Tuesday, 4 March 2008
Sinn Fein held their annual conference in Dublin last weekend. The venue reflects the party’s nominal all-Ireland status, although Fergus Finlay in the Irish Examiner argues that Sinn Fein are becoming increasingly redundant in the Republic of Ireland, whilst Alex Kane points out that the party's strategic failures have ensured that they are operating institutionally within the context of a stronger Union and a more robust Northern Ireland.
These analyses have merit. Fianna Fail is often cited as the precedent for violent republicanism developing to become a dominant political force, with the assumption being made that SF’s rise will continue along a similar path. However Ireland is a considerably different place, both north and south, from the island in which Fianna Fail affected that rise. It is possible that in the absence of the carrot of credible practical policies, rather than Sinn Fein’s violent past becoming less of a disincentive for voters, as the party’s previous misdeeds become yet more strikingly incongruous with current normality, voting for Sinn Fein will become associated with anachronism and regression.
This tendency is yet to manifest itself in Northern Ireland, where Sinn Fein is still benefiting from calling an end to open violence and a perception that their form of nationalism is fresher and more challenging to unionists than the SDLP’s brand. But slowly this perception is changing, as the party becomes associated with an ineffective and divisive carve-up of power in government. In the Republic of Ireland in contrast Sinn Fein is already viewed as an irrelevant anachronism representing an embarrassing past. The party’s ethos is grounded in a prescriptive nationalism which the Republic is moving rapidly beyond and a backward economic outlook which could not be more inimical to the southern state’s self-image as a modern, knowledge based economy.
Despite Gerry Adams attempts to rally the troops (no pun intended) to push for reunification of Ireland by 2016, the failure of SF in the Republic shows that partition is more firmly rooted than ever. Sinn Fein aspires to the status of an all-Ireland party, but it is itself graphically reflective of the partitionist reality. Indeed during the Dail elections, southern voters frequently complained that the northern leadership simply had little understanding of the Republic of Ireland’s political culture and complexities. In Fergus Finlay’s article he insists that most people in the south of Ireland see the north as a strikingly separate place and indeed he believes that the IRA played an intrinsic role in the partitioning of minds in the Republic’s establishment.
Meanwhile Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland are firmly entrenched in the apparatus of a state which their raison d’étre is still rhetorically to destroy. Surely the internal contradictions of Martin McGuinness administering this system within the United Kingdom, whilst still contending that he would if possible have “killed every single [British soldier] without any difficulty whatsoever”, will not prove endlessly soluble for a thinking nationalist electorate?
Whether Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland follows the downward trajectory which their southern efforts have assumed remains to be seen. I certainly foresee a decline in support when the party are next tested at the polls. More pertinently both these articles, from their divergent sources, arrive at the same incontrovertible conclusion. Sinn Fein’s unification project is doomed to failure and for the foreseeable future partition is as firmly grounded as it has been in 87 years of two separate Irish states.