2007 at 8:36 pm

    Well worth catching, if you can the RTE radio show on Mary Lou McDonald, Patricia McKenna and Mary FitzPatrick, all candidates in Dublin Central. I was amazed at the rather middle class tones of MLM. Now that in itself is no problem. She is clearly a strong and articulate candidate, but… Dublin Central? As someone said to me, the problem is that because it has two very high profile TDs (albeit in different ways) in Ahern and Tony Gregory there is a belief it is a ‘celebrity’ constituency, hence McKenna and MLM giving it a go. But little could be further from the truth. It’s a very ordinary constituency which happens coincidentally to have two high profile TDs. A very significant distinction. That’s not to say MLM could never win here, if I were her I’d give it a go in five years (or failing that hand the candidature to Nicky Kehoe)…

  4. Andy Newman said,

    June 11, 2007 at 11:40 pm

    I am used to not understanding your exceusions into the gaelic tongue, so i disn’t notice this was german at first.

    “When You get used to it, you recognise it” ???

    Is that a quotation from someone?

  5. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 12, 2007 at 7:49 am

    It’s an old Zarah Leander tune from the 1930s, “Davon geht die Welt nicht unter”.

    As for Dublin Central… it’s a bit like running Mary Lou in the Lower Falls. Albeit that there the SF banner could get anyone elected. There is an exact parallel to this in FG parachuting McGuinness into Louth, where you have a very old-school FG organisation and quite an old-school FG vote. That didn’t work either.

    I think though it’s not so much the celebrity factor with MLM as the Ard Chomhairle wanting to get her elected and picking a constituency they thought was such a safe bet anyone could get in there. As opposed to say DNW where a candidate other than Dessie Ellis would have done significantly worse.

  6. Frank Little said,

    June 12, 2007 at 10:00 am

    I think Splintered’s analysis is spot on. The Northern based Adams leadership, with it’s Southern supporters like Mary Lou, developed an analysis of the Southern political situation that most Southern activists, TDs and candidates simply did not accept.

    The dropping of it’s economic proposals caused me to think very seriously about whether I should vote for them or not, which I did but more because the local candidate, Ó Snodaigh, is very left-wing. Might not have done the same in another constituency. A friend of mine, a former Sinn Féin member who remained sympathetic, didn’t vote at all out of frustration at the decision taken.

    The question here for Sinn Féin, and the wider left, is what happens now. Continuing to move to the centre, as Adams & Co would no doubt like to do as they’re not ideologically equipped to consaider the alternatives, is a route to political oblivion. The Southern Irish electorate has enough centrist parties. A move back to the left flies in the face of what Adams thinks the South needs, but if anything comes out of this election for Sinn Féin, hopefully it’s a realisation that what Gerry Adams knows about the South ain’t all that much.

    Interesting sidebar. I was at a function last night with a number of prominent Dublin Labour party officials and activists, one of whom was bemoaning the fact that no-one, including the Labour party, presented an alternative economic analysis in the election. At this, another comrades pointed out that the only ones to do so were Sinn Féin, and when the Northern leadership came in they were forced to drop it.

    Now the story was being told against Sinn Féin, in terms of ‘Northern domination’ of the party, but I thought it was interesting that Labour people saw Sinn Féin in the South presenting an alternative they were not.

  7. ejh said,

    June 12, 2007 at 11:31 am

    Although one could presumably make a slightly different point, to wit: why (if at all) would SF be more interested than anyone else in parking themselves in the available space on the left?

  8. June 16, 2007 at 1:45 pm

    I’m always fascinated/disgusted by the amount of times the Bust of Grizzly appears on each page of the SF (Stoop Further?) website. Generally, between the press conference photos, the adds for the books that feature his face on the cover, and the side-bar links to other pages with his face on them you can expect to see Grizzly’s mug about five times per page. Oh, and of course you can buy a mug with his mug, too.
    Odd, then, that you barely see his face at all in the new online AP/RN. And His Beard can only be seen four times on the opening page of the main SF website this week. The last two front covers of AP/RN feature all the key knitters EXCEPT our man.
    Keep the airbrush moist.


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