Unity and struggle – Sinn Fein’s Ard Fheis 2019

By Sammy Barker

On 15 and 16 November, Sinn Fein (SF) held their Ard Fheis (annual conference) in Derry.  It has been a difficult and complex year for the party since the last Ard Fheis. The Tory government’s bloc with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has hindered progressive developments in Ireland, north and south, every bit as much as in Britain.

The Tories have abdicated from any responsibility to be even handed in the Irish peace process. Instead they have preferred to reinforce the DUP’s refusal to respect the nationalist community, and SF’s mandate.  Consequently the Good Friday Agreement’s institutions, especially the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, remain in abeyance.

Brexit hardest on Ireland 

Equally, the Tories pursuit of a hard Brexit has forced an unnecessary preoccupation upon the population with simply maintaining the advantages from a relatively open border inside Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement.  SF has done outstanding work in alerting Irish society, on both sides of the border, to the threat of the return of a hard border.  It has played a pivotal role in forcing Irish government, led by Leo Varadkar, to maintain a firm position in the EU negotiations with the Tory government.  SF has shaken up international opinion, both in the EU and US, highlighting the conflict between the British government’s approaches to Brexit and the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement.

Consequently the British government was first forced to accept a backstop to maintain the soft border.  And later, after Theresa May’s fall, Boris Johnson was forced to accept unique arrangements which maintain the soft border at the cost of him reneging on his commitment to the DUP.  These establish a regulatory border in the Irish Sea, with a different status for the north of Ireland from Britain – another ditch that Johnson didn’t die in.

Yet such achievements are poor consolation for Ireland.  As leaders and delegates frequently refrained at the Ard Fheis, there is no such thing as a good Brexit for Ireland.

Electoral setbacks

There were other concerns which created some uncertainty within conference. The party’s electoral performance since the last Ard Fheis has been disappointing.  In the October 2018 Irish Presidential elections SF’s candidate secured only 6.4% of the vote, compared to 13.7% in 2011.  In the May 2019 European elections, SF lost two of its four MEPs, when its vote fell in the south from 19.52% in 2014 to 11.68% this year.  In the north the fall was not so substantial, from 25.5% in 2014 to 22.2% this year. 

Held on the same day as the European elections, the local government elections in the south saw further disappointments.  SF’s 2014 vote of 15.6% fell to 9.5%, resulting in a loss of half of its total of local councillors.

Of course, there were specific circumstances which affected the results. In the Presidential election Martin McGuinness had been the candidate in 2014, and the re-elected President Michael D. Higgins is extremely popular across Irish society. Equally, in the local and European elections there was a substantial shift amongst younger voters towards the Greens. 

At a briefing of international guests, Party Chair, Declan Kearney, admitted that there had been difficult internal discussions since these results.  But this is a party that has endured through many testing times and tragedies.

In the open conference sessions it was obvious that SF does not have time to become preoccupied. It immediately faces two new, and different, electoral challenges.  In the south if faces four by-elections to the Dail on 29 November – its first opportunity to turn around the slide in the vote there. In the north Britain’s General Election means it has to defend its vote on 12 December.  These challenges meant that quite a lot of conference had to be given over to showcasing the candidates and motivating the members for the practical work.

Turning it around

In the south, the four by-elections are unlikely to have a big impact upon the position of the Fine Gael government.  There are many signs that a general election may take place anyway in 2020.  The Fine Gael government is dependent upon the external support of Fianna Fail, an alliance which cannot continue indefinitely.  Probably SF’s immediate prospect is not to win new seats, but to stabilise the vote.  Judging by the 2016 election results, the Party has little chance of winning Dublin Fingal, or Wexford. It has the very faintest of chances to cause an upset to Fianna Fail in Cork North Central. In Dublin Mid-West it has its best chance, but it is certainly not the favourite there.  Party activists will surely be most concerned with ensuring the campaign ignites an increase again in the southern vote.

In the north the political situation is complex.  The 2017 General Election saw a dual polarisation.  The DUP hoovered up votes from other unionist parties, the UUP and TUV.  SF won votes from the SDLP and smaller parties.  Since then, the closure of the Assembly, and the impasse on Brexit, have led to a more confused and diffuse situation.  The first electoral expression of this was in the European elections this year, where the Alliance Party increased their vote to 18.5% from 7.1% in 2014.

Most recent opinion polls suggest this is continuing.  The Lucid Talk poll, carried out on 30 Oct/1 November, based on 2,386 responses, showed, in comparison to the 2017 General Election, showed a 10% fall in DUP support to 26%, and a 6.4% fall in SF support to 23%.  It reported 7.1% increases for Alliance, 1.3% for SDLP, and 3.1% for the Greens.

Given the overall context of the Brexit threat, SF has concluded electoral agreements with pro-Remain parties in four seats.  Reducing the number of pro-Brexit DUP MPs is the tactical justification for this.  Given that the majority of people in the north oppose Brexit, the tactic is likely to have some impact.

Belfast facing changes?

The Belfast seats are particularly interesting.  West Belfast is rock solid SF, and certain to remain so.  But the DUP MPs representing the other three seats in the city are vulnerable to a greater or lesser extent.

In North Belfast, the SDLP and Greens have stood down in support of Sinn Fein’s John Finucane running against Nigel Dodds, DUP leader in the House of Commons.  John is the son of Pat Finucane, the human rights lawyer who was targeted by the British security establishment and murdered by loyalists in front of his children.  Dodds had a majority of 2,081 in 2017, when the SDLP secured 2,058 votes, and the Greens 644.  This seat will be close, though the DUP will pull out everything to retain it.

In South Belfast, SF and the Greens are standing aside to give the SDLP’s Claire Hanna a free run against the DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly.  The DUP majority was 1,996; while the respective votes of SF and the Greens were 7,143 and 2,241.

In East Belfast, SF, SDLP and the Greens have stood aside for the Alliance Party’s candidate, Naomi Long, in her challenge to the DUP’s Gavin Robinson.  Robinson had a majority of 8474 in 2017, whereas the combined vote of SF, SDLP and the Greens was 1,622.  Clearly Alliance would require a major shift to win. 

But overall the fact that the possibility exists of unionism having no MPs in Belfast shows how much fluidity there is in the political situation.

Close contests for three SF MPs? 

SF should retain its seats in West Tyrone, Mid Ulster, and Newry & Armagh without difficulty.  In South Down, Chris Hazzard should be safe, having won the seat from the SDLP in 2017 with a majority of 2,446.

The party’s real concerns are in Fermanagh & South Tyrone, and Foyle.  In Fermanagh & South Tyrone, Michelle Gildernew is defending a majority of 875.  It is a seat that the UUP took from her in 2015, but lost back in 2017.  She may well benefit from the fact that there is deep disquiet in the unionist farming community over the impact of Brexit.

In Foyle, Elisha McCallion has a very difficult fight.  She won the seat from the SDLP in 2017 with a majority of 169.  She is challenged by Colum Eastwood, the SDLP leader.  At the Ard Fheis it was evident how much the party values her contribution, and its commitment to ensure her re-election.

Changing perceptions on Irish unity  

The impact of Brexit, and the stasis in the peace process, is not just creating uncertainty over the forthcoming election.  They are also creating profound tensions within the unionist community.  A Lucid Talk poll conducted on 21-23 October demonstrated this.  In the June 2016 referendum, the north returned a 55.8% vote for remain.  Excluding “don’t knows”, the new poll recorded a vote of 72% remain versus 28% for Johnson’s deal.  Amongst unionist voters 43% preferred remain to 37% for Johnson’s deal.  Even amongst DUP voters 29% preferred remain to Johnson’s deal.  Although 75% of DUP voters prefer no deal, versus 22% for remain.

The debate on Brexit in Ireland has in large part focused on the future of the border.  Inevitably this has promoted debate on the prospect of a united Ireland.  The Lucid Talk poll revealed that nearly 2/3rds of voters believe Brexit will make a united Ireland more likely within ten years.  Amongst unionists, 39% believe it is more likely, 33% believe it makes no difference, and 15% believe it less likely.

“Time for Unity”

This churn of public perspective explains why the Ard Fheis promoted with much confidence the need for a border poll.  Conference’s overarching theme was “Time for Unity”.  Motions were carried from the leadership which posed the campaign initiatives needed in relation to the British and Irish governments, the EU, and North America.  It was also at the centre of all the major leadership speeches.

Of course, SF understands that a major part of securing the new national majority is through dialogue with unionism.  An important document, “Inclusion and reconciliation in a new Ireland” was endorsed by conference.  Whilst reiterating many themes from previous policy, the document struck new ground in some areas, notable was the call for a new legal definition of sectarianism, and sanctions against incitement to hatred.  This is particularly timely as there has been a notable rise of tension and instances of sectarianism in the worsening political climate.

Towards government?

One of the reasons behind the recent electoral setbacks in the south may have been an apparent lack of clarity on SF’s potential participation in the southern government.  Some may have concluded that SF was not clear on its terms for participation, leading some voters to believe the party was not so different from the establishment parties of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.  Perhaps to offset this, at the Ard Fheis there appeared to be greater concentration on making concrete proposals for government; on identifying the similarities between the two establishment parties, and on explaining Sinn Fein’s terms for government.

Pearse Doherty TD, one of the party’s most popular and influential leaders in the south, devoted his entire keynote speech to his Bill for controlling the private insurance industry in the south.  He finished by saying that SF wants “a government that works for the many, not the few”, echoing Corbyn’s Labour.  Mary Lou McDonald, the party’s leader, spent a considerable part of her speech clarifying the party’s view on government.  She made it clear that the party preferred a “government of the left”. Further, any SF involvement with a government including the traditional parties would have to be on the basis of key elements of the republican platform on austerity, national unity, etc.

Internationalist and committed 

As usual, the party’s internationalism was on open display.  Speakers were taken from the party’s long standing allies from the Basque country, Cuba, Palestine and South Africa.  Motions were carried on Palestine, Catalonia, Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela and emergency motions were carried on Bolivia, and the Kurdish struggle in Syria and Turkey.

Overall, it is clear that the party is gearing up for the new opportunities facing revolutionary republicans.  Short term setbacks cannot deter such committed activists in the struggle for Irish unification and socialism.