Writing in the Belfast Telegraph, Anthony McIntyre looks at the spectacular rise of Sinn Fein in the South.
When Mary Lou McDonald took over the reins of Sinn Fein from the caudillo who preceded her, she hardly hit the ground running. With a disastrous outing in the 2018 Presidential election followed by a dismal showing in last year’s local government elections, those who dismissed the idea that Gerry Adams carried too much baggage to permit take-off, seemed to have their point proven. After last weekend’s election, with McDonald now airborne and soaring, any suggestion of a P45 coming her way has vanished.
With the counts from the election centres not yet completed, it remains possible that Sinn Fein will push Fianna Fail so close that if, in the event of a coalition between both parties, McDonald insists on a rotating Taoiseach, Micheal Martin will find it hard to refuse. That is how far Sinn Fein has come.
The phenomenal overnight rise of the party has been propelled by two factors. Fianna Fail’s Confidence and Supply arrangement that allowed Fine Gael to carry on misgoverning has proven disastrous. What seemed a good idea at the time – in large part govern from the opposition benches but let those with ministerial briefs take the blame for any downturn – caused Fianna Fail to become indistinguishable from Fine Gael. That more than any single factor created the space for something that at least resembled a much-needed plausible opposition to channel the swelling public resentment.
What eased Sinn Fein’s move into that plausibility vacuum was the vacation of its party presidency by Gerry Adams, whose fidelity to ambition had long stifled the party’s potential. With him out of sight the stench of decomposition that clung to his persona has faded to the point where what remains of it is no longer a repellent to voters. Mary Lou McDonald was able to sweep aside probes about the brutal killing of Paul Quinn in a manner that Adams was never able to do in respect of Jean McConville. Huge swathes of voters can now approach Sinn Fein without feeling the need to hold their noses. And once the Sinn Fein genie was out of the bottle there was no way for Fianna Fail or Fine Gael to get it back in.
Sinn Fein’s performance has sent shockwaves reverberating throughout the political system and commentariat, where some of the more deluded have taken to issuing a siren call to arms against what they mendaciously imply is a Nazi phenomenon. No doubt there remain quite a few within Sinn Fein, particularly in the North, who would readily don the brownshirts and smash a lot of glass, but the huge upsurge in Sinn Fein support is not coming from goose steppers. It is attracted to what the party says on housing, homelessness and health, not drawn to its internal culture of bullying. While Adams, as a martial politician, may have had much in common with Roberto D’Aubisson, the same cannot be said of McDonald.
Nor does Sinn Fein’s success amount to an endorsement of the Provisional IRA’s armed struggle. On the contrary, senior party figure Gerry Kelly in the past week has been operating as a recruiting agent for the PSNI which thanked him by immediately announcing its intention to arrest and prosecute several people suspected of having taken part in the IRA’s campaign.
Those of us who have long felt that Sinn Fein merely wanted to become that which they previously hated cannot seriously begin to extrapolate from their electoral success that they pose a Nazi-like threat to democracy or are intent on legitimising the IRA’s failed campaign. As in the North they are about to morph into that which they hope to replace. Sinn Fein’s history in the Northern Executive has been anything but one of radical change, agreeing with the DUP the implementation of Tory austerity measures including raising the pension age.
If propelled into government by the demand for change Sinn Fein will, on past form, ultimately short-change the people who elected it. Capital will not be brought under democratic control, there will be no “assertive levelling and redistribution of economic resources”, no enhanced social wage. With the two-party state having overnight become a three-party state, Tweedledee and Tweedledum have been joined by Tweedleduh.