THE Sinn Féin ard fheis last weekend should act as a wake-up call to the two major parties in Government.
The “normalisation” project of Sinn Féin in a bid to seize power in the Republic of Ireland was in full flow under a confident Mary Lou McDonald and her core team of impressive front-bench spokespersons.
They had the air of a government party in waiting.
Absent, for the most part, was the tribal triumphalism of past conferences, but what was present in the Helix Theatre in Dublin was a real sense of confidence that taking power is no longer a pipe dream, but a genuine prospect.
Now consistently the most popular party in the State, as reflected in the opinion polls, Sinn Féin could not only enter government but legitimately expect to be the lead party in the next administration.
The transition of leadership from Gerry Adams to McDonald in 2018 marked a significant milestone for a party whose links with terrorism are irrefutable.
McDonald and the current crop of Sinn Féin frontbenchers, in the Dáil at least, are not scarred or weighed down by the baggage of the national struggle in the way that Adams, Martin McGuinness, Martin Ferris, and Dessie Ellis were and, as a result, they can appeal to a much wider cohort of the electorate.
Since 1997, when Cavan’s Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin entered the Dáil as Sinn Féin’s sole TD, the party has not yet been in a position of realistically threatening to break the duopoly of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, which has dominated for the past century.
However, that is changing.
The most recent Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll earlier this month put Sinn Féin at 32%, opening up a
10-point lead over nearest rival Fine Gael, the highest-ever rating for Sinn Féin in the series.
Delving into the underlying data behind the headline figures, the poll showed Sinn Féin is attracting strong support from younger voters and working-class communities.
Importantly, it is also making gains among older, higher-income, and higher-educated voters.
On the eve of the ard fheis last week, the party’s inner high council, or ard comhairle, proposed a motion that amounted to a significant
U-turn on its stance in relation to the use of the Special Criminal Court.
The non-jury criminal court has tried terrorism and serious
organised-crime cases. It was
previously used during the Troubles to prosecute members of the
Provisional IRA, with a significant number jailed.
Due to the nature of its powers, the legislation underpinning it — the Offences Against the State Act — must be reviewed annually by the Dáil and Seanad.
Year after year, citing concerns from civil liberty groups and other international watchdog bodies, Sinn Féin has vehemently opposed this legislation and has been the most vocal critic of the retention of the Special Criminal Court.
The party had called for the court to be abolished as far back as 2002, and in the 2016 election, pledged to “repeal the Offences Against the State Act”.
The motion was billed in advance by Sinn Féin as a “significant move by the party leadership”.
The motion, now passed, commits Sinn Féin in government to the option for non-jury courts where required “in exceptional circumstances where a normal jury process could not proceed due to fears of intimidation or interference.”
While it was an interesting move, it is just the latest this incarnation of Sinn Féin has taken, on the road to the centre ground of Irish politics from the fringes where it has languished for so long.
Cynically, it could be viewed that the party has eased its objections to the Special Criminal Court because its supporters and friends are no longer going before it and therefore it is not that significant a shift at all.
However, as the Tesco advert says, every little helps.
Parsing and analysing McDonald’s presidential address, cast in the theme of change, she presented herself as not only a viable taoiseach in waiting, but a willing one. This was a first.
Despite mealy-mouthed claims in 2016 and 2020 about wanting power, Sinn Féin on both occasions was not serious about it. Last weekend, it was patently different.
The party won five seats in 2002, just four in 2007, and 14 seats in 2011.
The 2016 General Election saw the party jump from 14 to 23 seats and then up to 37 seats last year.
The 2020 General Election defied conventional wisdom and caught everyone, including Sinn Féin, on the hop.
Just three weeks before that historic election, it was de-selecting candidates to consolidate what it thought were winnable seats. Scarred b