Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams used his speech at Sinn Fein’s ard fheis at the weekend to launch a critique, not against the caretaker government, but against Fianna Fáil and Micheál Martin.
His party’s ambitions are to grow and be the largest in opposition, to take in the disillusioned voters who abandoned Labour and to wait in the long grass for a chance in government.
Fianna Fáil’s intention to prop up a Fine Gael minority government is Sinn Fein’s opportunity. Mr Adams told his audience at Dublin’s Convention Centre that Mr Martin would “prefer to put them [Fine Gael] back in government as part of his effort to counter the growth of Sinn Féin.”
This is of course a genuine fear of Fianna Fáil’s: That their adversary in opposition will now take full advantage of a deal struck with Enda Kenny and Fine Gael.
The centre in Dublin’s docklands, while only half full throughout most of the day, was a particularly contrasting location for Sinn Féin’s ard fheis compared to the surrounds of Derry last year. A more corporate setting, it would certainly reflect the party’s hopes of attracting more middle class voters. It was also a suitable location, close to the 1916 commemorations at the GPO on O’Connell Street.
Some members naturally are also more likely to be focused on the North’s assembly elections next month and did not travel down for the special conference marking 100 years since the Rising. It is also worth remembering that Sinn Féin had originally moved its conference to this weekend after it was forced to change its plans when the general election was announced.
Having boosted its TD numbers by two-thirds to 23, the party is now well equipped to attack Enda Kenny and his administration — if he manages to cobble together the proposed minority government.
Delegates also showed no signs of abandoning their loyalty to Mr Adams.
If Sinn Fein increases its support again in the assembly elections on May 5, the next long-term focus will be the local and European elections here. In contrast to other conferences for Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour, Sinn Féin has strong support among younger members.
Nonetheless, there are still difficulties for Sinn Féin in the years ahead.
Mr Adams faltered several times on financial issues during the election campaign. Furthermore, his republican past haunts him and he is rarely now not dragged into controversies arising in the North.
The 67-year-old has outlasted many leaders from other parties, but his time as president may be nearing an end. The leadership, likely to be contested in the years ahead, could fall to Mary Lou McDonald or Pearse Doherty and the party will require a new direction, fresh vision, and above all, unity.
Increasing its numbers even more may require Sinn Féin to move to the middle ground to win further votes. How and when it does this may be crucial. Arguably, the party may not tweak its tax, health or spending proposals to appeal to more middle-class voters, but its new TDs want to abandon the party’s dark past.
The party also stands accused of shouting from the sidelines as efforts continue to form a government. Never before have Sinn Fein leaders been so keen to see Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael join forces. And why?
Such a move would allow Mr Adams’s party to finally become the largest in opposition, a position which inevitably would see them enter government at some stage.
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