Explain the reasons behind the Rise of Sinn Fein

Sinn Fein emerged in the early 20th century in opposition to Home Rule, their separatist stance evident from their name: Sinn Fein means ‘ourselves alone.’ They made their first foray into politics after the Easter Rising of 1916. In the 1980s Sinn Fein realised that their voice could be heard politically in Northern Ireland and Gerry Adams was first elected in 1983.

The party has definitely done well from entering into the GFA and has become accepted as the mainstream voice of nationalism. They have gained support from areas they would never have claimed previously. Middle class Catholic families now view the party as a legitimate choice, following their rejection of violence, decommissioning and distancing themselves from the IRA. Their assembly performance and professionalism has also been commended and this has given them more legitimacy to govern. Their decision to ‘work with unionism’ has also proved popular and they have managed to maintain and even grow their vote.

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Decommissioning is a particular issue that has gained them more votes. Once they agreed to the GFA, decommissioning became inevitable. This was an area of contention between SF and the DUP, because the DUP insisted on no ‘government before guns.’ The result was that Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams was walking a tightrope between appeasing the unionists and hardliners within the IRA ranks. Sinn Fein played the politics of negotiation to great effect, demanding that it would control decommissioning and not the British government or the unionist parties. Eventually decommissioning occurred, but it was not until 2005 that everything was fully destroyed.

Since 1994 the positions of the SDLP and Sinn Fein have been largely reversed. In 1994 the SDLP was still the dominant nationalist party in terms of its share of the Nationalist vote and representation. Sinn Fein was in the middle of its strategic shift into constitutional politics. Over the next decade Sinn Fein was to take over as the leading Nationalist party, in terms of Assembly, Westminster and local government representation. In 2003 they became the leading Nationalist party and have continued to rise. Currently Sinn Fein has 28 MLAs, 4 MPs and 4 MEPs.

The decline of the SDLP has translated into votes for Sinn Fein. SDLP weakness, lack-lustre leadership and policy muddling will only make SF even stronger. The SDLP has been the net loser to SF from the Good Friday agreement which it ironically was the architect. The SDLP suffered for many reasons: 1998 saw it meeting many of its long term policies, leaving it fighting for relevance for a while. The retirement of John Hume – a man of towering stature was a severe blow. The party went through a series of leaders trying to reclaim their touch. The party was also not as radical as Sinn Fein. Young people viewed them as too middle aged; too male and too moderate. SF were becoming the voice of modern nationalism.

Furthermore, unlike the unionists the nationalist vote has remained glued to Sinn Fein and the SDLP, with votes simply being transferred within the ‘nationalist block’ to SF. They have avoided the shredding of the vote which unionist parties have witnessed. The dominance of the UUP has been destroyed since the GFA. The DUP has become very strong but Unionism faces weakness from a shredding of their vote between parties Unionist parties include the UUP; DUP; PUP; UKIP; TUV NI21 and independents Seats like North Belfast; Mid Ulster and Fermanagh fall to SF votes due to the shredding of the vote leading to pacts in unionism.

Another factor that led to the rise of Sinn Fein is the benefits to Sinn Fein of being an all-Ireland party. SF are unique in having an ALL IRELAND AGENDA. This approach attracts many Nationalists. They are only party to stand North and South of the border. Gerry Adams has left West Belfast seat to become TD for Louth and Martin McGuinness has tried and failed to become Irish President. However, his campaign boosted the party’s image in the Republic. SF have 14 TDs currently and many commentators have noted that they could potentially be a ‘King maker’ in the next election in the South – holding the balance of power – deciding who becomes the government. The terrible economic slowdown in the Republic with its repossessions, house price crashes; unemployment, taxes and austerity measures have seen SF boosted as many people shy away from the excesses of the main stream parties, whom they blame for the Credit crunch being so deep.

Sinn Fein also benefits from skilful leadership from both Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness. One of the most successful things about this has been their remarkable electoral strategy. Sinn Fein knows how to use the proportional representation system to its full effect. Within a constituency they will tell voters how to use their first and second preferences on a street by street basis. This ensures that votes are not wasted.

Sinn Fein have also benefitted from effective lobbying in the US. The American supporters of Sinn Fein are called Friends of Sinn Fein USA. Every year, American supporters of Sinn Féin gather at the Sheraton Hotel New York Times Square Hotel in Manhattan for a lavish dinner. The New York dinner was, and is, the biggest money-spinner of the fundraising calendar for an organisation that has raised $12 million (€10.8 million) since it was established in 1995 in the early days of the peace process.

Problems they face

SCANDAL AND LEADERSHIP: Sinn Fein faces the awkward question about whether it has the ability to shake off the murky past. The arrest of Gerry Adams in relation to the disappearance and murder of Jean McConville, a mother of 10 in 1972, brought key questions back to the fore (despite his subsequent release.) Allegations of rape and cover up within the IRA made by Mairia Cahill, have also caused huge rumblings north and south. Is the past going to bring down the whole NI Assembly? Is Adams the right person to lead or is he becoming an electoral liability? Is it time to pass on the presidency of Sinn Fein? Gerry Adams – who previously was a strong vote spinner for the party has become a liability in many areas.

He has been implicated in knowledge about the ‘disappeared in the 1970’s’ His brother Liam’s conviction for child abuse and Gerry Adams alleged knowledge of this have also came across negatively in the press. Adams also made ill judged comments in November 2014, calling [unionist] opponents ‘b______s’ and suggesting that the Republican movement was using the issue of equality ‘to break’ them. This has continued to raise questions over his political future.

NORTH SOUTH CONTRADICTION – DIVIDED POLICIES? Sinn Fein have tried to capitalize on the economic mess in the Republic of Ireland – mostly successfully. Remember, disenchanted voters tend to flock to alternative parties- sometimes as a protest vote. This should be the chance for SF to shine. However they have made a relatively small splash with only a few seats (14) gained. They opposed the recent European Treaty referendum unsuccessfully. Their recent opposition to water charges in the south remains popular and public anger at continued austerity could still work in their favour. Many see their impact in the Republic as being potentially huge. Some suggest they may be ‘kingmaker’ in the next elections – holding the balance of power.

HOWEVER, there is clear issues between their Northern and Southern strategy. While they are clearly anti austerity in the South, in the north they are part of an ‘austerity government’ They have to make cuts and difficult decisions because they are governing to the economic realities without the luxury of being in opposition. This contradiction has caused them problems. It may be the cause of the latest U turn on support for the welfare reform act.

SOUTHERN RESERVATIONS: SF also boldly entered the race to be President of Ireland with Martin McGuinness running. They did achieve a sizeable vote but were outrun comfortably by Michael D Higgins. This result showed that voters in the Republic are still wary of SF. They tend to still view them as a narrow Northern Republican party with a murky past.

A DISTANT UNITED IRELAND? A recent poll suggests that the Good Friday Agreement, far from encouraging a United Ireland has actually had the opposite effect. Many Catholics in the North are happy with the peaceful status quo which has been reached at Stormont. Does this threaten Sinn Fein’s all Ireland Strategy.

SF-DUP DIVISIONS: While the working relationship with Ian Paisley and the DUP seemed to be surprisingly good, the same could not be said for Peter Robinson and the DUP. There have been open and sometimes bitter squabbles, which show the true face of mandatory government. Divisions seem as deep as ever at times. The failure to push through the Welfare Reform Act has been highly divisive and cause derision in the DUP leadership who accused SF of electioneering so close to the election. There seemed to be little prior consultation on the issue. Gregory Campbell’s comments on the Irish language have also caused annoyance in SF circles with many blaming Robinson for not doing more to discipline him.

This also led to the awkward recordings of Gerry Adams and Michelle Gildernew calling unionists a number of names beginning with b! This perhaps shows more clearly the deep divisions underlying the public face. Finally the current culture wars also highlight deep policy differences. The DUP support for a conscience clause in the face of the Ashers ‘gay cake’ debate goes against the SF equality agenda. Whether stable government could take place after the next election remains unclear with such deep divisions.

SDLP revival: This is especially so now that they have entered opposition with the UUP against Sinn Fein and DUP. It remains to be seen how effective this will be, but it will present the SDLP as a real alternative to Sinn Fein. It opens up a popular and needed cross-community opposition in the Assembly and is a sign of political maturity.

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