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Sinn Fein Moderating?


It was a move likely to make many political observers scream "I told you so", the Indo reported on Friday the story (quite gloatingly unsurprisinigly), that Sinn Fein is to undergo some form of policy adjustment to bring it in from the cold. The launch of a series of internal discussion documents looks intended to bring Sinn Fein closer to the dominant policy consensus around Irish politics at the moment.

The move is argued by the indo to mark a major departure from the "socialist republic" long a major plank in the Sinn Fein platform. There are calls for corporation tax to rise from 12.5% to 17.5%. Yet the indo seems pretty certain that even that call can go by the wayside should the call to power prove too much.

It seems highly unlikely that any amount of wishing by the Indo will see Sinn Fein sit comfortably among the rest of the parties which congregate around the center ground here, however this move does signal some attempt by Sinn Fein to get down to the dirty business of winning seats now that the IRA question has been parked.

Mr McLaughlin said the five Nordic countries were among the 10 most competitive in the world, even though they had higher taxes and world class public services. "Ireland is 26th in the world league of competitiveness and this shows that it is possible to have an economy that has some higher taxes, better social protections and can still be among the most competitive in the world," he argued.

The document makes no mention of policies such as nationalising banks or dominant State control of economic activities and businesses. Instead, it says Sinn Fein should support the primary role of the State as a "regulator" and also the provider of social services.

The document urges support for developing a progressive business culture.

It seems patently clear from this that there is a solid move on to get the party in some sort of policy shape in time for the 2007 election down south. The question is how far some party activists will support a move toward the center ground. The talk above suggests that a model of Nordic social democracy may be the end-goal. An approach which makes peace with the market but secures social security. It was pointed out to me once, that the Nordic model works so well because of national contiguity within the borders, most Swedes dont mind sharing because it is swedes that gain. It was not an argument about racism simply that there was a greater national cohesion and sense of common identity.

Thus a policy shift in that direction would still fit quite snugly with Sinn Feins nationalist arguements and desires.

The indos own opinion writers seem to be sneeringly greeting this move as a piece of inevitable political progress.

The release of the first of three economic discussion documents yesterday reflects the emergence of a determinedly different kind of thinking. And so it might; the time to touch base with planet earth was overdue.

Well while the coming two documents dealing with Tax and Trade issues will probably tell more about the proposed change in thinking, since this all has to be voted on at conference yet, it is clear that the many political commentators who suggested that once the IRA were out of the way the Sinn Fein machine would gravitiate to the center to win elections seem correct.

Much of the coverage was on the drive time talk radio, with Hookie and Cooper covering it in some depth. The response from ISME and Shane Ross was to brand it all Marxist twaddle and focus on the call for a raising of Corporation Tax. I think that rubbishing this document as economically unworkable misses the broader picture of what is taking place.

To simply dismiss the document as unworkable and forget it ever happened loses sight of the fact that it represents a major departure in the Irish party system. Sinn Fein has spent the guts of 80 years, off and on, on the margins of the Irish party system and happily remained outside the tent pissing in. This move is a broader political statement of intent on their part to get down to the business of winning seats by engaging in some form of policy review and making their platform more coherent.

Dont get me wrong, I have reservations about their policies and doubt I would vote for them in 2007, but I am in a shriking group. The electability of Sinn Fein is theoretically boosted by the removal of the IRA and also the time left since the McCartney and Northern Bank debacles, yet their opinion poll ratings are unmoved. There are now two major ways for Sinn Fein to win votes, win over some center left votes, and mobilise dormant votes. The former they have been doing for the last couple of years, any local party hack of any affiliation will tell you that. The new policy document suggests that they are now beginning the long march to power with moves to change the party doctrine.

The impact this move could have on the shape of our party system need not be underestimated. Without an army and a set of center-left policies, a serious republican party could do more damage to the Fianna Fail big tent than any concerted effort by Fine Gael and Labour. While much still remains up in the air, and the ultiamte position of Sinn Fein yet to be known, Im pretty sure (between soundings from members and general reasoning) that a sustained move by Sinn Fein in a centrist direction will yield them a great deal of fresh and new support, the trick will be to keep hold of the people already travelling with the party.

There looks likely to be some room on the left in Irish politics at the next election as Labour is fighting tag-team with Fine Gael. With the dual appeal of left/Republican policies Sinn Fein promises to dominate the talk in the run up to the election since policy activity is likely to be high on their front. The change of image will only get them so far of course, there is a stubbornly high number of people unwilling to countenance their presence or participation in government.

My own feeling is that, while inevitable, the track to the centre for Sinn Fein is unlikely to be as easy or as well received as they hope. The reaction from business and political elites to amost every Sinn Fein move shows how far they have to go to be seen as a party of power. The elite reaction, however, belies the fact that the support for Sinn Fein is growing among the poorer voters who see a party willing to tackle local issues, irrespective of manner. There are votes to be found, and perhaps other forms of support from members of the Fianna Fail backbenches disillusioned with the party's attitude to local issues and thus their jobs. There are certainly the prospect of allegience changes and increased vote share. It might not be enough to turn into government.

In terms of the party though, some will not be pleased to shed the hard-core marxist rhetoric. While raising corporation tax is just what they would like to hear, it is undoubtedly close to 12.5% and surely some agreement could be reached. On Copper's Last Word, Mitchell McLaughin was shady about the party's intention on tax.

The changes heralded on Friday, could possibly be the start of Sinn Feins election campaign, first a change of image and then a more substantive wooing of swing voters, perhaps targetting those disillusioned with Labours deal with Fine Gael. It seems that the structure up until now of the party system is likely to change under and intense assault from Sinn Fein. The trio on top will all come under pressure in terms of seats and the balance of power may shift toward a determinedly plural distribution of votes. It all depends on how successful the party's move to the center ground is and how much they are able to move their appeal across classes and interests. Remaining on the fringes, in terms of policy, was never going to win votes, however it is until such time as they commit to policing up north, and moderate some of their other policies that the change will really begin to kick in. Right now that seems unlikely but a year is a long time without and army.


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  1. Blogger Simon | 10:16 p.m. |  

    I can see Sinn Fein lose votes this year. I think they have maxed out the republican vote. and then would be relinging on the great person on the ground vote. Which I don't think is that strong in most parts.

    There policies are seen by many as just plain electioneering. I think the Sinn Fein treat may be overestimated.

  2. Blogger wulfbeorn | 12:57 a.m. |  

    If Sinn Féin get into power, the chances of my emigrating will quadruple immediately!

  3. Blogger Cian | 10:55 a.m. |  

    Saint, perhaps but i think that the Sinn Fein strength is reawakening votes that have been dormant for years rather than competing for ones already in the system (i.e. 60%-70% turnout).
    In this way they stand to gain in almost every major urban area in the state where they have a team in place. This of course is not an ideological vote but they all count.
    In terms of republicanism, their hard-core vote has topped out but there are a number of moderate republicans in the FF and Labour ranks. I have heard of some FF local Councillors etc who might consider moving and SF are willing to target them.
    True the policies are electioneering but some people will see it as the signal they have been waiting for to get on the bandwagon.

    Wulfbeorn i reckon you have another election or two to go before that.

  4. Blogger James Campbell | 8:17 p.m. |  

    Excellent analysis. How do you see the SDLP coping with a move by SF to the center. Have they the capability or desire to move center-right.

  5. Anonymous Anonymous | 11:36 p.m. |  

    I think you have it all wrong.

    SF have peaked and are no longer the center of attention. People are starting to get tired of this pretend anti establishment part and their "elite" leadrship cadre.

    I for one will not be voting for SF/MI5

  6. Blogger Cian | 11:42 p.m. |  

    I wonder what shape the SDLP must take in order to provide a coherent policy platform while catering for its core vote.
    In terms of *can* they, as a party that grew around the principle of civil rights and equality in society, there is a large scope in left-right terms for where they may eventually reside in the policy spectrum.
    Also there has never been a rule that all republicans, or nationalists, need be lefty types. Simple conviction to the prinicples of civil rights can withstand a shift toward center right while withstanding the more racist elements of the right.
    As competition to Sinn Fein the SDLP will need to redefine the principle of nationalism on its own terms, but with the departure of the IRA it needs to plant such a vision within a broader narrative, a more open and progressive narrative, for the north. A nationalism which is not exclusive and can offer economic prosperity and progress to voters.
    The success of the SDLP is predicated on a stable security environment.
    The SDLP thus far has seemed unsure of where to move while SF came right for them.
    *any northern analysis i do should be taken with a grain of salt, im only an ignorant southerner* ; )

  7. Blogger Cian | 11:53 p.m. |  

    Fair point, I think that Sinn Fein have an enormous capacity to keep momentum on the ground going over and above what we read, but certainly if you wont be voting for them, then perhaps I am wrong.
    It seems that there was always going to be a need to move toward the center for them to gain power and in doing so appeal to a new set of voters, there is space in terms of left-right and votes in terms of turnout/disillusioned left voters perhaps and other republicans.
    Who shall you vote for instead if you dont mind my asking?

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