It could be argued that the objective of any political party is to be electorally successful and to set the agenda/implement policy according to their proscribed ideology, with most people agreeing that the two things go hand in hand - you can't very well set the agenda and implement policy if you are not electorally successful - and as such it is one combined objective.
What often happens though is that parties, politicians and voters alike believe that by achieving the former, the latter will follow. Thus, the combined objective of winning and then implementing policy becomes two very separate objectives and winning becomes primary above all else. What this means is that where there is a conflict of policy, parties - often unconsciously - shape their decisions based on what is best for the primary objective and so ideology is compromised.
There is no doubt that in terms of organisation and activism, Sinn Fein lead the way in Northern Ireland. They are professional, slick and entirely focused on the result which is more often than not a favourable one. Their structure and the way they operate is definitely something other parties can learn from. But that doesn't mean they are successful as a political party, it just means they know how to organise and know how to secure their vote.
Sinn Fein have to be measured - like any other party - against how successful they are in convincing the public (or more specifically: the electorate) that their vision is the right vision. On that measurement, it is clear that Sinn Fein have failed. They have only themselves to blame.
Sinn Fein are supposedly a party of Irish Nationalism. A party whose main and primary objective is the unification of the island of Ireland as a nation of equals. If this is indeed what Sinn Fein want above all else then they seriously need to re-think their strategy and start asking themselves some very difficult questions:
- What's more important: Irish Unity or remembering the IRA?
- What's more important: Irish Unity or opposition to The Queen & the UK?
- What's more important: Irish Unity or holding West Belfast?
- What's more important: Irish Unity or republican prisoners being part of the process?
From everything they do, Sinn Fein make it clear that Irish Unity is only appealing with certain caveats: Unionists not only have to stop being unionists, they have to accept Sinn Fein's vision of how things should be. They have to accept former terrorists as their leaders; they have to reject their culture & their history; they have to reject their ideology (no room for right wing minded people in Sinn Fein's Ireland).
If I was a Sinn Fein strategist, my starting point would be "what do we do to convince Unionists to abandon their unionism". It's the only way that the goal of unification can be achieved and as such, all other considerations - prisoners, the IRA, anti-monarchism - are where you make the compromises. Sinn Fein don't do that. They put people like Mary McCardle into senior positions and they promote ex terrorists through their political ranks so the Assembly is led by one of the most notorious ex terrorists.
Sinn Fein can justify these kinds of decisions - and, if I'm honest, I tend to agree with much of their justification - but what they don't do is consider the damage it does to their supposedly primary objective. Why, when appointing McCardle did no one in their strategy team say "hold on, how does this make us look to Unionists?" and put a stop on the appointment?
I am all too aware of the importance of remembering history and considering what happened in context but that is a luxury Sinn Fein can not afford. If Irish unity is ever going to happen, Sinn Fein need to accept that sacrifices will have to be made - people's noses will have to be put out of joint and it's likely that people who do the right thing will suffer personally (just ask David Trimble & the UUP). The problem is that Sinn Fein want those sacrifices to be made by Unionists, not them.
I've little doubt that members and activists within Sinn Fein will disagree with the entirety of this post but before they do they should ask themselves these questions:
- Do you need Unionists to achieve your goal of Irish Unity?
- Do Unionists endorse Sinn Fein?
That's the simplest measure I can think of to gauge Sinn Fein's success as a political party and on that measure, they have failed quite spectacularly.