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Reborn in the Irish mainstream, Sinn Féin boosted by anti-austerity stance

Shedding image of conflict, political wing of the IRA morphs into leftist powerhouse attracting middle-class support

In Dublin’s leafy suburbs, the residents no longer pull the curtain when the local Sinn Féin candidate comes calling.

In the space of a few short years, the party, led by longtime president Gerry Adams, has achieved something few would have thought possible for a nationalist party whose core support comes from the tough streets of Belfast. It’s attracting middle-class voters and, what’s more, many of them have no particular desire for a united Ireland.

The latest polls in the Irish Republic indicate that 15 to 18 percent of ABC1 voters — what polling companies characterize as higher social classes — would give their first preference vote to Sinn Fein. Just three years ago, the figure stood at 6 percent.

Unexpectedly, a considerable number of middle-class voters are happy to be described as newly converted to supporting a party that is the political wing of the Irish Republican Army and most often associated with decades of conflict in Northern Ireland, which remains part of the United Kingdom.

Sinn Féin is changing, is setting its sights on policies a long way from armed struggle and is just as focused on getting power in Dublin than in the Northern Irish capital, Belfast. To do that, it is looking for new sorts of voters, tapping into economic disquiet in Ireland and seeking to upset the established order there.

People like the McNamaras are key. Majella McNamara works as a senior administrator in the public sector, and Peter McNamara runs his own Web-design business from home. Two eye-catching vehicles, one a Volvo four-wheel-drive, sit in the driveway of their four-bedroom detached house in an affluent suburb of the Irish capital.

Both come from generations of Fianna Fáil voters.

That centrist party was founded after a split with Sinn Féin in 1926 and went on to become the dominant Irish party. Fianna Fáil (Soldiers of Destiny) describes itself as a republican party, though it is positioned to the right of Sinn Fein. Fianna Fáil’s support plummeted from 41.5 percent in the 2007 general election to just 17.5 percent in 2011 as the Irish economy crumbled under its watch.

“We voted for the Fianna Fáil party all our life, and look where that got us. Because of their lack of economic responsibility, our two children, Kate and Niamh, will be paying for their mistakes well into their adulthood,” said Peter McNamara. “We found that Sinn Féin understood the people who were struggling and trying to pay their mortgages, and they fought for us. That’s why they’ll be getting our vote at the next election.”

Ourselves Alone

The most recent opinion polls put support for Sinn Féin at 21 percent, making it the second-most-popular party in the Republic of Ireland. That’s just 3 points behind government leaders Fine Gael, which shares power with a Labour Party in sharp decline — currently at just 8 percent in the same poll.

Fine Gael, traditionally the archrival of Fianna Fáil, became the dominant party in Irish politics in 2011 as its leader, Enda Kenny, became taoiseach (prime minister). With its roots also in the Irish independence struggle, the party is categorized as being center-right.

“Before the economy crashed, we were doing very well, but then all of a sudden my job was in jeopardy, and there was a pay freeze in place while taxation rocketed. It felt like we were working to pay tax,” said Majella McNamara. She described how her husband’s Web company struggled and he had to lay off staff.

“Technically because of earnings, we’re considered middle class, I suppose, but that counts for very little in the Ireland of today, where the government squeeze every last cent out of the citizen. I never thought I’d say this, but Sinn Féin now best represent what people like me and my family need in the modern Ireland. They listen, they fight for us, both locally and nationally, and even in well-to-do suburbs like this one, they are finding new supporters.”

And as for the party’s history as key players in the fight for united Ireland and the wider Irish nationalist movement, often called republicanism? “I don’t even think of them as republicans anymore but rather defenders of people’s rights,” she said.

Established in 1905, Sinn Féin (Ourselves Alone) has long been the party of Irish republicanism and nationalism. Its association with the IRA goes back to the foundation of the party. After the resignation of iconic leader Eamon de Valera as Sinn Féin leader in 1926, the party and the IRA entered a period of poor relations. But over the following decades, as the provisional IRA unleashed war against Britain, the two groups became intertwined.

So how has a party, once regarded as reckless and dangerous and speaking for the oppressed Catholic masses of Ulster, found its way into the hearts of the not so young, not so poor and not so republican in the rest of Ireland?

‘We voted for the Fianna Fáil party all our life, and look where that got us. Because of their lack of economic responsibility, our two children, Kate and Niamh, will be paying for their mistakes well into their adulthood.’

Peter McNamara

Sinn Féin voter

The roots of its growth in acceptance south of the border go back to April 10, 1998, when Adams and his unionist political rivals signed the Good Friday Agreement and promised to remove the gun and bomb from Northern Ireland. Articles 2 and 3 of the republic's constitution, which claimed sovereignty over all of Ireland, were reworded, and a power-sharing Executive Committee was provided in Belfast.

Adams' profile began to change, as he was now seen as a statesman and peacemaker.

“In a postconflict situation, the political landscape, both north and south, altered dramatically. And suddenly Sinn Fein were talking about peace, reconciliation and co-operation,” said Theresa Reidy, a political scientist at the University College Cork.

While the party’s support in Northern Ireland has remained steady, its real challenge was to entice voters south of the border that it could be trusted as a party with national ambitions and a political vision not based on fighting just for a united Ireland.

In 2002 the party made a breakthrough when it returned five members of Parliament in the republic and raised its national support to 6.5 percent. One of those elected was former gun runner Martin Ferris. Sinn Fein was on the way back in the south, and a ripple became a wave once the Irish economy nosedived in 2007.

By January 2009, the number of people living on unemployment benefits in the Irish Republic had risen to 326,000, the most in a month since records began in 1967. The unemployment rate rose from 6.5 percent in July 2008 to 15.1 percent in February 2012. Thousands emigrated, and the Central Statistics Office estimated that from April 2009 to April 2010, 34,500 people left the country in search of work elsewhere.

For those who stayed behind, keeping their heads above water was an almost impossible task. The residential market went into a severe slump, and half-finished ghost estates littered the country. Families watched as the value of their homes slumped by up to 60 percent. By the end of 2012, more than 28 percent of Irish mortgages were in arrears, and the rate of home repossessions rose rapidly.

“Economic turmoil caused by the state’s financial crisis created a huge opportunity for them. A space had opened up, and operating on an anti-austerity platform, they’ve made full use of it,” said Reidy.

The party painted political rivals as sellouts to the troika — the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank — and itself as the voice of the masses.

In 2011 the party won 14 seats, and Fianna Fáil earned just six more.

Now with a general election to be held before the spring of 2016, many political pundits believe Sinn Féin could end up being the second-largest party in the country.

“Austerity measures by government and the troika played into Sinn Féin’s hands, as it did with the likes of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain,” said Pat Leahy, the political editor of Ireland’s Sunday Business Post newspaper.

He added, “They had councilors working on the ground who could see the fallout of unemployment, house repossessions, emigration, increasing crime levels, and as other parties were reeling, Sinn Féin became attractive to the angry and the downtrodden. Being on the left became their engine for success.”

But it wasn’t just the working classes who moved to back Sinn Féin. Young professional couples with good jobs and big mortgages, middle-class families under severe threat and lifelong supporters of other parties had their heads turned too.

Key to Sinn Féin’s reinvention has been a most unlikely political force and republican champion.

Mary Lou McDonald was brought up in the affluent Dublin suburb of Rathgar and studied at Trinity College Dublin, the University of Limerick and Dublin City University. Her profile would indicate she would be anything but a Sinn Féin member. Those who grew up on the difficult streets of Belfast and Derry, who lived under a cloud of never-ending violence and were involved in the Troubles and formed the traditional core of the party, initially viewed her with suspicion.

But McDonald climbed the party ladder quickly, with those at the top seeing the merits of having her on board. Today Ireland’s Iron Lady is the vice president of Sinn Féin, and many believe the country is just months away from the 46-year-old mother of two being crowned Adams’ successor.

Obsessed with internal organization, Sinn Féin is already well ahead of the more traditional parties in the south in the buildup to the next elections. Young, bright electoral candidates have already been chosen across the country, while political baggage slows down the process for their rivals. It’s aiming for women to account for 40 percent of its general election candidates.

So the only way is up for Sinn Féin? Not necessarily.

Although opinion polls indicate that it has the support of over a fifth of the electorate, the figures are misleading.

Behavioral and attitude studies show that while Sinn Féin’s support is fairly evenly spread between urban and rural areas, it has a disproportionately large base of younger people, who are less likely to turn out to vote on election day.

‘Austerity measures by government and the troika played into Sinn Féin’s hands, as it did with the likes of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain.’

Pat Leahy

political editor, Sunday Business Post

The party is also partly transfer toxic, and Ireland uses a proportional representation system, in which voters can give candidates their first, second and third preferences and so on. That can be very damaging for Sinn Féin, as strong transfers often see candidates elected in subsequent counts under this system.

“That’s why they can’t be overly dependent on the anti-austerity vote, especially as the Irish economy improves. They did well on the back of protests against water charges due to be implemented here, but that and similar issues can’t sustain them indefinitely. Just look at other anti-austerity parties across Europe. Their support appears to be softening,” said Reidy.

As an elections draw closer, political rivals will point out that as members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Sinn Féin approved austerity measures in that jurisdiction. In February, Fianna Fáil MP Niall Collins said, “Cuts to welfare in Northern Ireland flies in the face of what Sinn Féin have been calling for in the republic. These cuts show up the sheer hypocrisy of Sinn Féin on both sides of the border.”

Nor have the shadows of the Troubles been entirely exorcised. Allegations that senior members of Sinn Féin allowed rapists to avoid prosecution and that kangaroo courts were heard to deal with such criminal issues won’t go away. Nor will accusations that Adams has knowledge of the whereabouts of many of those disappeared who were executed by the IRA during the Troubles.

Last year Adams was questioned for four days by police regarding the IRA murder of Jean McConville, a 37-year-old widow who was abducted from her Belfast home in 1972, then shot and secretly buried. Her body was found on a beach in County Louth in 2003.

As it tries to shake off its sins of the past, Sinn Féin must simultaneously continue to broaden its appeal if it’s to achieve its ultimate goal, leadership in Belfast and Dublin at the same time.

The prospect seemed completely unlikely just a few years ago, but Sinn Féin believes anything is possible on the back of what it has achieved over the last decade.

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