Page last updated at 01:53 GMT, Saturday, 6 March 2010

Sinn Fein story is tale of two cities

Jim Fitzpatrick
By Jim Fitzpatrick
BBC NI Politics Show presenter

Sinn Fein chair Mary Lou McDonald holds not elected office
Sinn Fein chair Mary Lou McDonald holds not elected office

Sinn Fein traditionally holds its annual conference in Dublin. This year is no exception. It makes sense for the party of republicans to meet in Ireland's capital.

Problem is, Sinn Fein is largely a northern party.

It may have a southern chair in Mary Lou McDonald, but she currently holds no elected office having lost her MEP seat.

Partition, it seems, isn't just a political division of power and allegiance on the island - it is also a mindset.

The evidence suggests voters in the Republic see Sinn Fein as a northern party, and therefore don't consider them relevant to their lives.

At a time when the ruling coalition in Dublin has never been more unpopular, Sinn Fein has not seen its popularity increase by even a percentage point.

These are huge issues for the party to confront.

So big, in fact, that some within the party faithful have begun to voice their concerns openly. People like Toireasa Ferris, who performed surprisingly well in the European elections.

This is what she wrote in An Phoblacht, no less, following the Euro election results: "After more than a decade working for the party down this end of the country, it hurts to say it but the fact is - Sinn Fein simply means nothing to the bulk of people in the South.

After more than a decade working for the party down this end of the country, it hurts to say it but the fact is - Sinn Féin simply means nothing to the bulk of people in the South
Mary Lou McDonald
Sinn Fein chair

"We therefore need to stop asking ourselves, why don't more people vote for us? and start asking, what must we do to win people's support?"

In January, Sinn Fein lost another councillor on Dublin City Council.

Killian Forde was the third to resign from the party since the local government elections in June, leaving Sinn Fein, which had 10 on the council after the 2004 elections, with just four councillors out of 52.

That puts it back to the same position it was in 10 years ago.

Sinn Fein has the same number of councillors in Moyle, a council covering a population of just 15,000 - compared to Dublin City with more than half a million residents.

Killian Forde had featured twice on the Politics Show over the last number of years.

He had been put forward by the party specifically to represent the kind of new talent they were attracting to the party.

When he resigned and went to Labour, a Sinn Fein party spokesman was quoted deriding his personal ambition, suggesting Sinn Fein was not the party for people like that.

Clearly, those with ambition go elsewhere.

In his resignation statement Killian Forde made that clear.

"I want to be part of an organisation that can introduce the necessary legislative changes and constitutional reforms that will enable my generation to live on an island they can be proud of," he said.

"Sinn Fein was not that organisation."

So, as Sinn Fein meets in the RDS this weekend it remains a tale of two cities for the party: Belfast where they're in government and poised to be the biggest party in the Assembly according to recent polls; and Dublin where they have no say in government and are the smallest party in the Dail.

Perhaps, more worryingly for Sinn Fein is that while many northerners will consider this conundrum significant, most southerners won't give it a second thought.

For, in the words of Toireasa Ferris, the party "means nothing to the bulk of people" there.

Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and writer who won the 1986 Nobel Prize for Peace, summed it up when he wrote: "The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference."

(Our live Ard Fheis coverage begins at 1130 GMT, Saturday on BBC2 with the leader's speech at 2115 GMT. The BBC News website will also carry live streaming of the Ard Fheis, starting at 1130 GMT and concluding with Gerry Adam's speech live at 2030 GMT. We'll also be back with The Politics Show at lunchtime on Sunday and a conference highlights programme on Sunday night.)


PS - With Sport Relief coming up, I'm offering our local MLAs (and anyone else who cares to join us) an easier option than the six mile challenge Stephen Nolan is championing. I'd be afraid that, being Northern Ireland politicians, they would simply keep running round in circles.

Jim Fitzpatrick and Sinn Fein MLA Barry McElduff get in some jogging practice
Jim Fitzpatrick and Sinn Fein MLA Barry McElduff get in some jogging practice

So, to avoid this, they're being offered the chance to run (or walk) the Stormont Mile from the gates of the estate to the steps of Parliament Buildings. It's a straight line and they can't go wrong. It's all happening on Tuesday 16th March at 12.45pm. So, if you missed out on the countless protest marches that ended up at Stormont and fancy a stroll for a good cause, come along. There's also an opportunity to shoot some basketball hoops in our "Hoops for Laughs" challenge, if that's more your thing.

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