You’re familiar, I’m sure, with the notion of the tipping point. It’s defined in one dictionary as “the critical point in an evolving situation that leads to a new and irreversible development”. It’s fair to say that electorally, Sinn Féin have now reached that point. The question has changed from being “Will Sinn Féin make real headway in the south?” to “What kind of party will Sinn Féin be as it becomes a leading player?”
For a lot of people, Sinn Féin means one thing only: the Irish unity party. That’s not to be sniffed at: there’s an ache in the bones of many Irish people to achieve a position where Irish people run Irish affairs, insofar as that’s compatible with a world moving towards globalisation. But while there was a time when people voted for Sinn Féin on that basis, and before that because there was the proverbial whiff of cordite from them, those days are long gone. And the party is where it is today because those days are gone.
Gerry Adams’s Bodenstown speech yesterday reflected the key areas that concern the party at present. He placed considerable weight on the futility of trade union fidelity to a Labour Party that ignores their interests. If Sinn Féin shows it is willing and able to supply what the Labour Party manifestly can’t or won’t, then ex-Labour voters will turn to Sinn Féin.
I’d prefer to think that Sinn Féin are working for those suffering most in southern society not for political advantage but because they believe it’s a core feature of what they are as a party. They’ve shown in the recent elections that their appeal is wide and deep across Ireland. What is now crucial is that they maintain their focus on a united Ireland of equals.
The danger is that, in its concern for electoral success, it could water down key features of its political philosophy. There are those who say Sinn Féin, in its eagerness to be in power by 2016, will make all sorts of compromises. I’d like to think Gerry Adams’s Bodenstown speech made clear those things that are crucial to its life and success as a party.
To quote Tony Blair, only this time for real: the hand of history is on the party’s shoulder.