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Alison O'Connor on the Canvass: Is Sinn Fein right to compare itself to the Dublin footballers?

Alison O'Connor on the Canvass: Is Sinn Fein right to compare itself to the Dublin footballers?
Eoin O'Broin with Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald (centre) and deputy leader Michelle O'Neill (centre left), ahead of a press conference at Wynn's Hotel in Dublin today.

It’s no surprise to find a sporting analogy applied to politics. This particular example, though, is an interesting one. The Sinn Fein party being compared to the highly successful Dublin football team.

Much has been made in this election about secrecy within the ranks of the party; how it never washes it's dirty laundry in public coupled with the idea that party decisions are influenced by “shadowy” figures up North.

Sinn Fein TD Eoin O Broin, the party’s very impressive spokesman on housing, is more than up for having this discussion. He offers this comparison, having a bit of a chuckle as he does so.

“We are probably a bit like the Dublin football team under (former manager) Jim Gavin. One of the good things about a team like that - and I’m sure Jim Gavin would be horrified that I’m making the analogy - but you win All Ireland’s by playing as a team, by having a clear focus and a clear plan of work and what you don’t do is go running off and bitching about each other. That’s how I would explain it. The decision making processes in Fianna Fail and Fianna Gael are far less transparent. Narrower groups of people are involved in those decision and that’s a fact.”

Alison O'Connor on the Canvass: Is Sinn Fein right to compare itself to the Dublin footballers?

O Broin, one of the two Sinn Fein candidates in the Dublin Mid West constituency, does not accept this is still a very secretive party or one with “cult like” qualities. He has been critical of the party himself in the past.

“You know one of the things that bothers me is people saying you never get leaks from the Sinn Fein team meetings. I think it is an embarrassment that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael backbenchers will give off-the-record briefings and snipe at each other, or snipe at their party leader. If I have something to say about Mary Lou and her performance, or Pearse (Doherty) and his performance, I say it to them in party meetings. We thrash it out and we fix it.”

The conversation is being had following a canvass in Ronanstown on Thursday afternoon. This is a sophisticated operation. He works off the voters register with lists of houses including the names of those inside registered to vote. There are a number of headings along the top which he will tick after each house – Hard Support, Soft Support, Strong Opp, Unknown, Not in, Transfer. “This is the way we did things in Belfast, although the electorate in the south is more fickle”.

If there is a better canvas nerd out there than Eoin O Broin you’ll have to search hard to find him or her. The team is out from 1pm to 8pm, a seven hour stint with a half hour break Monday to Thursday, with a target of knocking on 1,000 doors daily. It’s slightly shorter at weekends but with a bigger team. On the day we meet there are seven out, including unusually, his party colleague Mark Ward. Mark was elected in the by election late last year and had only nine days in the Dail. While bigger parties tend to set candidates against each other, this is not the Sinn Fein approach. “It damages cohesiveness and if both are elected it is not good for the constituency afterwards.”

Eoin says they are “seriously fighting” to take two seats. This is a tall order, especially if the findings of the latest Business Post poll hold through. In this area of North Clondalkin he is asking people to give Mark the Number 1, following with a Number 2 for him. “It is better to have a scientific, established division of the vote.” In this particular estate, St Ronan’s, an old settled council estate, they previously had 50% of the vote.

There are a surprising number of people at home, mostly women. Frank Clancy is happy to chat. He says he does not like Fine Gael or Fianna Fail. He raises one of the hot topics of the campaign: pensions. Eoin tells him that if Sinn Fein was in Government they would reduce it to 65 years. Frank, clearly not thinking about a coalition situation, says he’d love that “but you’re not running enough candidates” for a government. He attended a hospital emergency department before Christmas and had to wait “14 hours to see someone and when I was leaving there were people who had arrived before me still there”.

A few houses on Paul Doyle snr has concerns about health and housing. He simply cannot understand why more social housing is not built.

I don’t see why things can’t go back to when I got this house in 1980 from the Council. We raised four boys here. If you gave me one million pounds to move I would say you can keep it.

Paul got stents two years ago in St James Hospital. “I couldn’t fault them. Its great once you get in, but not before that. It’s so awful to see people having to use these Go Fund me things to afford treatment for their kids.”

At another door a woman tells a sad story of her efforts to get treatment, education and assistance for her 10-year-old son who is on the severe end of the autism spectrum. Eoin said there is a waiting list of 18 months for these children. “We have the longest waiting list in the country.

We are joined by the second Sinn Fein constituency deputy Mark Ward. He lives in nearby Harelawn. At one house Mark is well known to the woman who answered the door – Jessica Ward – no relation. She works with Ronanstown Youth Service. They have just held a Voter Registration Day. Over 100 young people turned up. They were brought through the form filling process and then down to the Council to register. Jessica says her vote will be going to Mark.

Alison O'Connor on the Canvass: Is Sinn Fein right to compare itself to the Dublin footballers?

Returning to the issue of how Sinn Fein operates Eoin says that if the question is whether they are like Fianna Fail or Fine Gael then the answer is no. “When Micheal Martin says we are not a normal party that means we are not like him and not like his party. I’m kind of proud of the fact that we are not like that…. We can thrash out policy discussions on the floor of the ard fheis, but when we have agreed that democratically we all play with the team. That’s the only way a party likes ours could succeed.”

But what maintains that amazing level of discipline, even in times of acute crisis? “It is because we are conviction politicians. I think too many TDs in the larger parties are no longer that. I’m not saying they are bad people. I am not saying they don’t have ethics or political beliefs. But I’m not in this as a career. I’m genuinely not. I have a very strong commitment to a set of ideas. Sinn Fein is the vehicle I have chosen to try and advance those.”

The explanation begs the question of whether Sinn Fein attracts a particular type of personality, people good with discretion, with secrecy, with keeping quiet? “I don’t think so. Funny I don’t think of myself as secretive at all. I am a pretty open person.”

But what about how then deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald stood so resolutely by then leader Gerry Adams in the face of major controveries over the handling of sexual abuse allegations, including those of Mairia Cahill? People have “to judge that stuff for themselves”, he said.

Mary Lou “was trying to do the right thing”. Very serious allegations were being made, he explained, not just about Gerry Adams, but the party itself. People within the party who they had all known for a long time were caught up in it. However he does offer some context, not something usually offered by Sinn Fein. This does explains a lot, and has logic. But it still leaves open that question of how much influence those who are behind the scenes in the North still have over party policy.

“So those are very difficult issues. I think Mary Lou handled that situation well; having said that we came out of 30 years of conflict, none of that was normal, none of that was an environment in which things were done in which they happened in an open and democratic society. For people who haven’t lived through that, some of that stuff is hard to understand and hard to fathom,” said Eoin who lived in the North for over a decade and was elected as a councillor in North Belfast in 2001.

There are still problems but things have changed dramatically. “Some of the things that happened during the darkest days, they can’t happen again. If people like Gerry, and Mary Lou supporting Gerry, didn’t do what they did, we wouldn’t be in a much better place which is where we are today.”

Are certain people (this writer included) just too sceptical then? Is too much read into the revelations arising out of the cash-for-ash for controversy where a Sinn Fein Minister sought clearance from an unelected party member to sign off on a particular element of the heating scheme.

“First of all that influence isn’t there in the way that it is described. But I’d say two things: one of the really important things about the transition from conflict to conflict resolution is that former combatants were encouraged and rightly so to get involved in the political process. And then people complain that former IRA volunteers have senior political positions.”

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