Sinn Féin’s ard fheis comes at a moment when support for the party is on the rise, as it leads the opposition to this week’s referendum.
Sunshine certainly brought out the smiles at the conference in Killarney at the weekend, but it remains unclear what exactly delegates expect of the party’s leadership as it attempts to ground itself in middle Ireland.
Gerry Adams and his TDs have led the no campaign to the EU fiscal compact treaty in the Dáil and on the doorsteps. Delegates expressed confidence in Mr Adams and said if there was a time for him step aside as party president, it would be up to the Louth TD to decide.
For many cumann members and delegates, the real focus of discussion was jobs and emigration. Whole communities are watching young people pack up and leave Irish shores. The party has strong support among working-class communities particularly stricken by unemployment.
Sonny Foran has been with the party’s north Kerry cumann for 35 years. This year saw the party host its biggest ard fheis yet in Munster, after years of the conference being held mainly in Dublin.
“I’m in construction and have been out of work for a number of years. People are very disappointed with the whole attitude of the present Government in creating jobs. It’s four or five years now since the bank collapse and there’s little happening for the young people having to leave this country and who are going to Australia and America.”
James Fitzpatrick from Drimnagh, Dublin, has been with the party since he was a boy but it’s his first ard fheis.
Like many, he is only now officially signing up with the party’s organisers to boost its electoral chances.
“The mood here is brilliant. Especially with all the young people speaking so well. The country hasn’t been run properly yet and the only ones who can do it are Sinn Féin.”
Helen Walsh from south Tipperary cumann said the party needed to focus on proposals to reform the health system and to create jobs. She says the old view of a Sinn Féin member as a balaclava-wearing official was gone.
“That’s well gone. If you want to go into politics, you’ve to lose everything else. I was around years ago with the balaclavas but now you’d hate it to come back. The majority would hate to go back to the old ways.”
John McNamara from Cobh, Co Cork has been involved for three years. The former army commandant heads the party’s constituency committee in Longford-Westmeath, opposing the closure of the Mullingar barracks and cuts to soldier numbers.
He believes there will be a dramatic shift in support for the party.
“In the next general election, Sinn Féin will get 41 TDs. It will not take much of a swing. There’s going to be significant gains in rural Ireland.
“The gains are coming from the Labour Party. But I personally would not like to see them go into government with Fianna Fáil. I prefer to see an alliance of like-minded parties. It has to all appeal to middle Ireland.”
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