Sinn Fein’s unique politbureau leadership and ownership structure (effectively the party rather than the state that sets the terms of employment for their ‘public’ representatives) gives it a capacity to engage long term strategies that’s impractical for other more conventionally democratic parties.
Thus the current leadership is already twenty six years in place and pre dates the party’s wholehearted and exclusive commitment to democracy. Occasions that might have proven fatal to another party’s leadership, for example, the Irish general election of 2007, can be adequately explained away as a ‘squeeze’ between the two largest parties in the state.
Thus Martin McGuinness’s final placing will not be judged internally in the same way it might within a more democratically structured party.
To get a flavour of how even McGuinness’s less than compelling performance in the opinion polls is likely to be interpreted internally, it’s worth reading Adrian Kavanagh’s complex transliteration of the polling results onto Dail constituencies. Now along with the caveats Adrian provides comes another: performance in a Presidential election is no predictor for one to Dail Eireann.
But this election for SF is about electoral path finding, not winning office. The traces of electoral strength picked out in Kavanaghs analysis will likely mirror those constituencies the party will concentrate those not inconsiderable resources funded by its own ‘public’ representatives.
As Kavanagh points out even the best poll rating leaves SF with the same problem Labour has had since independence; ie breaking out of niche status. That’s what makes SF’s struggle for Fianna Fail hearts and minds so compelling. It’s far from clear whether McGuinness’s attack on Gallagher is a move forward or back on that score.
One likely positive by product of the campaign for the party is likely to be (despite the best efforts of RTE’s finestU, and the powerful witness of individual victims) is the repackaging of the IRAs campaign in Northern Ireland as a ‘war against oppression’.
The only candidate to consistently challenge them on that (Gay Mitchell) is likely to have his proverbial head handed him back on a plate by the plain people of Ireland.
From a southern point of view that’s phoney war politics. The real battle is four years hence. And from Sinn Fein’s point of view the real test is to see whether they can prove attractive to what remains of the FF base currently resting in the Fine Gael account.
My own suspicion is that Ireland’s predeliction for decentralised power may mean that Sinn Fein’s core strength (highly centralised internal control) up to now may be the key stumbling block to further growth in the south.
Still, the party’s progress o this point has been a remarkable one.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty