READY TO RULE Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald. Pic: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/CC by SA 2.0
By its own usual standards, the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis was something of a muted, staid affair. No raucous chanting, no militant sloganeering, no defiant fist pumping. Nothing, in other words, that might scare the horses.
And not scaring the horses is, at this point, the priority for Sinn Féin.
The party has some distance to go yet before it lays claim to the allegiance of the swathe of middle-class voters it needs for ultimate success. The tidal wave of 2020, which swept the party into Dáil Éireann dominance, was as unexpected as it remains unreliable, as those at its helm know all too well. Coming in from the cold and becoming a credible political entity is a priority.
As the prospect of entering government becomes a reality, Sinn Féin realises that running with the hare and chasing with the hounds can only go on for so long. Maverick social and economic policies are a luxury to be indulged in while in opposition, but they will not stand up to the rigorous scrutiny that will be applied to a party with serious designs on governing.
Nothing will have caused Sinn Féin more sleepless nights than the stinging blast from Michael O’Leary that Ryanair would quit Ireland if Sinn Féin takes power and, as he put it, starts messing with the country’s competitive corporation tax regime.
And his withering dismissal of the party as being ‘economically illiterate’ can hardly have convinced Sinn Féin that the road back to credibility will be anything but a difficult one. Even allowing for the O’Leary penchant for the colourful headline, the hard truth is that for Sinn Féin, this is where the rubber meets the road.
An economy almost totally dependent on the goodwill of foreign companies will rightly look askance at a party whose economic policy, as enunciated to date, speaks of high taxation of wealthy individuals and companies and a ramped up jump in tax take. And if the pragmatic O’Leary can tell us ‘we’re proud of being Irish, but I wouldn’t die in a ditch over it’, then how less likely are the big beasts of American investment to hang about with the threat of tax surgery hanging over their heads?
But Sinn Féin is not blind to danger. The repeated theme of the Ard Fheis – that Sinn Féin is a party of change – may have a deeper meaning than that of a mere catchphrase.
The more sober of the party strategists have long realised that there is no room for black-and-white thinking in a party that is serious about government. If thousands of potential voters are dependent on foreign employers for their well-paid, comfortable jobs, it makes no sense to scare off these companies with the threat of a hostile tax regime.
Nor has it gone unnoticed that Sinn Féin has been extending the hand of friendship and understanding to those in corporate boardrooms whose image of the party is that of economic vandals.
Nor is the softly-softly approach confined to matters economic. A united Ireland, the holy grail of republicanism, remains front and centre of Sinn Féin policy, not least because, in the eyes of the old guard, it remains the party’s raison d’etre. But the focus has shifted.
The talk is no more of bouncing a million reluctant loyalists into a united Ireland; no more of forcible union by sheer weight of numbers. All that has been replaced by the much milder call for a Citizens’ Assembly to plan for unity, to meet and deliberate and discuss in calm harmony, and then to recommend to Government how unity should be achieved. It is a message that the party has already delivered in persuasive tones to the Irish American lobby, backed up by a series of half-page advertisements in the most influential American newspapers, each a masterclass in moderate, gentle reasonableness.
Sinn Féin strategists are nothing if not realistic. They are well aware that one swallow does not make a summer.
The heady days of the 2020 general election, which saw the party confound all expectations, came a mere year after it had been roundly trounced in the local and European elections, losing a staggering 78 of its local council seats and two of its three seats in the European Parliament. Voter fickleness of that nature is no basis for election strategy, which is why the need to secure its position and nail down its credibility with middle Ireland is so important.
The road back to mainstream acceptability will be a difficult one, but Sinn Féin has proved itself adept at side stepping the landmines in its path. There is much baggage to shed, many monkeys on its back to be jettisoned and there will always be potential hand grenades like Jonathan Dowdall to arrest its progress.
But it is clear that the days of tunnel vision pursuit of a single great cause are over. Sinn Féin is coming in from the political cold, and it has the patience to wait and wait for as long as it takes.
A party of change indeed, in more ways than one.