Despite being a close run thing, a Left candidate eventually came through to win the Dublin South West by election, pushing the pre-poll favourite, Sinn Fein, into second place. Although Sinn Fein discursively positions itself on the Left, a reminder of its leader’s claim in a televised debate with Ruairi Quinn, then Labour leader, that Sinn Fein was an establishment party is enough to disabuse sufficient numbers of the notion that there is a Left substance to the party. In terms of Left-Right divide Sinn Fein is an ideology free zone, an electoral machine purpose built to gain votes from whoever is willing to cast them, and to make the trade-offs necessary to obtain them.
The Achilles Heel for Sinn Fein in this election was the party position on water charges, and to a lesser extent, but maybe crucial in such a narrow competition, the smear campaign leading members pursued against Anti Austerity Alliance candidate Paul Murphy, even if in some cases they were not aware that the allegations they were levelling against Murphy were smears, and for which they later apologised.
The party simply refused to commit decisively against water charges on the grounds that in its pursuit of the middle class vote it senses that water charges are not viewed as unfavourably in Dublin 4 as they would be in Ballybough. Thinking is: better to be all things to all comers even if the seat is lost short term. In the long term the more prosperous belts within Irish society, whose income makes water charges relatively affordable, might view the party a safe bet, not just responsible but also respectable.
For Sinn Fein this type of strategic vacillation might produce dividends as Fianna Fail’s hopes of increasing its Dail representation took a hit in Roscommon where party leader Michael Martin invested a lot of political energy not to mention moral authority. Fianna Fail simply has not recouped the losses sustained by it at the last general election. Consistently, in the wake of the European and local government elections, Sinn Fein has seen itself ahead of Fianna Fail in opinion polls.
There is a relationship between the decline of Fianna Fail and the rise of Sinn Fein which tells us something about Sinn Fein’s orientation even if the bulk of Sinn Fein members are unaware of it. It was never the intention of the party to restrict its ambitions to displacing the Labour Party, helpful as that might be. There is a limit to what the leader of Labour can achieve. It is called Tanaiaste. Sinn Fein, given the break, has for long been intent on displacing Fianna Fail. Adams aspires to being Taoiseach not merely Tanaiste: chief of staff, not ndjutant general. Too many people have been sent to the wall and the country littered with graves, secret and otherwise, in the course of his political career for the crown to be placed on the head of another who realised their political ambitions via more conventional means.
If that trophy could be bagged, the failed armed campaign the Sinn Fein president directed would be real history, rather than current affairs.