Wednesday, 4 April 2012
There goes our supporters, we must lead them - Tommy McKearney
Having refused to support the call for a boycott of the household charge and opting instead to stoke up fear about possible penalties for those who don’t pay, Sinn Fein is now trying to play catch up. No matter what the final count for non-registration/non-payment turns out to be, the fact remains that huge numbers of people (over 50%) have rebelled against the coalition government’s tax and Sinn Fein is concerned that it may be left behind.
Over 3,000 people from all over the Republic gathered in Dublin’s National Stadium on 24th March for an anti-household charge rally and those present spoke of an electric atmosphere. It had been many years since any political protest had generated such passion. One week later and again the crowds gathered in Dublin to protest. This time even larger numbers marched through the streets to the Fine Gael ard fheis in order to demonstrate their anger outside the governing party’s annual conference. Coincidentally, the ard fheis coincided with the deadline for payment of the charge and by midnight of that day, word was out that almost one million households had still to register.
And where amid all this commotion was the organisation that had made its name through years of protest and agitation? Where was Sinn Fein and its supposed cadres of eager activists? Well they were at home telling the populace that, while they did not like the tax either, they were opposed to a boycott because it might lead to people being fined. The party had laid out its objection to direct action quoting, it claimed, its experience of similar protest with a rent and rate strike in the North during the early 1970s. People, the Sinn Fein party said, had payments deducted from their social security and to risk this happening again would be irresponsible.
Some observers claimed, however, that Sinn Fein had miscalculated the mood of the people when the household charge was first announced and underestimated popular anger. Sinn Fein was, at the time, concentrating on a strategy of replacing Fianna Fail and was determined not to scare off the conservative middle ground by being seen to encourage its supporters to ‘break the law of the land'.
Now, however, that caution is being seen within Sinn Fein as a strategic error. Nine left-wing TDs organised the anti-household charge campaign throughout the Republic. Consequently, they have now gained a toehold in constituencies where the Left had hitherto been almost unknown. While Sinn Fein has 14 TDs in the Dail, the party knows that its deputies are competing for many of the same voters as the Left is and a little slippage could make a significant difference come election time, especially if the Fianna Fail gambit fails.
As a result, Sinn Fein now appears to be trying to play ‘catch-up’. On Monday 2 April, its Dublin City councillors staged a dramatic walk out from the council’s monthly meeting in protest at a decision not to allow an emergency motion from them on the Household Charge. Other similar gestures can be expected in the future but whether this will have the desired impact is open to debate.
It may well be a question of, there goes our supporters we must follow them and of course – provide leadership. Sometimes, though, it is possible to be too clever by half and this may be one of those occasions.