MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Sinn Fein are on the rise, but what lies behind the closed doors?

Sinn Féin may well offer a genuine alternative to the establishment parties, but it would be reassuring to know the real story behind the closed doors, suggests Michael Clifford.

THERE was a racket coming from the function room of the hotel. It seeped out through the double doors into reception, reverberating in a loud, rhythmic thumping. Curiosity got the better of me. I crept towards the doors, pulled one open, and slipped into the room. 

The lights were low. Men and women of all ages were either seated at tables or standing around with glasses in hand, all focused on a performance on the dance floor. 

This consisted of two men beating big drums and another pair playing flutes. The sound belted through the room, loud, and aggressive. A large tricolour had been draped across the wall behind a little stage.

The atmosphere was tribal, the music evoking images of marching, conflict, sacrifice, resistance, the Project, the North.

The scene above is taken from last Saturday night, in the Springhill Court hotel in Kilkenny. The occasion was a get-together by the local branch of Sinn Féin. My brief glimpse behind the closed doors left a nagging feeling.

Nothing wrong with the faithful of a political party boozing to music. But this wasn’t a Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael cumann tuned into some Garth Brooks clone murdering a ballad or two. 

Neither was it a trendy branch of Labour luvvies swaying to a guitar picking songster who believes he’s channelling James Taylor. This was different. This was the soundtrack to tribalism. 

This was a reminder that despite all efforts to portray themselves otherwise, Sinn Féin is not just another political party presenting policies designed to better the lives of voters.

Right now, the party is on a roll. The latest MRBI opinion poll puts them on level pegging with Fine Gael. Barring a major upset later today, the party should take the seat in the Dublin South West by-election. 

If so, it will hold two seats in one constituency in this state for the first time in its current incarnation. Sinn Féin is tip-toeing towards power.

The electoral successes are not happening in a vacuum. As the smoke clears from the recession, many sections of society continue to feel marginalised, and even excluded. 

The political choices made ensured that those least equipped to bear the brunt of austerity were worst hit. Now things are getting better for some, while others labour under a hugely reduced standard of living, sometimes just surviving. Jobs are being created, which helps growth and the public finances, but little attention is being paid to the quality on offer. 

A report from Morgan Stanley last week showed Ireland proportionately employs more low paid workers than any country bar the USA.

There is hay to be made in such a vacuum, and Sinn Féin are proving damn apt with pitchforks in hand. While disaffection has been expressed at the polls, particularly with the election of independents, and small left wing groups, the Shinners can credibly claim they are the only viable alternative to the establishment parties.

They are highly organised. The members display a commitment their rivals view with envy. They have plenty of resources. Every new candidate running for election appears to be employed by the party.

Their ability to attract donations is amazing. For instance, the party’s declaration to the US Justice Department for the six months to last May was US$334,710. This is fantasy territory for other parties, but it also demonstrates how Sinn Féin has acquired all manner of friends. 

Socialism is a dirty word in the ultra capitalist USA, yet quite obviously many generous capitalists fall over themselves to throw money at a self-styled socialist party back in the old country.

Beyond all that, the big question is how would the party rule if it acquired power. Here, both policies and its people need to be put under the microscope. The party’s policies were on display on Wednesday with the publication of its pre-budget submission. 

Basically, Sinn Féin has sweetness and light for everybody except the rich. The rich are defined as those individual earning over €100,000 per annum, although notably, households with a combined income over that threshold need have nothing to fear. Things would get messy, and many voters might flee, if such inequity of treatment was addressed by the party.

Policy also got messy in the Dublin South West by-election. Prior to the campaign, Sinn Féin threatened to act sensibly over the issue of water charges. When interviewed on Morning Ireland on September 11, the party’s finance spokesman said that Sinn Féin would not have the water charges as a red line issue in negotiating any coalition to govern.

“We’re not going to start laying out a whole list of… you know that we’re not going in if there’s no wealth tax, we’re not going in if there’s no water charges,” he said. “It would be just nonsensical for a party a year and a half out from a general election to list out all these issues as preconditions.”

Then, as the Anti Austerity Alliance’s Paul Murphy began to make inroads in the by-election campaign, entirely on the water charges issue, the party changed its policy. 

Now it says that abolishing water charges is a pre-condition in any coalition. National policy has now been defined on the basis of a relatively remote threat from its left flank in a by-election that, let’s face it, is not vital to anything. Are they making it up on the hoof? 

Another insight is offered in the chamber of Dublin City Council. Sinn Féin is now the biggest party in the council, having increased its representation from five to 16 in May’s local elections. At meetings, however, the newly elected councillors are reported to vote only after getting the nod from the public gallery, where party stalwart and former IRA gunman, Nicky Kehoe, positions himself.

One local politician put it thus, half in jest, but fully in earnest. “It’s remote control politics,” he said. “They (the councillors) might go to the loo without Nicky’s say-so, but they certainly wouldn’t venture for a cup of coffee unless he gave the okay.”

Recently, when an unexpected vote was called in a meeting, all the Shinner councillors reportedly turned their heads in unison towards the public gallery to see what they should do.

The situation in Dublin City Council suggests an obsession with centralised power, but also raises a question about the quality of Sinn Féin representatives. At national level, Doherty, Mary Lou McDonald, Padraig MacLoughlinn and Peader Tobin are all competent performers. 

Gerry Adams carries a whiff of cordite that is apparently attractive in some quarters. But beyond that, bar a few backroom personnel, the party’s resource of intellectual and political acumen appears pretty thin.

It’s all about the brand. And right now, the brand is red hot. Fed up with the establishment? Here’s an alternative. Unhappy with life? We’ll fix it. Anything you don’t like? Consider it gone.

The growing disaffection with politics- as-usual in many quarters is entirely understandable. Sinn Féin may well offer a genuine alternative, but it would be reassuring to know the real story behind those closed doors.

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