Sinn Féin is calling for a poll on Irish unity but opponents claim there is no appetite for such radical reform. The Detail’s Steven McCaffery reports on how the move fits into Sinn Féin’s wider ambitions to build its party and develop a new phase in the peace process.
IRELAND’S historic parliament building is a landmark sight in the centre of Dublin – but less well known is the modern office complex attached to the famous facade.
The extension is home to large numbers of TDs and is officially called `Leinster House 2000’, but to the people who work there it is simply known as LH2.
The General Election of February 2011 saw the building’s top floor filled by a new crop of Sinn Féin TDs, led by party president Gerry Adams.
After decades on the margins, Sinn Féin is now in government in Northern Ireland, and has finally found a foothold in the Dáil’s political life.
“There is a bit of flow in politics at the moment,” says Mr Adams.
“We’re in a transition across the island – in the north because of the peace process, and here because of the economic situation and the government’s handling of it.
“We’re trying to build right across the island and we’re trying to create depth and a rootedness in communities and that’s the big challenge.”
Looking to its fortunes in the south, he says: “The party is growing and growing substantially…I am not mesmerised by opinion polls.
“But I think those who do watch them in the party are buoyed up because there has been a consistency – it hasn’t been a big spike, it’s been a general [upward] trend and that’s to the good.
“The big challenge is to convert the professed willingness of a section of the electorate to vote for us, to convert that into actual votes in the course of an election.”
But Sinn Féin knows from bitter experience that the task can be a very difficult one, as was starkly illustrated by a series of elections that saw its fortunes rise and fall.
BOOM AND BUST POLITICS
Two dramatic political stories unfolded on the island of Ireland in 2007 – one represented a major step forward for Sinn Féin ambitions, the other a massive step back.
In Northern Ireland TV viewers tuning in to the news on March 26 watched in disbelief at the sight of Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley sitting next to each for their first joint press conference.
For a community fatigued by so many `historic’ moments in the long-running peace process, the sight of the old foes sitting elbow-to-elbow nevertheless had the capacity to shock.
With elections securing a strengthened mandate for their parties, their meeting sealed a power-sharing deal that saw the DUP leader and veteran republican Martin McGuinness become politically joined at the hip.
But the attention of Sinn Féin quickly shifted south of the Irish border where a General Election in late May offered an opportunity for further political gains.
As Gerry Adams and other Sinn Féin leaders canvassed voters in Dublin, press photographers caught an image of pigeons taking flight in front of the oncoming republican troupe.
The picture was captioned “lift-off?”, but the mood of expectancy surrounding the party was brought crashing to earth.
In the face of a swing to Fianna Fáil, which secured a third term in government for Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, Sinn Féin found itself among the political casualties.
Its tally of Dáil seats went down instead of up. The toe-hold of five TDs slipped to four, and candidates it hoped could establish a new era for the party failed to get elected.
It was a hammer blow to Sinn Féin – all the political capital it had garnered from the Peace Process and the demise of the IRA had counted for nothing in the electoral arena where it hungered for success.
Gerry Adams says his party was “squeezed out” after the electoral battle came to focus on larger parties. Sinn Féin was forced to embark on a period of reflection.
“What we basically did was try and prepare the ground to ensure that that never happened again.”
He says a series of internal party reforms flowed from this, including the creation of new structures to coordinate party operations north and south.
There was a more concerted effort to build across the Republic, with membership opened-up to individuals, who previously would have had to join a party cumann or branch.
By 2008 the leadership was trying to push its way back into the south’s political scene, campaigning for a No vote in the first Lisbon Treaty referendum.
Sinn Féin’s rebuilding came against the background of the most important development of the period – the dire downturn in the Republic’s economy.
The death of the Celtic Tiger plunged the south into an era of economic turmoil and alternative political voices suddenly found a more receptive audience.
In November 2010 Gerry Adams made the shock announcement of his intention to stand in the border constituency of Louth – the man synonymous with west Belfast was seeking to decamp to the Dáil.
He claims the prospect of him moving south was discussed among senior party colleagues “for maybe as long as ten or 15 years”.
“After 2007 a number of senior people went off and for the first time looked at the possibility of me standing in a more formal, systematic way.”
He arrived as the party had succeeded in raising the prominence of some of its new faces.
When the polls closed in the February 2011 General Election Sinn Féin had dramatically improved on its previous tally, securing the election of 14 TDs and later seeing three representatives elected to the parliament’s second house, the Seanad.
As TV viewers in Northern Ireland struggled to get used to the sight of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness working, and even laughing together in government, the footage beamed from Leinster House would include the equally incongruous image of Gerry Adams challenging the new Taoiseach Enda Kenny in the Dáil.
Across this period, major political events were unfolding on both sides of the border.
In Northern Ireland Ian Paisley had left the stage to be succeeded by Peter Robinson, while Stormont later became embroiled in top level talks that saw the devolution of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast.
The Republic’s economy was a major international story and the fallout from the financial crisis fuelled mass unemployment and emigration as the new Fine Gael/Labour government tried to bring the crisis under control.
With the ranks of Fianna Fáil depleted by an angry electorate that punished it for the economic crash, Sinn Féin took on a prominent opposition role in the Dáil.
The party also showed its ability to surprise opponents.
MARTIN MCGUINNESS FOR PRESIDENT?
No one saw it coming.
Sinn Féin’s decision to hurl Martin McGuinness into the race for the Irish presidency in September 2011 – only months after its breakthrough General Election – stunned observers and political opponents.
At one stage, even Martin McGuinness was surprised.
“I was approached and I was told that the consensus was that we should contest the election…I was in favour… but there was also a consensus that I should be the candidate.
“I have to say, that came as a bit of a surprise to me. It was something I had to think about.
“I didn’t say yes right away. I was maybe in three minds about it, never mind two.”
He says he considered the plan for over two weeks, before making his final decision during a US trip with DUP leader and Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson.
Photographs for his election literature were taken while he was still in the US and news of his decision became public as he was preparing to fly home.
In the arrivals lounge of Belfast International Airport reporters met him off the plane and he faced the first of many questions, including on his IRA past.
His candidacy ignited what threatened to be a dull campaign.
The election that unfolded became one of the most controversial, and at times bizarre, ever witnessed in Irish politics.
The Derry republican stepped-down temporarily as Stormont deputy First Minister, and while he embarked on the electoral contest as an independent, he was clearly Sinn Féin’s man in the race.
Campaigning as `The People’s President’, he pressed Sinn Féin’s political message against austere government cuts.
A series of large scale campaign rallies were held across Ireland, north and south, with speakers drawn from the local community to detail the impact of government cuts in areas such as health, while other contributors praised the benefits of the peace process.
But Mr McGuinness’s media appearances became dominated by challenges over his IRA history – and his denial of involvement after the mid-1970s was ridiculed.
His campaign was rocked when he was challenged in front of the cameras by a victim of IRA violence, with David Kelly clutching a picture of his murdered father, an Irish soldier whose killers were never caught.
Other candidates saw their private lives and business deals pored over by the press and the field of seven candidates was whittled down to two contenders.
Labour’s Michael D Higgins was the veteran of the field and his quiet, low-key campaign kept him in the running as others fell by the wayside.
He was up against the surprise star of the race – entrepreneur Seán Gallagher, a judge on TV’s Dragons’ Den, whose energetic campaign saw him rocket up the polls.
The presidency had become a race between the tortoise and the hare.
Sinn Féin faced a re-run of the 2007 election, when the contest became a battle between the big beasts of Irish politics – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
If the presidential race became a fight between two big candidates, Sinn Féin risked being squeezed into oblivion, with little to show for its efforts.
But an infamous TV encounter rewrote the script at the last minute.
It came amid surreal scenes, as a biblical downpour deluged Dublin.
Torrents overwhelmed roads and flooded buildings.
Martin McGuinness was forced from his hotel on the city’s southside and his campaign team negotiated the traffic chaos, hoping to arrive at the RTE studios in time for the campaign’s final TV showdown.
“The hotel was taking in water. It was unbelievable. It was the worst preparation for any TV debate that I have ever been involved in.
“In short, there was no preparation. I was winging it the whole way.”
The programme ended in controversy. Martin McGuinness claimed to have received information about a Fianna Fáil fund raiser and challenged Seán Gallagher over his alleged role.
The favourite denied handling any donated cheque, but in the confused atmosphere of the live TV debate he wondered if he might have received an envelope.
The mention of the `E’ word was political dynamite – drowning out Mr Gallagher’s subsequent denials of wrongdoing, blaming the reading of a tweet on air for throwing his concentration.
The controversy is still simmering between Mr Gallagher and RTE.
Michael D Higgins won the election. Seán Gallagher was runner up. Martin McGuinness came third.
Sinn Féin, rightly or wrongly, was able to claim to have played the role of `kingmaker’.
Martin McGuinness took 13.7% of the vote, which was at the low end of Sinn Féin’s campaign ambitions, but which nevertheless represented an advance on its general Election tally of 9.9% only months before.
Significantly, however the campaign coincided with an opinion poll that put Sinn Féin at 18% support – placing it as the second most popular party in the Republic for the first time.
Despite fighting a campaign that professed hopes of victory, Mr McGuinness has confirmed that he feared defeat from the outset, but saw an opportunity to bolster his party in the Republic.
Critics claim the campaign revived memories of IRA murders for a new generation of voters, but others believe it boosted Sinn Féin’s profile.
Martin McGuinness says: “I think that the growth of the party in the south has put us into the mainstream like never before. And we intend to push on from that.”
FROM THE H-BLOCKS TO LH2
Since the presidential election Sinn Féin has continued to hold a relatively high polling position, as its newly elected representatives in Leinster House establish themselves as prominent opposition voices.
On the top floor of LH2, the history of the republican movement sits alongside the party’s emerging new era.
On the wall of the corridor hangs an edition of the republican newspaper An Phoblacht from the 1981 hunger strike, where ten prisoners starved themselves to death at the top security Maze prison near Belfast.
The edition was one of a batch that was miniaturised and printed on rice paper so that some could be rolled into small pellets, covered in clingfilm and smuggled into the prison.
The front page reports the election of republicans Kieran Doherty and Paddy Agnew to the Dáil during the prison protest that saw republican inmates press for political status.
Despite the criticism Sinn Féin receives over the IRA’s past, the image takes pride of place, with the hunger strike now seen as the political springboard that propelled Sinn Féin’s growth.
The senior party staffer who framed the record of an earlier, more turbulent election to Leinster House said: “I just thought it was useful, a reminder for people that this is part of our root, our heritage.”
The floor is home to some of the party’s most prominent representatives.
Gerry Adams and Caoimhin O Caoilin work in neighbouring offices.
Elsewhere on the floor is Mary Lou McDonald, now a TD for Dublin Central, plus the office of Meath West TD Peadar Tóibín.
Nearby are the Donegal pairing of Pearse Doherty and Pádraig Mac Lochlainn.
LH2 and Sinn Féin’s place in the Dáil provides a pivotal new centre of gravity for the party – but its future is by no means certain.
It is a major political player north of the border, but in the Republic it is a small party still working to set down roots.
Elections such as the presidential contest produce data on voting patterns that help it to flush out potential new areas of untapped support.
But the history of smaller parties in the Republic is that they can quickly wither in the shadow of the monoliths of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
Some experts have suggested Sinn Féin is actively targeting younger voters in an effort to invest in its own political future.
Social media is part of the process, not only during elections, but on a routine basis to help draw in support.
The party now claims it has 8,500 members, a 60% rise in the last year, with 60% membership in the south and 40% north of the border.
Social media use by the party hit the headlines when Gerry Adams joined Twitter recently – but his offbeat insights, including stories about his favourite teddy bears, quickly attracted thousands of followers, but also sparked criticism.
THE THREE STRANDS
The talks that led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement were dominated by the search for harmony across three sets of relationships: between the communities within Northern Ireland, between Ireland north and south, and between the British and Irish governments.
It was the so-called `three-stranded process’.
But a trio of new themes is arguably emerging that could influence political developments in Northern Ireland during the remainder of this decade: demographics, negotiations and legacy.
The recent Northern Ireland census, as previously reported here by The Detail, revealed the Protestant community has for the first time dropped below 50%.
The sea change means there is no longer a majority community in Northern Ireland, but rather two Protestant and Catholic blocs that are on a par.
This does not necessarily represent a threat to the Union, but fuels the potential for continued political change.
So too does the rolling process of talks taking place at Stormont, where ongoing negotiations already include controversial cultural issues such as parades, flags, emblems and language, plus the need to tackle sectarianism, and agree plans to reform the power-sharing government.
In addition, three of the key political figures – Peter Robinson at the age of 64, Gerry Adams, also 64, and Martin McGuinness at 62 – are entering what could be the final years of their frontline political careers.
It seems likely that the next general election will be the last that Mr Adams leads his party into as a candidate, though he says the issue has yet to be discussed.
All three men will seek to handover their political movements in as strong a position as possible.
These factors could contribute to an eventful end to the decade, especially against the backdrop of sporadic tensions around the stability of the Stormont administration, plus wider political reverberations from the international economic crisis, and the debates on Scottish independence and the UK’s future in Europe.
Northern Ireland unionists are nevertheless in a strong position, as detailed in a speech by Peter Robinson reported here where he signaled that a section of the nationalist community need only give tacit support to remaining in the UK to hand unionism an unassailable advantage.
In the absence of any evidence of a desire for constitutional upheaval in the short-term, Sinn Féin responds by saying it is planning for the long-term.
It wants a border poll to be held in the latter stages of this decade and has initiated tentative debates on the financial and political implications of ending the Union.
The party says it is serious about the poll, despite the incredulity of others.
Former Sinn Féin members who now oppose the organisation say a promise to deliver Irish unity has been replaced by a promise to deliver a poll on it.
But Gerry Adams says a series of initiatives by republicans will be rolled out over the coming years to develop the debate.
He has signaled this may include models of what a `united Ireland’ might look like, he speaks of the need for a `Unionist Ireland’, and raises the prospect of `phases’ of reform.
But the border poll is also one of a wider suite of initiatives to boost the party, and comes amid ongoing efforts to secure the recent political success it has tasted south of the border.
Calling for a border poll may be a political target, but the campaign itself is a political tool to challenge the republican credentials of other parties and to maintain the pressure for change – placing it in a similar vein to tactics that saw Gerry Adams move south, and led the party to enter Martin McGuinness in the race for the presidency.
Critics claim that republican pressure damages the cooperative spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, but Sinn Féin says the 1998 deal was part of a process and not a final settlement.
All this comes against the background of the loyalist protests and violence that followed the restrictions placed on flying the Union flag at Belfast City Hall.
Gerry Adams says: “There is a process of change and those who are at the very sectarian end of this or who are fundamental or who fear change, or whose fears are being exploited by others, need to understand that there is going to be more change and it is to their benefit – equality is to everyone’s benefit.”
Next year sees the beginning of a series of elections in Ireland north and south to local councils, the European Parliament, the Stormont Assembly, Westminster and the Dáil.
As the 15th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement arrives, fresh questions are now being asked of where the peace process, and Sinn Féin, may go from here.