Northern Ireland

Sinn Fein seeking blueprint for the future

Mary-Lou McDonald
Image caption Mary-Lou McDonald is reticent on suggested gains Sinn Fein has made in opinion polls in the past year

The Irish government this weekend marked its first year in office.

In a recorded video message, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, spoke of "a solid start" but pointed out "the very long way to go and many challenges ahead".

But the anniversary also extends to others.

Last year's general election in the Irish Republic gave Sinn Fein its best result in Dail elections.

The party added 10 seats to the four it previously held.

And sitting across from the Irish government on the opposition benches in the Dail is a party very much focused on its own performance.

"The old guard have been supplanted by TDs like Mary Lou McDonald, Pearse Doherty and Peadar Tobin," explained Pat Leahy, political editor of the Sunday Business Post.

"They are much better media and Dail performers than the previous TDs.

"The addition of Gerry Adams has been more symbolic than actual value in the Dail but there is no question that there has been a quantum leap for Sinn Fein, not just in numbers but in profile and ability."

A recent Red C/ Sunday Business Post poll suggests Sinn Fein is now the second most popular party in the Irish Republic.

However, Sinn Fein's Mary-Lou McDonald is reticent on any suggested gains the party has made in opinion polls over the past year.

"We said very clearly that we wanted to represent in an effective way the interests of middle and low-income earners and we've come into the Dail and that's exactly what we are doing," she said.

"I think the impression that people in the opposition benches somehow have it easy is wrong-headed given the huge government majority in the Dail."

Of course political opinion polls are not averse to the laws of gravity.

So what are the factors fuelling the rise of Sinn Fein, and what issues or weak points might cause their showing in the polls to drop?

"Clearly we've got the politics of austerity and if Sinn Fein can't capitalise on that, they'll never capitalise on anything" said Michael Marsh, Professor of Politics at Trinity College Dublin.

"It's still the case that for a self-described working class, left-wing party, they still don't do very well in Dublin, they still have a somewhat disparate support basis.

'Song and dance'

"I think their strength is that they have a lot of energetic, young TDs and activists who are focused in a way that Fianna Fail used to be focused and Labour and Fine Gael have never been."

However, there has been a speed-bump of late for the party.

The admission by Sinn Fein TD Aengus O Snodaigh, that he used 50,000 euros worth of public money on printer cartridges over a two year period gave colour writers the opportunity to indulge in monikers such as the Wolfe Toners or the Cartridge Family.

But did Ink-Gate really cause any red-faces in the party?

"The amount was excessive, it won't happen again," Mary-Lou McDonald said.

"But Fianna Fail or others that have been up to their oxters in scandals in this state, making a song and dance about this has raised a question in the public mind also."

And what of the candidacy of Martin McGuinness in the presidential election.

Has it, as some said it would, "lanced the boil" of the party's links to its past.

"Go back to the numbers" said Pat Leahy.

"In the previous Dail there was a ceiling on Sinn Fein's support at about 10%, now that ceiling appears to be broken.

"I think partly that has got to do with the conversation that the party engaged with about its past during the presidential election.

"There is an old political metaphor; a shirt with a stain that you keep washing and eventually the stain fades.

"For a lot of people the memory of the conflict that the IRA and Sinn Fein were involved with is like a stain on a shirt but as time goes on that stain will fade."

The Sunday Politics is on BBC One Northern Ireland at 11:00 GMT.

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