Saturday, March 03, 2007


This column needs to summon every political cliché to its side this week. A week is a long time in politics… we have never had it so good… events, dear boy, events… all political careers end in failure… and all credit to the lad, we're over the moon and sick as a parrot.

And boy do we need them. Two years ago, this column was confidently predicting big gains for Sinn Féin. A year ago, this column was confidently predicting big gains for Sinn Fein. A week ago, this column was confidently predicting big gains for the Greens.

And the obvious corollary? This column is no longer predicting big gains for Sinn Fein.

And now the tricky bit. Explaining it. The easy thing to do would be to borrow the legendary phrase of the Independent former political editor Chris Glennon: "I was right at the time".

But unfortunately easy explanations won't pad out the 500 words or so still left in this column.

You need to borrow another hackneyed phrase - this time from the fickle world of fashion - to explain the phenomenon in the equally fickle world of politics.

Just as cobalt blue (so I'm reliably informed) is this year's black, so the Greens are this year's Sinn Fein, when it comes to being the potential darling of the voters.

Trevor Sargent delivered easily his worst leaders' address at the Ard Fheis last weekend, yet the same political correspondents who gave him 'nul points' for that performance also quickly nominated him as a contender for the politician of the year award.

In the past 12 months, Sargent has brought his party from just north of nowhere to just south of everywhere. The momentum for that upward thrust has come from within and also from without.

The Greens have learned the lesson that to get anywhere, you need to take a bite of a reality sandwich. It has been lucky that its six TDs have high profile, have been identified with tangible issues (it's fatal politically to wholly dwell on the abstract and all its abstractions). The party leadership has also made sure that it doesn't have its hands tied too tightly when it comes to coalition government.

For example, at its Ard Fheis last year, the party didn't adopt Niall O Brolcháin's proposal to make the banning of US military planes from Shannon a precondition of government. And Sargent has been correct in steering the party independently into the election, not getting involved in any accords or alliance, in Mullingar, Mullinahone or in Mulligans, Poolbeg Street or wherever. And he has also been clearer that Pat Rabbitte when reporters put 'what if' hypotheses and suppostions to him.

Outside the Greens, there has been a marked shifting of the ground in the past year. Uncertainty over fuel supplies; a series of scary reports on climate change and global warming; Al Gore's hugely influential documentary 'An Inconvenient Truth'. Yes there has been a dramatic change in the mood, in the zeitgeist. And the Greens will capture that zeitgeist despite the discovery by all the other parties of newfound green credentials.

And what about Sinn Fein. For the first two or three years after the 2002 election, the party seemed to be on an inexorable rise. It got 7% of the vote in the last election but by late 2004 its support had risen to a heady 12% or 13% in some opinion polls

This column has previously expressed its reservations about mid-term polls but it's the only slat tomhais we have. And there were elections too. Sinn Fein did very well in the European elections in 2004. Its southern star Mary Lou McDonald edged out the Greens' Patricia McKenna and Piaras Doherty in Donegal also achieved a massive showing.

The consensus - flouted in this column and elsewhere - was that they could double their seats.

What has changed? The Northern Bank raid and the McCartney murder had a huge corrective effect, as did the party's duplicity over the three eco tourists who were nabbed by Colombian authorities while looking for lesser spotted monkies in jungle that just happened to be in Farc-controlled territory.

Gerry Adams's box office appeal was such that in the south his poster drove the SF campaign down here in 2002, though he wasn't a candidate. He and the SF leadership have a lost a little of that mojo, that star quality since then.

Like Bertie, Adams remains a huge asset but like Bertie Ahern, his star has waned a little with longevity. What he has achieved - and will achieve in the next month- is momentous, and a huge credit to his vision and leadership. But it doesn't compel pencils down to SF on the ballot paper as quickly as it once did.

The five SF TDs in the Dail have been a disappointment overall, though, ironically, all have improved in the last year. They have also started to take constructive positions on issues - the domestic violence motion this week is a case in point - rather than eternally opposing every thing but having nothing to offer themselves.

There are lots of possible gains for SF. In Donegal. In North Dublin. In Wexford. But some of its own TDs are also vulnerable. They once talked about 10 SF TDs or more this year. Now it's closer to seven, maybe eight.

This is my Irish Examiner column from this morning


Anonymous said...

You are very wrong about Sinn Fein Harry. Look at their results in the Assembly elections. They have improved and have crushed the SDLP. Not so much as the DUP have done with the Ulster Unionists. I expect to see them do the same trick in the 26 counties.

Harry McGee said...

I think they can do very well in the South. The problem for them is that the constitutional issues or the national question don't have the same purchase in the south.

Sure SF have a constituency. Yes, it is growing. But it has a threshold. To get beyond that core republican vote (and to win anything more than 10 seats in the future) it will have to be seen to further embrace democracy, be seen to develop its own real (and costed) policies.