Page last updated at 12:24 GMT, Tuesday, 9 June 2009 13:24 UK

Sinn Fein weighed down by baggage

Mary-Lou McDonald and Gerry Adams at the European election count
Mary-Lou McDonald has lost her seat as an MEP

With counting in the Republic's local, European and bye-elections now complete, the political parties have begun the process of analysing the results.

Sinn Fein had a mixed performance but as our Dublin correspondent Shane Harrison now suggests, the party is having difficulty striking a chord with the Republic's voters.

The election results show there is a lot of anger in the Republic about the government's handling of the economic downturn.

Unemployment is rising, taxes have been raised, public spending is being cut back, more money is being borrowed, and all that is on top of a banking crisis fuelled by property speculators.

Just the conditions, you would have thought, for left-wing parties to flourish.

Yes, if you're in the Labour Party or in far-left groupings like the Socialist Party or the People Before Profit organisation.

So, why did Sinn Fein, with a lot more posters, fail to make similar headway?

A Sinn Fein led by Gerry Adams is perceived as predominantly a Northern Ireland party and one which, despite the peace process, has Troubles baggage

That's the question republicans must start answering.

Only Mitchel McLaughlin has publicly admitted the results were disappointing.

The official line is that Sinn Fein is happy with the outcome because it was trying to consolidate the gains it made five years ago.

On the plus side, the party made progress in the local elections in different parts of the country, most notably in Limerick and Cork, but those gains are unlikely to provide a springboard to Dail success in the next general election.

Martin Ferris with his daughter Toireasa
Martin Ferris's daughter Toireasa should retain his Dail seat if he retires

And Toireasa Ferris polled extremely well in the South constituency in the Europeans, without taking a seat.

She should retain Kerry North if her father, Martin, decides to retire at the next general election.

Against that, the party's share of the vote in the local elections was marginally down on five years ago; it lost councillors in Dublin and Wexford and the deputy leader, Mary Lou McDonald, failed to retain her Dublin European seat.

Not only that, she finished fifth behind Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party and Fianna Fail's Eoin Ryan.

Dubliners preferred a passionate Trotsky-ite to an Adams-ite.

Sinn Fein's difficulties continued when veteran Dublin city councillor Christy Burke resigned on Tuesday, just days after he was re-elected.

It's clear that the tide that went out on the party in the 2007 general election has not come back in.

It is difficult to avoid the partitionist conclusion that for many voters in the Republic, a Sinn Fein led by Gerry Adams is perceived as predominantly a Northern Ireland party and one which, despite the peace process, has Troubles baggage.

That perception will only change over time.

And while Sinn Fein's main policy is opposition to the border, the reality of partition also seems to work against the party at another level.

Eamon Gilmore
Labour leader Eamon Gilmore has high public approval ratings

It's not always easy to square being in opposition in one jurisdiction and in government in the other.

Eamon Gilmore's Labour - alone among the Dail parties and free from the responsibilities of government - felt able to oppose some of the government's measures introduced to stabilise the Irish banking crisis last Autumn.

Sinn Fein, mindful of its executive role in Northern Ireland and despite murmuring from some activists south of the border, supported the coalition along with Fine Gael, the main opposition party.

Opinion poll ratings consistently suggest that Mr Gilmore, whose critics accuse him of populism, is now, not surprisingly, the most popular politician in the Republic.

The performance of the Sinn Fein TDs has also come in for criticism.

But without the numbers and speaking rights in the Dail, it's difficult for the party's representatives to make an impact.

For Sinn Fein to become more relevant south of the border, it has to resonate more with the everyday lives and concerns of ordinary people, and it has to get the likes of Mary-Lou McDonald, Senator Pearse Doherty and Toireasa Ferris elected to the Dail, while also retaining their existing seats.

Based on this week's results, that may be easier said than done.

It's not that long ago that Sinn Fein was confidently looking forward to the centenary of 1916 and being in government both north and south of the border.

It's still possible; after all there are seven years until then.

And while a lot of work has been done on that particular project, there's a lot more to do.



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