By Liam Clarke
Belfast Telegraph
25 May 2012

Reality TV: Gerry Adams’ speech to Sinn Fein’s ard fheis will be carefully stage-managed

Sinn Fein’s ard fheis opens in Killarney tomorrow. Like most conferences held by successful political parties, it is a well-managed set-piece. It is a PR event and it is aimed at the voters watching on TV.

The party faithful in the hall are a backdrop – there to radiate support and unanimity, not wrangle over policy like revolutionaries.

The most important episode and the focus of the whole conference will be Gerry Adams’ leader’s address, which goes out live on both RTE and BBC Northern Ireland at 5.25pm on Saturday.

It must be honed and crafted to suit the broadcasters.

Sinn Fein plays for high stakes and can’t afford to over-run, as Alasdair McDonnell did at the SDLP gathering.

Opinion polls say Sinn Fein is the second most popular party in the Republic after Fine Gael, and the Assembly elections made it second only to the DUP in Northern Ireland. That makes the goal of being simultaneously in government north and south potentially achievable.

If that happened, Sinn Fein could claim that Irish unity, or at least a significant staging-post, had been achieved, as Sinn Fein ministers operated all-Ireland bodies from both sides of the border.

Ideally, from Sinn Fein’s point-of-view, this would happen in 2016 – the anniversary of the Easter Rising.

Adams has a lot to juggle. The north-south equation isn’t easy to balance.

In government in the north, the party swallowed hard and voted to cut expenditure by £3bn over four years.

The imperative here is to maintain stable government in partnership with the DUP.

That – and the £10bn-a-year subsidy we receive from Britain – makes it difficult to do more than issue Press statements about austerities handed down from Westminster.

In the Republic, Sinn Fein advocates defaulting on EU loans and vocally opposes coalition cuts. There its main priority is to gain ground and undermine the coalition for cutting too hard.

The Irish Labour Party generally builds support in opposition and sees it seep away when it enters coalition with a more Right-wing party.

This time is no exception – the latest poll shows Labour has lost 25% of its support to Sinn Fein and independents compared to last year’s election and Sinn Fein has edged ahead of it in overall popularity.

Sinn Fein needs to continue to focus on Labour’s inability to deliver its pre-election promises in coalition, while it distracts attention from the fact it too is implementing cuts as part of a coalition in the north. The north is having a ‘feedback’ effect on southern strategy. Sinn Fein has seen how the DUP extended its appeal into middle-class voters by stressing its business credentials alongside more traditional rallying-calls.

Last week, Pearse Doherty, a Donegal TD and someone to watch when Gerry Adams steps down, gave a hint of things to come when he said: “We need entrepreneurs and business leaders to be adventurous and to be successful.”

In the battle for new and marginal votes, Sinn Fein must measure its policies by viewer sentiment, not dogma.

That democratic discipline will change it out of all recognition.