The party has, by all accounts, a relatively bright future, yet it clings to the past like a comfort blanket. Nine seats were won in the recent election but the question of the leadership hung over the gathering. And Sinn Fein likes to portray itself as anti-establishment, yet the weekend could have been lifted straight out of a Fianna Fai of Fine Gael conference.
The Ard Fheis was designed to fall on the actual anniversary of the 1916 Rising.
Sinn Fein sees itself as the real flame carriers for the leaders of the Rising and spent a reported €500,000 this year on laying its claim. So it was that the members – numbering up to 2,500 – came together on this historic weekend as if they, themselves alone, represented the true spirit of the nation, as envisaged on that Easter Monday.
To be fair, they did not lay on the 1916 stuff too heavily in the convention centre. This may or may not be attributable to the party’s failure to gain an uplift from its ‘Join The Rising’ activities during the year so far.
Naturally, with an election looming in the north, much of the emphasis in the conference hall was on Northern matters. Much of the emphasis among the display stalls was also concerned with northern matters. These varied from northern universities to financial services and northern state agencies. There was even a stall advocating a change to the licencing laws in the north.
Up on the stage, the programme of motions was as safe as Richard Bruton’s seat. Martin McGuinness got a rousing reception. He had a cut at the failure of the minor political players in the north to do the best thing in the statelet’s interest, mentioning the “relentless negativity of the smaller parties”.
The irony was lost of his audience. The same charge is constantly levelled at the Shinners in the south.
Most speakers hauled the 1916 leaders from the grave, none as eloquently as MEP Matt Carthy. “This state is not the republic that was envisaged by the leaders of 1916. They said the nation consisted of all its parts, not just the twenty six counties,” he said.
According to Sinn Fein, had Pearse and Connolly lived a thirty two county Republic would have been a dead cert nearly a century ago.
Mary Lou McDonald is regarded as the great post-conflict hope for the party.
She received a rousing reception for her contribution from the stage, in which she referenced Fianna Fail’s volte face on water charges in the months before the recent election.
“Fianna Fail’s attempt at being Sinn Fein lite” had left the party “scarlet at the complement they gave us by borrowing our policies,” she said, in an astute observation that logically would also render Sinn Fein as Anti Austerity Alliance lite.
Pearse Doherty did come up with the killer line, referencing the political slogan, “it’s the economy, stupid,” adding that that should now be “It’s society, stupid.”
Another of the new batch of TDs to garner plaudits was Dublin’s Eoin O’Brion, a leading strategist and competent media performer.
One wag noted that within ten years, as Sinn Fein graduates to a fully-fledged establishment party, Eoin will morph into the new Pat Rabbitte, An encouraging difference with the other establishment parties was the age demographic at the centre.
Sinn Fein can claim to have greatest purchase on young members in politics, and many among the newer recruits are genuinely motivated to affect a different kind of politics than the status quo.
While that bodes well for the future, it is the past that the party wraps around itself. One of the most prominent books on sale at the large party shop stand was ‘How Ireland Starved’, an account of the famine, lest we forget.
The hunger strikers of 1981 were writ large around the centre, one display taking up a whole wall of the sizable third floor landing. A moving display of quilts knitted together the names of hundreds of victims of the Troubles, although notably missing were any who had their lives snuffed out by the IRA.
The selective remembrance of those who died by violence was also evident from the stage. Micheal MacDonnacha lashed out at the “shameful Glasnevin wall” where all who died in 1916 are remembered alphabetically.
And just in case anybody was under the impression that things have moved on, a few young contributors in the afternoon sessions, when the TV coverage was off, ended their speeches with “Tiocfaidh Ar La”.
When the day of Gerry Adams retirement will come was the unspoken matter permeating the air at the conference. He’s as popular as ever among the faithful, and according to himself will be around for a few years yet.
While that may have electoral consequences in the South, the alternative is a party without Gerry, which will require a lot of glue to maintain the various strands, from centre-left social policy to right wing nationalism.
For the moment, it’s as you were, with Mr Adams entering his thirty fourth year as party president. And why not, when he appears to all intents and purposes to be the personification of the real Sinn Fein.