'Nice To Be Back On The Winning Side'

'Sinn Fein are turning out the vote with almost military precision' commentators warned in the run up to Michelle Gildernew's victory in Bobby Sands old seat of Fermanagh and south Tyrone. What do you mean 'almost'? A. Shaw reports.

One of the factors that makes SF so electorally compelling is the knowledge that so many of those of formidable military reputations; 'players' in Brit-speak, are being firmly integrated within the political structures. People like Gerry Hanratty, 'Flash' McVeigh, Gerry McGeough are visibly all putting their shoulders to the wheel.

In north Belfast, it was Bic MacFarlane (OC in the Kesh during the hunger strikes) who along with Gerry Kelly had led the breakout from the Maze in 1983, who in the recent general election helped Kelly, now SF candidate, add another 25% to his total from 1997. In the 26 Counties, McGeough was coordinator of the successful No vote to the Nice treaty. While in Derry, the current mayor, SF's Cathal Crumley, actually served fourteen years for bombing the - town hall!

The thinking behind the transference was explained by Martina Anderson, in an article in Republican News last month, Anderson, who herself served thirteen years wrote: "those who tell us about being more of 'a military man' have become mere spectators during one of the most important periods in our struggle. I can tell you that the burden of responsibility on the majority of us who are actively pursuing this phase is much greater than the risks I took that ended me up in prison."

But what does tactical transition from guerrilla fighter to community rep mean in practical terms?

Well in the first place, for anyone who knows of the demeanour of politicians in the south of Ireland, the contrast with individuals who exude charisma, dynamism and more than anything, incorruptibility, could hardly find a greater contrast with the venality which motivates and permeates all aspects of government thinking in the 26 Counties.

The upshot, as bitter Republican foe Ruth 'Deadly Dudley' Edwards concedes, is that in the eyes of the voters, "Sinn Fein is cool; Sinn Fein is sexy; Sinn Fein is energetic, Sinn Fein is the future." Of course, she also adds that the Shinners are "fascist", thus attempting to convey the notion that the enterprise is driven by a ultra-nationalistic messianic zeal. It is true that SF are a nationalist party, and the only all-Ireland party, which lends its ambition to forge a 32 county Ireland a certain logic. However the real secret to Sinn Fein success - is that there is no secret. What to ambition, vision, and dedication, they have added are the two other prerequisites to success in the field of radical change; hard work, backed up by numbers.

Take North Belfast for instance. In that area alone in addition to Assembly member Gerry Kelly, SF have four councillors, run four advice centres, have eight cumann (branches) and hundreds of committed activists who work all year round. In Newry/Armagh the area is serviced by no less than 19 cumann.

In providing this constituency service in terms of advice and advocacy work, the party is perfectly placed to build up its political intelligence profile on the constituency for electoral purposes. In addition to the standard donation from the salaries of Assembly members Conor Murphy and PatMcnamee, which was used to set up offices in Camlough and Armagh, the party from it's own resources, has opened new offices in Keady, Crossmaglen and Newry. The SDLP by contrast have a full-time office in Newry (donated by a local businessman) and a part-time office recently opened in Armagh.

Whereas during the recent election the SF team did three canvasses of the area, the SDLP had little in terms of campaign workers and were forced to hire a PR firm from the south to put up posters and deliver election material. Sinn Fein on the other hand had "hundreds" of cars to go out and lift Sinn Fein votes on the day itself. In the final few hours a fleet of 'Sinnfeinmobiles' would have scoured designated areas "knocking on doors" as one put it "like demented Mormons". 'To get the Brits out you have to get the vote out'.

Newry/Armagh is, remember, the seat of senior SDLP member and deputy to the first Minister, Seamus Mallon. The result? Mallon: 20,784; Conor Murphy, described as 'little known': 17,209. "That struggle was perhaps" as one reporter put it" the SDLP's nadir - worse even than Brid Rogers defeat." Why? They kept the seat didn't they? Yes, but for how long? For what is noticeably happening now is that as well as attracting new voters and previously non-voters, SF is also noticeably eating, for the first time, into the core SDLP support. Mallons' vote was down by almost 6% while Sinn Feins' was up nearly 10%. With less than 7% now separating the parties, what odds SF taking it next time round? Conor Murphy, lest you assume otherwise, is another former 'military man', who spent almost a decade in prison for the cause.

With the dust settled, not only had SF edged past the SDLP to become the largest nationalist party but with 21.7% of the North's vote Sinn Fein is now within five points of overtaking the UUP as the largest political party in the Six counties.

In some ways the SF role in the Nice referendum is even more significant. There, SF and allies, faced a united front of all the major political parties and - won. In political terms the 'constituencies where Nice was most roundly rejected were almost without exception those where the Sinn Fein analysis, delivered by an indefatigable team of local activists, has been attracting votes for years.' One such area was Kerry North 60.6% 'NOs'. It is here, alleged IRA Army Council stalwart Martin Ferris is expected to take a seat next time. The highest no vote was Dublin South- West where a Republican TD now seems but a matter of time.

In other arenas too, the Republicans have boxed in their opponents. Unionism at one time thought it could exploit decomissioning to exclude Sinn Fein. Then when in chagrin it collapsed the Assembly it served only to confirm the republican argument that 'Northern Ireland' is an untenable entity. In nationalist eyes, far from undermining support for Sinn Fein, this reality merely damaged the credibility of UUP partners, the moderate SDLP. As Malachai O'Doherty puts it: "The broad unionist plan now, to bring down the Executive for want of decomissioning can only bring closer the day when unionists have only Sinn Fein to barter with. While there is an Assembly there is at least a forum, in which the SDLP is still the larger nationalist party. The possibility of them being overtaken by Republicans there was not considered conceivable before 2003. It has already happened, and unionists are pursuing a strategy which could force an election to the Assembly in the autumn, in which Peter Robinson [DUP] may be elected First Minister with Gerry Adams as his deputy." Bad enough from their point of view, having a former IRA Belfast commander as deputy, but as O'Doherty points out "if unionism is fragmented, Adams may be First Minister"!

Currently the UUP have six MP's, Paisley's hardline DUP five, with SF on four. Typically, British commentators have tended to cast the growth of the DUP and SF as a sign of a growing polarisation within the Six Counties, but doing so, only by ignoring the fact that while the DUP are foam-flecked anti-Good Friday Agreement die-hards, SF is it's most sincerely committed advocate. Hardly surprising when the peace strategy, is in all its essential detail a republican construct.

Which is why when a reporter for Radio Five Live asked Adams if he was worried by the surge in support for the DUP, and the problems he might have in dealing with them, he just laughed: "I'm not worried. It's Tony Blair that will have to deal with them." Seeing the reporters confusion he added "These people want to ban line-dancing! - It's Tony Blair who should be worried."

An undeniably dynamic party, SF is also a progressive party. The avowed goal remains a 32 County Socialist Republic. More than anything it is from top to bottom a - working class party. An all round combination which makes it a 'sexy' party. It is also deemed 'cool' in a Europe ,where such soubriquets are generally associated with the likes of Haider, Fini and the far-right.

Writing in The Sunday Telegraph on July 1, even an obsessive adversary like journalist Kevin Myers, is forced, through gritted teeth admittedly, to recognise that "Sinn Fein-IRA is intellectually superior to most of their political opponents" and so for them "the peace process is a mere tactic within a strategy which has prepared for all possible contingencies." So while on one level, SF eclipse of the SDLP represents a strategic electoral victory; a fitting tribute to the military men and their flying machine, in the context of the times and of Europe, it is a working class victory. And for that alone, it is a victory in which we can all share.

While in no way denying, that like military strategies, electoral strategies can exact a high political price, for now at least, it's just nice to be back on the winning side.

Reproduced from RA Bulletin Volume 4, Issue 12, July/Aug '01