Is Sinn Féin about to split again? The party, which reached the current stage of its evolution only after a series of upheavals, splits and internal civil wars, is again on the verge of crisis. A series of high-profile departures following poor results south of the border in the June elections has highlighted what many party members have known for some time – that in the Republic, Sinn Féin is struggling to connect with voters, who are unsure of what the party stands for, beyond a long-term commitment to a united Ireland.
A high-level meeting next month will try to sort out the situation, but it is clear that the problems in the party run deep, with leading figures prepared to make their concerns known in a public manner that would have been unthinkable even a year ago.
The latest departure from the ranks came last week when Dublin city councillor Louise Minihan followed in the footsteps of veteran Dublin councillor Christy Burke, Wexford councillor John Dwyer and Strabane councillor Gerard Foley and resigned her membership.
"Sinn Féin has over the last 12 years moved steadily away from the core values of Irish socialist republicanism and is no longer willing, or able, to challenge the British occupation of the Six Counties or the rotten capitalist system which is causing so much hardship to working families across Ireland today," she said in her resignation statement.
Party sources claim that, even though councillors have defected for different reasons, there has been a growing disillusionment in the party in recent months.
The current strife has been highlighted by some rare internal criticism of the party in a recent article in the Sinn Féin weekly newspaper, An Phoblacht.
Kerry councillor and recent European election candidate Toireasa Ferris penned a frank criticism of the party, claiming it was "neither a credible alternative to the government nor a party of protest".
She admitted that the electorate in the Republic sees "us as a Northern-based party irrelevant to the everyday concerns of people in the 26 counties". She said: "Sinn Féin simply means nothing to the bulk of people in the South," and that "the party is suffering an identity crisis".
A party strategist has told the Sunday Tribune that the problems in the party are much more deep-seated as they go beyond the election results and are related to the peace process.
"If you read between the lines, a lot of people are basically saying they have problems with the peace process. They are starting to realise that it is not going to deliver a united Ireland," he said.
A sitting councillor echoed these views and said: "Maybe we don't know who we are or where we are going. My grievance with the party is that we don't have any date in mind for a united Ireland. The peace process has been great and this country has achieved so much since the 1994 ceasefire. I am not saying there will be a return to violence either, as anybody who was going to leave for that reason has long gone, but I do think the time has come where we need to cement a definite plan for a united Ireland and work towards that."
There is a common perception within party ranks that Sinn Féin's failure to achieve electoral success in the 2007 general election and in the recent elections has brought the current problems to the fore, as morale has been shattered.
A republican source, who has also defected, claimed that even though the party held its own in terms of council seats on 5 June, it has not capitalised on the move to the left in the recession.
"It is disappointing that there was a good performance from the left but Sinn Féin did not capitalise on this," he said. "For example, you have people like the hard-working Cieran Perry winning a council seat in Cabra in the heart of 'Nicky Kehoe territory'. The other major disappointment was the way Mary Lou McDonald lost her European seat, not to Fianna Fáil, which would have been more acceptable, but to Joe Higgins. Sinn Féin has failed to become the party of the left in the midst of the economic crisis."
Another major problem for the party is the fact that its Northern Ireland leadership does not resonate with the electorate in the South; members are now openly admitting to this problem. It was most stark before the last general election, when Gerry Adams' poor understanding of the Republic's economy was manifest in a TV debate.
"The problem of the northern leadership having no relevance in the south is still there," the republican source said. "Mary Lou appeared to fit that brief but you have to think that, having failed to win a seat in Dublin Central in the last general election and losing out to Joe Higgins in June now, means there is a certain aura of failure around Mary Lou. Some elements in the party may be thinking that it needs somebody else but there is no obvious replacement apart from perhaps Toireasa Ferris. With all due respect to her she is probably too young even though she progressed well in Ireland South as a European candidate."
McDonald was lauded in the party for leading a successful campaign against the Lisbon treaty. Another difficulty the party may face in the coming months is that it could end up supporting a No campaign that might fail in the second referendum in October.
There has been some suggestion that the party may support the Yes campaign to "have a win under our belts" in October, but this was dismissed by people at all levels in the party last week.
"There would be further erosion of the party's core support if we changed our minds on Lisbon," said one supporter. "The guarantees secured by the government do not change the treaty so we will continue to oppose it."
In her article in An Phoblacht on 9 July, the daughter of TD Martin Ferris wrote: "We must return to being community activists, not politicians. By focusing all our energies on winning extra Dáil seats in certain constituencies we have put the cart before the horse. Forget the notion of trying to be a catch-all party that appeals to everyone. That way we'll end up attracting the loyalty of no one. Let's focus on building an electoral coalition that can bring us 20%-30% of the vote."
Party sources have told the Sunday Tribune that it is unlikely that Ferris would have been allowed to write that article without getting the go-ahead from the party's higher echelons. The views expressed in the article probably echo those of the party hierarchy.
"We cannot continue to flounder," Ferris warned. "The worst thing this party could do would be to circle the wagons and shy away from the debate we need to have."
Ferris' comments were welcomed in the letters pages of An Phoblacht the following week. Dublin councillor Séamus McGrattan wrote: "We need to decide what we're about and fast. We have spread ourselves too wide by trying to appeal to everyone. We need to be more focused on what we're about. We need to stop burying our heads in the sand, hoping this problem will go away because it will only get worse."
In another letter, Michael Nolan from Ballybrack in south Dublin claimed: "Our message has become bland and meaningless. Our mixed messages on the economy and our dithering over the possibility of going into government amounted to a poor attempt at fancy political footwork which resulted in us falling flat on our faces."
Poor electoral performances have added to the growing consensus that the peace process may not deliver a united Ireland, according to the party strategist. As a supporter of the peace process, he does not fear a return to armed struggle.
"There are people in the party who want to have their cake and eat it. They say they have difficulties with the peace process but they have never, and would never, fire a shot in anger. That's a dangerous place to be."
In his assessment of the party since the peace process, he identifies three groups within Sinn Féin. First, there are those who were not happy with the process but would go along with it to see what happened. Second, there were those who expected huge electoral gains from it, which did not materialise. Third, during the Troubles Sinn Féin brought in people with a lot of political differences and this included ultra-leftists who are not happy with the way things have developed.
'Where's Sinn Féin at? Where are we going?' was the headline on the Ferris article. The answer to those questions may be clearer after next month's crunch meeting.
A party spokeswoman told the Sunday Tribune that a range of meetings are taking place within the party at the moment and the special meeting in August will assess the post-election situation, make plans for the Lisbon campaign and discuss how the party can help "ordinary workers under attack in resisting cuts to essential public services, rates of pay and social welfare entitlements".
Sources at all levels in the party claim that there is little risk of a major split, and many even believe that what has been dubbed an "internal crisis" will focus the future direction of the party in the south. Gerry Adams has been party president for 26 years since he succeeded Ruairi Ó Brádaigh in 1983.
"Some of the leaders have been trying to ease themselves out as they would like to leave younger people in charge as they are tired," said one republican source. "I don't know how Adams keeps going. He can't retire as the party has not carried out proper planning for his succession."
Another source said: "The party probably needs to move on from the Adams leadership but the time is not suitable in light of the current difficulties in the south. For all the difficulties he may face as the leader, nobody has the prestige or clout within the party to keep the ship moving forward. He might have been well advised to walk away two years ago but now it is more difficult for him to do that with the trouble in the party in the South."
Last month, Adams hosted party conferences on the theme of 'Uniting Ireland' in San Francisco and New York. At next month's meeting, Sinn Féin will be striving to unite itself.