We in the Republic have a general election in two days, and it looks as though Sinn Fein are going to do exceptionally well. The unhappiness of people – particularly young and poor people – with the shortcomings of Fine Gael, often supported by Fianna Fail, over the past four years, is plain to see. An appalling housing and homelessness crisis, exacerbated by Fine Gael’s ideological objections to the large-scale building of public housing, and a chronically under-providing and unfair two-tier health service, are the main grievances. The left-wing populists of Sinn Fein, with their skilful leader Mary Lou McDonald (also skilful at avoiding difficult questions to do with the ugly militarism of the past) and their extravagant promises, look as if they will be the beneficiaries.
I want to sound a warning. Sinn Fein are not a normal democratic party. They have still not cast off the habits ingrained by decades of slavishly supporting a violent secret army, the Provisional IRA and its all-powerful ‘army council’. I have read that McDonald has apologised for the ‘hurt’ caused to Northern Protestants by the IRA. But I have also been at a hunger strike commemoration where she has been the keynote speaker and watched as other speakers shamelessly glorified that IRA violence. Nobody in Sinn Fein has denied Belfast journalist Sam McBride’s account in his brilliant book on the RHI ‘cash for ash’ scandal of how NI Finance Minister, Sinn Fein’s Mairtín Ó Muilleoir, asked for instructions in 2017 from very senior former IRA figures before he closed that crazy scheme down.
There are still serious questions about Sinn Fein’s rationalisation of the horrific beating to death of young Paul Quinn by an IRA gang in south Armagh in 2007, despite local Sinn Fein MLA (and Stormont Finance Minister) Conor Murphy’s unconscionably late apology for having called him a criminal. A cynic would say that apology was forced out of him to minimise the damage to the party’s vote south of the border, after the campaigning Quinn family again raised their son’s murder very publicly in the past few days.
There is also a question about who in July 2018 forced McDonald back into line after her extremely brief conversion to postponing a Border Poll on unity until Brexit was resolved. Ex-Sinn Fein TD, Aontú leader Peadar Toibín, has talked about how the party’s TDs were constantly dictated to by unelected party officials, and observers have noted the culture of bullying which has led to the departure of many local councillors.
One of the architects of the Northern peace process, Martin Mansergh, has spoken of “the perception that all the important decisions are taken by a kind of politburo”, a civilian version of the old IRA army council, so that Sinn Fein ministers sitting at the cabinet table “wouldn’t actually have the power to make definitive and in principle irreversible decisions.”¹ This all adds up to a kind of communist-style ‘democratic centralism.’ At the 1917 Bolshevik party congress, one of the definitions of this Leninist term was “that all decisions of higher bodies shall be absolutely binding on lower bodies and all Party members.”
Sinn Fein is also full of fantastical thinking. Their demand for a Border Poll in the next five years is utterly unrealistic, since there has not been a scintilla of discussion about how that process might be carried out, what would be the question put to the people, and what would happen in the highly unlikely event of Irish unity coming out of such a deeply divisive exercise (since the vote for nationalist parties in the North is currently running at less than 40%).
Even if there is a 50%+1 vote for unity in some future poll, there has not been the slightest consideration of how to cope with the 49.9%, made up of unionists who will remain bitterly opposed to that outcome. This is the key roadblock to unity (one ignored by Sinn Fein) that we have to find a way across if we are not to consign the next century in the North to a re-run of the last: with the two sides simply changing positions – nationalists in a majority in a ‘united’ Ireland and unionists the sullen, alienated and potentially violent minority.
More immediately, Rory Montgomery, the senior Irish diplomat who was a key player in the the Good Friday Agreement negotiations, has pointed out that it is not up to the Irish government to decide the timing of a Border Poll – that is a matter for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Montgomery warns that any pre-Border Poll discussion must be “low-key, non-partisan, deliberate, respectful and open-minded”.² If Sinn Fein leads that discussion, will it be any of those things?
Similarly on economics, the government’s Fiscal Advisory Council has estimated that there is around €11 billion of uncommitted resources available to the next government, but about half of that will be needed to fund demographic pressures and essential capital spending. What is Sinn Fein proposing to spend?An unbelievable and fantastically costed €22 billion.
Similarly on the environment, Micheál Martin was right to point out in the leaders debate this week that Sinn Fein’s opposition to an increased carbon tax – universally accepted as a key means of triggering behavioural change – is only the most startling element in a very thin and unoriginal policy on global warming (it’s an improvement on its 2016 manifesto, which contained just one tiny, passing mention of climate change).
Don’t all these considerations make Sinn Fein deeply untrustworthy? Apparently not. Certainly concerns about the party’s enthusiastic support for three decades of violence in the North seem to be ‘old hat’ for anyone under 40. “What is the political statute of limitations on atrocities?” asks Fintan O’Toole. “For those of us whose memories are still scarred by La Mon and Claudy, by Birmingham and Enniskillen, there is none. But younger people are already giving their answer: it has expired.”³
To quote Rory Montgomery again: “I write as someone who very much wishes to see a united Ireland achieved one day, in the words of Article 3 of our Constitution, ‘in harmony and friendship'”. And, like Montgomery, I am unusual in this Republic in being a nationalist from a Northern Protestant background.
All this leaves me and many others with a serious dilemma. At what point do you allow a less than democratic party with a significant electoral mandate, and a recent history of political violence (many would call it terrorism), to enter a democratic government?
My left-wing instincts incline me to O’Toole’s view, that the parties of change – Sinn Fein, the Greens, Labour, the Social Democrats and People Before Profit – will end up with close to 40% of the vote. “That’s a huge and potentially historic shift towards a democratic system that offers a genuine alternative to the centre-right. There is for the first time the possibility of a government that has social democratic and ecologically responsible policies at its core. Realising that possibility does not mean voting for Sinn Fein. But it does mean recognising the democratic legitimacy of those who do.”
On the other side is the warning by the renowned Austrian Jewish novelist, Stefan Zweig. Writing in the 1940s, Zweig looked back with bitter regret at his reaction to the explosion of support for the Nazis in the 1930 German election. Still oblivious at that point to what this popular upsurge might portend, Zweig had applauded the enthusiastic passion expressed in the elections. He had blamed the stuffiness of the country’s old-fashioned democrats for the Nazi victory, calling the results at the time “a perhaps unwise but fundamentally sound and approvable revolt of youth against the slowness and irresolution of ‘high politics.’” [I should make clear that I am not at all comparing Sinn Fein with the Nazis – only pointing to how people can come to regret a youthful vote for a radical party with a violent past.]
My deepest instinct – maybe too influenced by my knowledge of Northern unionism – is that the ruthless machine which is Sinn Fein, driving on to unity whatever the cost for the peace and harmony of this country, will lead us back to division and hatred and violence. So I’m asking people – and particularly young people – to think very hard before they tick the Sinn Fein box on the ballot paper, and then to vote for somebody else.
I will be voting for the Greens, acutely conscious that the endangered future of the planet – and the humans who live on it – is by a country mile the most important existential issue of the age. It makes our ‘narcissism of small differences’ on this island look lilliputian and idiotic.
And I will be hoping that Micheál Martin will lead the next government (although I don’t like a lot of the people in his party). He is simply the most thoughtful and knowledgeable Southern leader when it comes to the North, and one who has bravely and correctly resisted the pressures to join with Sinn Fein or to take Fianna Fail’s traditionally aggressive line on the ‘national question.’ I only hope he can continue to resist that pressure in the post-election negotiations to form a government.
¹ In Power Play: The Rise of Modern Sinn Fein, Deaglán de Breadún (2015)
² ‘Border Poll is not in Dublin’s gift’, Letters to the Editor, Irish Times, 5 February
³ ‘Time for Sinn Fein to come in from the cold’, Irish Times, 4 February