Friday, 8 June 2012

A Return to sense and sanity: a guest post by Dr Phil Larkin

Dr Phil Larkin returns to provide a thoughtful post on the rise of Sinn Fein in the Republic.


Every so often certain sections of the media, Irish and British, seem to “lose the run of themselves” in relation to a particular issue. For a sector of the Irish media (north and south of the border), the current cause for hysteria is the seemingly unstoppable rise of Sinn Fein within the body politic of the Irish Republic, a frenzy fuelled by the recent referendum campaign on the EU Fiscal Reform Treaty. If one were to believe all that has been written over the last few weeks, we would see Gerry Adams as alternatively the next Taoiseach or Irish President, Sinn Fein forming a majority in the Dail at the next election, holding all the cards to Ireland’s political future in their hands. Every utterance that a party figure makes is hailed by some as a piece of profound political wisdom, and there appears to be no limits to their ability as political strategists. The young and educated are supposed to be rallying to the party banner in shoals and legions, sweeping all before them. None of this is entirely new: SF’s advances in the Irish General Election of last year were greeted with similar fanfare in the same quarters.

Happily, out of the general hysteria came a voice of reason, in the form of a Belfast Telegraph article by Henry McDonald, which appeared in the Belfast Telegraph on 30 May. McDonald brought a good dose of insipid common sense to commentary on SF’s position in the Irish Republic, and helps burst the balloon which has continually been inflated by other journalists over the past year or so. It is the aim of this article to take up and expand upon some of the themes alluded to in his newspaper piece, and make some parallels with an issue of concern on this side of the Irish Sea.

McDonald uses the EU referendum campaign in the Republic as a point of focus, and notes how Sinn Fein was undoubtedly the largest single player in the “No” campaign. Even if (as appears likely at the time of writing) the Irish electorate returns a narrow “yes” in the vote, he concedes that the party will have further made in-roads into parts of Middle Ireland they have never reached before. However, he proceeds to make the following important qualifying statement:

Much of Middle Ireland is turned off by the northern-based leadership, tainted as it still is by the Provisionals' blood-soaked paramilitary past. A new leadership of southern based politicians would undoubtedly make the party much more attractive to middle class, economically conservative Irish voters. That in turn would require Sinn Fein to dilute its leftist, autarkic policies on southern economic issues and at the same time risk alienating its older, poorer base.

This succinctly summarizes the upcoming trouble ahead for Sinn Fein in the Republic. It has long been acknowledged that the biggest single task facing any political party in mature Western democracies is to capture enough support of the “squeezed middle” of the electorate (which, after all, comprises the bulk of the population) to gain an overall majority, or form a coalition government, which is the usual situation in the Republic.  Sinn Fein, however, is effectively trying to be all things to all men, and it is likely that Middle Ireland (highly literate, informed, and interested) will recognise the sheer hollowness of their economic policies before too long, if they ever bought it in the first place. This is evident from some of the comments made by Irish voters preceding the referendum: one retired accountant from Tipperary made the extremely pertinent observation on the BBC News website that while Gerry Adams said that funds would be available for Ireland even if it rejected the new fiscal compact, he did not state where such funds would come from. It is true that younger SF TDs such as Pearse Doherty and Mary Lou McDonald may have a greater superficial grasp of the language of political economy, and a southern SF leadership almost certainly will wish to modify somewhat the party’s left-wing and autarkic policies in order to appeal to Middle Ireland, but this is likely to alienate the niche areas of the Irish electorate where they have spent so much time and effort seeking to capture. In addition, if the party does go down the path of moving to the centre ground in terms of economic policy, how will it then be able to claim that it is so very different from Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, and Labour, the mainstream parties which SF professes to detest? The middle ground of Irish politics is already a crowded field, and SF are very much newcomers: yes, they come across at present as something new, flash, and exciting, but how long can the fireworks and fun last for? A diet of rhetorical candyfloss and quasi-Poujadism becomes very sickly after a while.

Perhaps this is a naïve view to adopt, but I simply did not buy the hullabaloo prevalent last year about the permanent demise of Fianna Fail as a force in Irish politics, and their eclipse by a rampant Sinn Fein. I simply do not believe that over 80 years of history can just be obliterated by the results of one (admittedly disastrous) election. The reality, as it appears to me, is that SF is currently riding high the wave of dissatisfaction with established political parties which is prevalent in the Republic: the draw of their outdated and threadbare economic policies are emphatically not the cause of this dissatisfaction. Many of the gains made by SF in the south are based on protest vote against the political establishment, hardly a solid basis on which to build a road to government.

This has provoked the question in some quarters about why Fianna Fail is not carrying on a more vocal and active role in opposition. One leading commentator has described SF as the cock which rules the opposition roost at present in the Dail. He goes on state that like the cock, SF does plenty of crowing, but lays no economic eggs. Having grown up on a farm, however, I know that even the most virulent and aggressive rooster will exhaust himself after crowing for an excessive amount of time. Quite apart from needing some time for regrouping and healing the wounds of defeat, I suspect that Fianna Fail have been in the political game long enough to know that their rehabilitation will be a long term project, to be achieved over the next decade or so. Michael Martin has made a quiet, but significant beginning to this process by supporting the Fine Gael/Labour Government on the EU fiscal referendum, and by facing down Eamonn O’Cuiv within the party. The next general election does not have to take place until 2015, and it is possible that by that stage the Irish economy may be on the road to some form of recovery. In addition, by that date the SF roadshow of bluster and empty economic promises will be beginning to look tired out and shop soiled – and the mainstream parties will hopefully be ruthless about subjecting their policies to an unrelenting glare of hard light.

I also have a hunch that for much the same reasons the anti-Scottish Independence campaign has been quiet in comparison to the bluster which we have come to expect from the Nationalists. By 2014 the hope is that, the anniversary of Bannockburn aside, the pro-Independence campaign and rhetoric will have run out of steam, and then be vulnerable to attacks from the much greater intellectual and financial reserves of the unionist camp.

For those who are worried by the triumphalism of Sinn Fein in Ireland, and by the Independence campaign in Scotland, the above are just some things to bear in mind.