Fine Gael & Sinn Fein

Fine Gael needs to both organise and contest elections in Northern Ireland if it is not to play second fiddle to Sinn Fein following the next Dail elections. That’s the advice controversial commentator Dr John Coulter gives to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in his latest Fearless Flying Column today.

While there has been much talk about how Unionism should deal with Sinn Fein in the future, there needs to be a constructive debate as to how nationalism – especially south of the border – deals with the new-look Sinn Fein bandwagon.

Sinn Fein has already made it clear it sees the route to a united Ireland lying not in Stormont’s politically vacant Parliament Buildings, but through the back door of Dublin’s Leinster House.

What would have been unthinkable during the 1981 republican hunger strike – namely Sinn Fein TDs not only taking their seats in the Dail, but possibly becoming a minority partner in a Leinster House coalition government – is now flavour of the month in republican circles. 

The bitter reality which moderate nationalism must now face is that Sinn Fein has done to the SDLP what the SDLP did to the old Irish Nationalist Party in the 1970s – electoral oblivion.

The SDLP can argue and spin all it wants about pushing its vote up a few percentage points in the recent West Tyrone Westminster by-election, but the result is still the same – the constituency remains a Sinn Fein stronghold. Had the SDLP really been making a significant comeback, it would have reduced the massive Sinn Fein majority acquired by the outgoing MP Barry McElduff to a couple of thousand votes reducing it in status to a Sinn Fein marginal.

Fianna Fail has already indicated that it is prepared to contest next year’s planned local government elections in Northern Ireland, giving the nationalist community an all-Ireland alternative to Sinn Fein. The SDLP’s current Achilles Heel is that it is only a six counties party.

Sinn Fein, even when it had only one TD in Leinster House, was always able to politically taunt the SDLP that it was organised on an all-island basis. Playing the James Connolly-style socialist card was a trick Sinn Fein used when both Irish Labour and British Labour failed to organise and contest elections on an all-island basis, especially when the Irish Labour Party – founded in the same year as Sinn Fein, 1905 – was a coalition partner in the Dail.

With the SDLP well and truly battered at the polls, a new-look Northern Fianna Fail could even attract tactical voting from Unionists to keep Sinn Fein out of council seats in 2019. But where does this leave Fine Gael?

The obvious answer would be that Fine Gael does not want to organise north of the border to avoid overcrowding the moderate nationalist market, thereby splitting that vote and allowing Sinn Fein to snatch former SDLP council seats. That was the bitter lesson which Unionism had to learn when several shades of Unionism contested seats, allowing seats – especially in the Assembly – to be won by a whisker by republicans.

Okay, so Taoiseach Varadkar is primarily concerned with keeping his top job in Leinster House rather than devoting much-needed resources to create a moderate nationalist revival in Northern Ireland.

But what happens in the next Dail poll if the only option for Varadkar to keep Fine Gael in power is to do a deal with Sinn Fein? In reality, he could find himself in the same position as the SDLP – having to work with an all-island party while he leads a party which is only organised in one state in Ireland.

Varadkar’s solution to this dilemma is simple – Fine Gael must organise and contest elections in Northern Ireland like its Fianna Fail counterpart, but he will have to box exceptionally clever politically.

This will require a redefining of the so-called Pan Nationalist Front along the same lines as the former United Ulster Unionist Coalition – or Treble UC – operated successfully within Unionism in the 1970s. That Unionist Coalition represented up to four different Unionist parties in the Seventies – the DUP, UUP, Vanguard Unionists and UUUP.

By selecting the Unionist party best able to win seats, the UUUC secured 11 of the 12 Westminster seats in the February 1974 General Election with only the late Gerry Fitt’s West Belfast stronghold eluding the Unionist Coalition.

Unionist jibes about a Pan Nationalist Front involved the SDLP, Sinn Fein and the Dublin government. Varadkar must take the bull by the horns and replace that nationalist coalition with a new Front involving Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and any viable remnants of the SDLP to isolate Sinn Fein.

Could Varadkar even encourage British Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn to contest Northern Ireland council seats and add a socialist dimension to the reformed Pan Nationalist Front. Could even the Green Party and Alliance Party be persuaded to join the Front in some areas West of the River Bann?

Given Fine Gael’s supposed Right of Centre credentials, could we even witness tactical voting by Unionists – especially in West of the Bann council areas – to slash the number of Sinn Fein council seats after 2019?

One of the arguments which some Unionists have pushed to oppose the creation of a single pro-Union party in Northern Ireland is that having a selection of Unionist parties encourages pro-Union voters to come out and vote for parties of their choice. That sounds nice on paper, but it is clear the pro-Union community wants a single Unionist party to represent them given the current strength of the DUP at Stormont and in Westminster.

Clearly, too, in response to this unofficial unity in Unionism, nationalist voters in Northern Ireland have thrown their weight behind Sinn Fein. The republican movement has been able to significantly tap into the electorally lucrative middle class Catholic vote, while still maintaining its traditional working class republican heartlands.

This is why a new-look Pan Nationalist Front is required, not just in Northern Ireland, but right across the island of Ireland if Sinn Fein is to be kept out of a government role in Leinster House. Simple question which non-Sinn Fein candidates must ask themselves – how many of Sinn Fein’s Dail TD tally could have been avoided if there had been a Nationalist Coalition during the last Leinster House general election?

If there is one election tactic which Sinn Fein has become a master at it is mobilising its vote. It can, quite simply, get its people out on polling day. If there was Australian-style compulsory voting in the Irish republic, would Sinn Fein have the same representation in the Dail?

Non-Sinn Fein parties in the republic will not defeat the republican movement electorally by simply branding Sinn Fein as a loony left-wing commie outfit still run by the Provos’ Army Council. Varadkar has only got one solution on the table – reform the Pan Nationalist Front on both sides of the border, because the Stormont experience is very clear – once Sinn Fein gets into government, it will be very, very difficult to shift the party out!

Dr John Coulter has been a journalist working in Ireland for the past 40 years.

His ebook, An Sais Glas (The Green Sash) The Road to National Republicanism is published on Amazon Kindle.

Dr Coulter is on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

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