Sunday Business Post

Backroom : Other parties mesmerised by SF's rise

The rise and rise of Sinn Féin has left the political establishment like rabbits staring into the headlights of an oncoming vehicle.

They see the threat but seem incapable of doing anything to stop the oncoming collision. As the Sinn Féin comrades meet at its Ard Fheis in Dublin this weekend, they are buoyed up by recent opinion poll findings which make it the fourth largest party in the state - and rising.

Opinion polls put its charismatic leader Gerry Adams ahead of all others - without even holding elected office in the state. Its coffers are groaning with cash from America. It is the coming force.

As recently as ten years ago, Sinn Féin was little more than a minor irritant in the Republic. In the North, the SDLP,with John Hume at the helm,was able to keep the party in its place - that is, as representative of the minority of the Catholic community which supported `the armed struggle'.

That's all changed, and we now have a political party that is poised to make a breakthrough in June's local and European elections.

It's not as if all this has gone unnoticed here in Leinster House, but the main critics of Sinn Féin appear to be those who don't have to worry about a resurgence - Fine Gael and the Progressive Democrats.

Michael McDowell has certainly taken the gloves off, and is constant and unremitting in his attacks.So is Enda Kenny in some of his better Dáil performances. But let's face it, the average PD voter is hardly likely to switch to Sinn Féin, nor will the Fine Gael professional or big farmer.

After all, they're "not quite our class, dear". It may help to rally the law and order supporters of these parties who still consider the Good Friday Agreement a propaganda victory for Sinn Féin and nothing else.

A bit more perplexing though is the silence of Fianna Fail and Labour on the subject, as these are the parties from which Sinn Féin will make its gains. As prospective and sitting Labour seats crumbled at the last general election, so too will Fianna Fail face peril to its soft working class and republican underbelly.

Sinn Féin may well benefit from the votes of floaters disillusioned with government policies on health, education and social welfare - or indeed those just plain disillusioned and looking for an alternative - who want to give the coalition a bit of a bloody nose.

Neither Fianna Fail or Labour has taken into account the Sinn Féin threat in its candidate selection. It's as if the Sinn Féin surge will just go away if it is ignored.Well, it doesn't look like that from the Backroom.

Take the Dublin Euro constituency, for example. Fianna Fail is running Eoin Ryan and Royston Brady, the cheeky northside Lord Mayor. Ryan comes from a Fianna Fail dynasty which includes a founder of the party and a minister in de Valera's governments.

Squeezed on the southside by the possible candidature of glamorous PD Liz O'Donnell, he will have no vote to fall back on from the northside,where Brady will hoover up the Fianna Fail faithful - all of which he will need for himself to get elected. Sinn Féin will have eaten away any surplus that might allow the Soldiers of Destiny even a smell of two seats.

His own party will not thankTaoiseach Bertie Ahern for presiding over the election of a clone of himself at the expense of the respected and popular Eoin Ryan.

It's a far cry from the aftermath of the Assembly elections when the eclipse of the SDLP saw some disgruntled Fianna Fail backbenchers welcome the possibility of Sinn Féin providing alternative dancing partners to the dreaded PDs. How a hanging or an election concentrates the mind!

For Labour the problem is similar. Proinnsias De Rossa still maintains working-class credibility, though in decreasing amounts as he is seen as having gone native in Brussels.With his base eroded, he will need whatever transfers his running mate Ivana Bacik and Fine Gael can produce.

The net result will be stagnation for both Fianna Fail and Labour and a gain for Sinn Féin by Mary Lou McDonald. Fine Gael have in effect given up on the capital - having topped the poll last time - and will run two low-profile candidates.

The pattern repeats itself over the country.The shift is to Sinn Féin and that will mirror itself in the local election results.The opinion polls show quite clearly which party is on the upwards move - Sinn Féin.

Only in Leinster,where Pat Rabbitte pulled something of a coup by enticing former ICTU general secretary Peter Cassells to run, does Labour stand any realistic chance of beating Sinn Féin. Although even that is in some doubt if Sinn Féin field fellow Meathman Joe Reilly. In Munster, Labour will come behind Sinn Féin - with ominous forebodings for the next general election.

Meanwhile, back at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, Adams addresses a party poised to gain representation in its fourth parliamentary assembly. It already has seats in Stormont,Westminster and Leinster House. Now here comes Brussels,with at least one seat from both the Republic and the North.

Is the Sinn Féin bandwagon unstoppable? The answer, so long as its rivals in Fianna Fail and Labour remain mesmerised and immobilised by its rapid rise, is yes.

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