Not every political party is as media savvy as Sinn Féin these days. Sure, they try the auto cues to perfect their delivery of oft boring speeches to the media, yet seem to fail miserably (remember Alasdair Mc Donnell, anyone?) They push out their press releases, and on a good day manage to make the headlines with their respective party conferences. Sinn Féin are the masters of publicity spin and have been ahead of the pack with their slick, online coverage of their annual party conference for years. It’s ironic, then, that the well-oiled party political machine, became the victims of their own success on Saturday Night – just as their leader, Gerry Adams prepared to go live on two television channels to broadcast the closing conference speech.
The downfall of the party’s media strategy, was Sinn Féin’s hash tag for Twitter #sfaf14 – which allowed tweeters using the tag, to link directly into the Sinn Féin website in addition to the Twitter live feed. It was aimed at people attending the conference – encouraging them to tweet out speeches, and photos, with a positive feel, and in so doing, reach a wider audience, and maximize the message. In fairness to them, it started off well, with even Martin Mc Guinness getting into the act and posting up photos of himself, grinning with some of the future party hopefuls. But it soon became apparent that tweets on the #sfaf14 timeline, were not entirely supportive.
It appeared to happen organically at first. A few tweets about alleged Sinn Féin cover up of sexual abuse. “Men and Women raped by IRA Volunteers are not going away, Gerry Adams” – coupled with a link to an article written by the Sindo’s Eilis O’Hanlon, spiralled into that particular link being tweeted a few hundred times in twenty four hours.
By seven o’clock on Saturday, there were other tweets criticizing aspects of Sinn Féin policy. By 8:00pm, just as coverage of the conference started on BBC1, it was gaining momentum. A few tweets about Robert Mc Cartney and Paul Quinn, men murdered post ceasefire by the IRA, were quickly followed by a deluge of victims simply posting their relatives names, the date they were murdered, and in some cases how. Tweets and retweets were flying into the SF hashtag, and intensified during the Adams speech, ensuring that the thread, for that hour, belonged to the victims and not the party itself. Sinn Féin did not get a look in, as hundreds of tweets went up, one after the other, each one with a particular story to tell.
Martina Anderson, Sinn Fén’s MEP for Europe had given a speech the previous day on Collusion and Loyalist murders. It struck me, as I read the tweets, that every shade of victim had been represented at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, from inside and outside the Wexford Opera House. One set of victims spoken about inside the hall and commemorated, hundreds of other victims directly making their voices heard, on the outside. All lives lost or hurt, either through murder, or rape, or injury. Powerful voices. Horrific Stories. All had the opportunity of representation.
That’s what is so great about a hashtag. Everybody gets to have their say. Victims seized the opportunity, over and over, from victims of Birmingham bombings, to RUC widows, to Enniskillen, La Mon, Claudy, to Warrington and Fermanagh, to Garda Mc Cabe. Victims Campaigners like Ann Travers, whose sister Mary was 23 when she was gunned down in cold blood. A nurse who worked on Bloody Friday, and who wrote movingly of seeing victims “melting to the window sills” as she carried out her duties. Sons and daughters left without parents. Relatives of babies who had been blown up. People who wanted one thing. To be heard, to be remembered, and to ensure that as Sinn Féin were speaking about reconciliation – that they didn’t forget the fact that in most cases, apologies have not been forthcoming for the role in which many of their party members played in the ‘struggle to free Ireland’.
Sinn Féin will have been embarrassed. Not at the voices of the dead still ringing in their ears at a time when they would like to sanitise the republican movements crimes – but, that they didn’t see it coming and prepare for all eventualities. Victims, at a moment’s notice, stood together from across the political divide, to ensure their voices were heard. It was emotive and effective and clever.
The hashtag for Sinn Féin was clearly a mistake, and will surely be a lesson for other political parties, in how social media, while useful, can be a double edged sword. Particularly with the worlds media watching. Media certainly picked up on the fact, with some newspapers running stories about Sinn Féin being ‘hijacked’ (oh, the irony!), interviewing some of the victims who tweeted, and noting that for an hour – at least – Sinn Féin lost control of their own publicity tool, victims collectively stood up to them to make their point; and, to paraphrase Declan Kearney, “havent gone away”.