Paddy O'Gorman's Queuing for a Living is not the kind of radio programme that normally sets party-political hearts thumping. Not until Paddy went to Portlaoise prison last month and proferred his microphone to a line of people waiting outside to visit the inmates.
"Maurice Roche," one man in the queue introduced himself, "Sinn Féin member of Wexford County Council." He was visiting the high-security jail, he explained, to see his fellow county man, Jackie Bates, a bodhrán-maker of some renown. Councillor Roche planned to bring home some of Jackie's distinctive bodhráns and raffle them to raise funds for his re-election campaign to the council on 5 June.
Down in the sunny south east, Councillor Roche's chitchat on the national airwaves was sending shivers down his party's spine. The name of Jackie Bates signalled something more incendiary to them than a rhythmic bodhrán or the Siege of Ennis. It signalled the holy grail in an ongoing power struggle for the soul of appropriated "republicanism". A contest between the socialism and the reunification intrinsic to Sinn Féin's espoused 32-county socialist vision.
Bates, from Jacketstown House, Jacketstown, Drinagh, Co Wexford, was one of three men convicted in the Special Criminal Court in May 2007 for possessing boxes of ammunition and a homemade pipe bomb which they were transporting to Tipperary town. After his arrest on 1 March, 2007, resulting from a garda surveillance operation on the Continuity IRA, Bates claimed he didn't know the device was a bomb. "It was because I'm a stupid, thick bastard and I didn't know the scale of it," he pleaded to gardaí. He got five years' jail, two to be suspended.
The timing of Roche's jail visit raised tensions within Sinn Féin as it coincided with a petrol bomb attack on the Bogside home in Derry of Assembly member Mitchell McLaughlin, one of the party's most prominent peace negotiators. The coincidence encapsulated the two-facedness of Sinn Fein. On the one hand, being attacked for denouncing violent dissidents while, on the other hand, visiting them in jail.
It was the third such attack on McLaughlin's house, coming just weeks after a death threat was issued by a dissident group to Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. In a shared press conference with First Minister Peter Robinson and Chief Constable Hugh Orde, McGuinness, a former IRA leader, had branded the murderers of two British soldiers and a police constable as "traitors". Subsequently, in a statement issued to the Sunday Tribune, the Real IRA chillingly remarked: "Let us remind our former comrade of the nature and action of a traitor. Treachery is collaborating with the enemy."
This week, another high-profile Sinn Féin councillor in Wexford is expected to resign from the party. Sources say New Ross-based former European and general election candidate John Dwyer, who has been on a sun holiday on the continent since the local elections, is adamant he will walk away. They further predict that "up to 50 members" of Sinn Féin in Co Wexford could go with him. Dwyer and a small army of his election workers are said to have been on the brink of quitting six months ago in protest at the party leadership's perceived preference for Maurice Roche's candidacy.
A third Sinn Féin councillor in Wexford, Gorey publican Jimmy Fleming, defected to Fianna Fáil after the last general election. Another in Galway, Daniel Callanan, resigned around the same time, along with two councillors in Dublin and about 20 party workers.
Dwyer's defection will be another body blow to an organisation punch drunk from its pummelling in the past fortnight. Not only did Christy Burke concede the left's Dáil seat in the Dublin Central by-election to Maureen O'Sullivan but his vice-president Mary Lou McDonald relinquished her European seat in Dublin which carries a 'reserved for the left' stamp and is now occupied by Socialist Party leader Joe Higgins.
McDonald was assiduously groomed by Gerry Adams as the party's new face, ensuring from early on that she appeared beside him at election counts in Belfast to exploit every photo-opportunity. Her newfound dispossession, without either a seat in Europe or Leinster House, has come as a shock to senior Shinners who largely credited her spearheading of the anti-Lisbon campaign with the defeat of last year's referendum.
Nationally, in this month's elections, distinguished by a large anti-establishment turnout, Sinn Féin's vote declined, a trend epitomised by the loss of the once surefire council seat held by Daithí Doolan in Dublin South East. The party's electoral misfortunes were copperfastened last Tuesday when Sinn Féin's longest-serving councillor, the Dublin north inner-city veteran Christy Burke, announced his departure out of the blue.
Friends of Burke were reported anonymously as claiming that he had been "shafted" by his own party, who would have preferred Mary Lou McDonald as the by-election candidate had the European elections not intruded. Sinn Féin's chairman in Dublin, TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh, suggested the newly independent Burke give his Dublin council seat back to the party.
But was Burke's departure really such a surprise? "Look, Sinn Féin has been imploding for quite a while. The big mystery to everybody is how the media has managed to miss the story for so long," says a disillusioned party source. "Republicanism is in turmoil. You've got the careerists at the top in their Armani suits gagging to be in government in both parts of the island in time for the centenary of the Rising and they'll get into bed with any other party to do it. And then you've got the people on the ground campaigning on housing and drugs and they see an unelected party official in Dublin involved in selling truckloads of illegal Sky TV boxes. The ties with the dissidents haven't been severed. The leadership turns a blind eye to that and goes off hobnobbing with Fianna Fáil."
Part of Sinn Féin's problem is that peace has stripped it of its radical chic. The tightrope it has walked since the Good Friday Agreement, balancing between the magnetic forces of popular revolution and conformist democracy, has proved impossible to sustain. Its association with people-power causes like the Shell to Sea protest in Mayo has not salvaged its sulphur-scented anarchic image. The closer it inches to acceptance as a 'respectable' mainstream political party, the harder it is to sell itself. Its silence during the imbroglio over Fine Gael's intentions towards Sinn Féin as a coalition partner was not so much dignified as mortified and expedient.
The hunger for power, to be ensconced in Stormont and Kildare Street come Easter 2016 and embodying the imminence of a united Ireland, is proving an irresistible force. The glamorous grittiness has gone. It's been replaced by the glossy trappings of the establishment.
A moment at the RDS count centre last weekend graphically illustrated Sinn Féin's grey middle-of-the-road incarnation. A shiny black Mercedes car pulled up outside the front door. The expectation was that some glum government minister or other would climb out of it. Instead, out came Gerry Adams; looking glum enough. There were no exuberant party workers to greet him. When he arrived inside the hall, despite a hastily assembled reception committee more unmissable for its volubility than for its numbers, the scene exuded a nostalgic yearning. Unlike the triumphant chanting and waving of tricolours at the general election count in the same venue seven years ago, Sinn Féin could be mistaken for any other party putting a brave face on a bad day at the office.
"They're moulding a southern leadership, a malleable, presentable leadership not tainted with the whiff of cordite," believes a formerly elected Shinner. "Pearse [Doherty], Padraig [McLoughlin] and Mary Lou – more socialite than socialist – talk very well but they've no record on fighting for communities. Martin Ferris [Kerry North TD whose daughter, Toireasa Ferris failed to take a European seat in the South constituency] has a big say in who gets promoted. There's a struggle going on between nationalism and socialism and what's worrying is there's no figure emerging to lead the socialists in the party. Someone predicted a long time ago that as soon as the national question was resolved there would be a fracturing between nationalism and socialism. Well it's happened and the beneficiary is Joe Higgins.
"Adams has cast-iron control. He's still held in awe. There will be no attempt made to challenge the leadership on the fundamentals. It's much simpler for people to walk away to Eirigí or the real left. People are disgusted with the preparedness of the leadership to play footsie with Fianna Fáil. If a Sinn Féin councillor criticises the Fianna Fáil government over anything, they get a distinct cold shoulder from the party. One of their goals is to maintain what they call internal cohesion. That means keeping everybody on side and speaking from both sides of their mouths at once. They don't want a viable left emerging within the party because it would hamper their chances of getting into government. They'd rather do a deal with the devil
"There's going to be a closing of the shutters and a united front when the Sunday Tribune reports this. They'll say, 'You've never been fair to us' but privately the vast majority will say, 'Yes, we're in terrible trouble.' The vision of socialism that includes nationalising the banks is being taken over by a rural Fianna Fáil type of nationalism."
Eirigí , the breakaway political party set up by former Sinn Féin members, is gaining credence as the socialist alternative to the alma mater.
At its ardfheis last month, it reaffirmed its commitment to "a 32-county democratic socialist republic" and was critical of Siptu for "abdicating its responsibility to defend the interests of working people". It passed motions supporting the Shell to Sea protest, the No-to-Lisbon movement, the Palestinians, the people of Colombia, the Basques and the Cuban government. Its philosophy unambiguously subscribes to James Connolly's belief that "from socialism alone can the salvation of Ireland come".