Is middle Ireland ready for Sinn Féin?

With a team of effective young TDs and disillusionment with the main parties growing, Sinn Féin has risen in the polls. But to have a chance of winning power it needs the support of middle Ireland. Michael Clifford wonders if voters will take a chance on them at the next election

MARY LOU MCDONALD was at it again, hitting the Government where it hurt, dancing like a butterfly, stinging like a bee.

It was leader’s questions in the Dáil. Her chosen subject was politicians’ pay. How, she asked Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, could he justify “runaway, extravagant” levels of pay at a time when the Government was imposing increasing hardship on the public?

She pointed out that Gilmore’s pay had doubled in the last year when he moved from opposition to Government. The swelled ranks of the unemployed “see their politicians, the political classes enjoying lavish salaries and perks of office”.

Gilmore earns more than six times the average industrial wage, and two of his special advisers pull in €168,000 and €155,000.

The Tánaiste attempted to bat away the criticism, but McDonald knew she had landed another blow. She knew the vast majority of those reading reports of the exchange would nod in agreement. Despite self-imposed cuts, senior ministers are still raking it in, and the laughable cap that was imposed on advisers’ pay has been broken at will by at least nine of the 15 cabinet members.

Sinn Féin, by contrast, imposes a different kind of cap on its parliamentary members. Each takes home the average industrial wage, with the remainder being surrendered, albeit to the party, rather than the State.

The Dáil exchange was the latest example of how a young coterie of Sinn Féin deputies is leading the opposition. Fianna Fáil has the largest share of seats on the opposition benches, 19 to the Shinners’ 14. But the Soldiers of Destiny are largely neutered.

They are led by a man who sat at the cabinet table through the bubble and bust. The economy, which dominates politics, is practically off-limits to Fianna Fáil rhetoric. How can they decry a government which is largely implementing the policies its predecessor formulated and drove?

Elsewhere, the United Left Alliance contingent manages the occasional chime with broad public opinion, but it doesn’t operate with the coherence an established political party can call on. Into this vacuum has stepped Sinn Féin. A consensus of opinion polls have put the party as the second most popular in the State, well behind Fine Gael.

The monthly April Red C/ poll puts Sinn Féin at 19%, behind Fine Gael’s 32% and two points ahead of Fianna Fáil. Over at Ipsos/MRBI for The Irish Times, the Shinners are up six points at 21%, just 12% behind Fine Gael, while Fianna Fáil and Labour came in at 14% and 13% respectively.

Adrian Kavanagh, a geography lecturer at Maynooth, has minutely extrapolated to seats those figures on a constituency basis on the blog In both polls he came up with figures which would more than double Sinn Féin’s compliment to 29 and 31 seats respectively. Crucially, in each case, the party could lead a left-wing government if Labour and a smattering of independents came on board.

That scenario is still a long way from ever being realised, but there is no doubt that Sinn Féin is on an inexorable rise. There are signs that the party is well on the way from psychologically transmogrifying from one of protest, to one of power. Sinn Féin is getting all dressed up and ready to go, but a much bigger question begs to be answered: Is middle Ireland ready for Sinn Féin?

Gary Murphy, professor of politics at DCU, doesn’t think so. “There is still a big resistance out there, we saw it in the presidential campaign (with Martin McGuinness),” Murphy says. “When push comes to shove, there was a reluctance to put number one after his name.

“It’s difficult to see how they are going to get the middle class vote. They did really well in the last election, but I can’t see them, for instance, getting votes in places like south Dublin.”

Maybe not, but Sinn Féin is having an excellent recession. Apart from the near tripling of its Dáil compliment, the significance of last year’s general election was in the quality of deputies that were elected.

Prior to the election, McDonald’s star had waned somewhat since she first came to prominence in the 2004 European election. Over the last year she has been to the fore in her role as public expenditure spokesperson. Pearse Doherty, the 34-year-old finance spokesman, has also shown himself to be capable of mixing it with the big finance guns in Fine Gael and Labour. Peader Tóibín, another new deputy, talks plenty of sense and Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, who also arrived in the Dáil in Feb 2011, is making an impact in media appearances.

The party’s referendum campaign director, Eoin Ó Broin, didn’t make it past the post in the last election, but there is an obvious effort to heighten his profile at every opportunity. Some see him as future leadership material.

Notably, the approach that Sinn Féin is using with Ó Broin is in sharp contrast to the fiefdom politics which has evolved among the main parties.

Neither is there any comparison between these young guns and those who carried the party standard over the last decade. Aengus Ó Snodaigh, Seán Crowe, and the slightly pompous Caoimhghin Ó Caoláin have faded to the background. Then, there are those who were men of war, but who find the going much tougher when the focus switches to fighting for an economic vision. After waging war, Martin Ferris and Gerry Adams did much to carve out peace, but their presence in the Dáil serves more as a reminder of bitter times than as vessels through which the future can be glimpsed.

What the new contingent — and others like Jonathan O’Brien — have brought to the table is clean hands and clear minds. They played no role in the killings, and their presence in the national parliament owes as much to their intellect as their capacity to slog through mundane constituency work.

The past, however, hasn’t gone away. Sinn Féin got a taste of this during the presidential campaign. Initially, McGuinness’s candidacy appeared a masterstroke.

With Sinn Féin on the rise, and the right man on the ticket, it seemed that the election could, at the very least, serve to boost the party further, if not actually put their man in the Aras in time for the 2016 celebrations.

“That presidential election gave them more problems than answers,” Murphy says. “I thought he made a serious mistake in denying his IRA involvement.”

Through the campaign, McGuinness repeatedly denied what the dogs in the street knew as Gospel — that he was one of the leading figures in the IRA right up until the mid-1990s at least. Yet the obvious lie, and the emergence of families who had been bereaved by IRA killings, brought his past into focus.

As his celebrity wattage brightened up the campaign, his polls hit 20% but when push came to the voting pencil scratch, he slipped to 13%.

“There are some old hang ups about the armed struggle,” says CIT economics lecturer Tom O’Connor. “It’s very like the old civil war politics. But people tend to vote on bread and butter issues rather than violence which ended in 1995.”

In O’Connor’s estimation, some repositories of the electorate are more amenable to this analysis than others. “The only real danger the party has is that sections of the middle class will never forgive Sinn Féin for the past. These bogeymen will be trotted out by the media at election time. Older and more well off people might be led by it.

“But among the young, from all social classes, they’re being attracted to Sinn Féin.”

He may have a point. There may also be some substance to the resentment in Sinn Féin circles that there is a media bias against the party. This, if accepted, would stem from the fact that most of those in influential positions in the media are middle aged and from a middle class background. This is the socio-economic demographic most likely to retain memories of bombed out carnage and TV pictures of parcelled dead bodies on country laneways.

What is beyond doubt is that the Shinners are making forays into middle Ireland, with a ballot box in one hand and comfortable policies in the other. “They are going to tailor their policies more and more,” says Killian Forde, a former party councillor and strategist who left in 2010.

“In the last 15 years there was a mismatch of strongly held opinions, I know this for a fact because I was involved in economic policy. Now, their policies are well tailored, they have much better staff who are highly educated and they know their stuff. They also take the edge off the older Sinn Féin people.”

A few examples of this tailoring were obvious in recent days. Last month, during a private members bill debate on legislating for abortion, McDonald declared that Sinn Féin “was not in favour of abortion on demand”.

For a party presenting itself as a radical left-wing entity, this was nearly incredulous. Not only was McDonald moving to the centre ground where the mainstream parties huddle on the abortion issue, she was using the language of the anti-abortion movement, which harbours plenty of votes.

The household charge affair showed similar shifts towards the centre. While other left-wing parties and independents advocated refusal to pay the charge, Sinn Féin’s official position was to decline any advice on such civil disobedience. It wouldn’t do for a party with a middle-term view towards power to advocate law breaking. Yet, in clothes borrowed from Fianna Fáil, individual deputies appeared to contradict party policy by declaring their own personal choice was not to pay.

These days the overriding policy matter, one which will ultimately determine the reach of Sinn Féin, is the economy.

Ahead of the 2011 general election, Tom O’Connor attempted to assemble all the left-wing parties to put forward a coherent alternative policy to the one being pursued by the mainstream. His efforts weren’t successful, but he was impressed by what Sinn Féin had to offer.

“The last two budget submissions they had were fully costed by the Department of Finance,” O’Connor says. “They’ve gone beyond the stage of not having economic policies in place. The big one is the wealth tax and there is strong evidence that you could raise €1bn per annum with that. They also argue for tightening up of public spending.”

And yet, the party has — like all others on the left — failed to provide a coherent alternative method of funding the country if not through the current arrangement.

Killian Forde says “the party is deeply conservative. Nothing will change that. They won’t end up like Fine Gael, but they will be similar to what Labour are like at the moment. They haven’t done anything radical in the North or on the councils down here.”

So, Sinn Féin may well find a way into the hearts and minds of middle Ireland, notwithstanding reservations in some quarters that there remains something of the night about the party. Will they achieve enough bums on seats to find a role in government?

O’Connor believes their future lies at or near the apex of a left-wing alliance. “On the basis of opinion polls, and if you add in the ULA and half the independents, the combined total would be 37%.

If Labour with 12% or 13% were pulled to the left, you would have a complete left/right divide for the first time in Irish politics. Even without Labour, 37% could lead to a hung Dáil situation.”

Gary Murphy doesn’t see things through the same lens. “Sinn Féin will plateau in the low twenties (in Dáil seats) in my estimation,” he says. “Then you have the problem of who would coalesce with them. Fine Gael wouldn’t and they are the only real, viable option.”

Either way, in a time of political and economic turmoil, hearts and minds are up for grabs. An increasing cohort of the electorate is shopping around for somebody to vote for. The last election saw the destruction of the Fianna Fáil vote.

If the economic turmoil continues, the next election will nearly definitely be particularly tough for Labour. In other European countries, there has been migration from the centre.

Sinn Féin gives good polarisation. Just ask the SDLP in the North. Whether or not middle Ireland, even in the height of austerity, is willing to flock to a standard some still see as tarnished will become clear in the coming years.

Far from having gone away, this party may be only just starting. Middle Ireland will determine how far they go.

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