Sinn Fein And The Election

Even though Sinn Fein has achieved just five Dail seats in the Irish Election of 17th May—making it the smallest party in the Dail—it is eyed with envy by all the other parties in parliament, with the exception of the Greens. It is envied because it has a real programme for change; because its leaders—though full-time—are not professional politicians (with all the self-serving implications of that condition); and because it is loved by the individuals and communities for whom it works and who vote for it—a far different relationship to the ‘clientalism’ practised by other parties.

The striking thing about Sinn Fein is that it has ideals towards which it can work purposefully. That is the is secret of its appeal. In this respect it is at the opposite extreme to Fine Gael, which no longer knows what it stands for. It has gone through so many transitions: starting as the Party wanting to work to reform the Empire in the 1920s, the Fascist party in the 1930s, and the Vocationalist party in the 1940s. After that it lost its way, though there have been attempts to engineer it into a Christian Democratic party on the Continental model—notably with John Costello’s Just Society. And Gay Mitchell—one of its leaders to survive the Election (10 of Michael Noonan’s Shadow Cabinet lost their seats)—was clearly aware that some ideals were needed double-quick (in a post-Election Round Table discussion on RTE Television). He spoke bravely about the need to remake itself as a Christian Democratic party. But that slot is already taken: by Fianna Fail with its commitment to Partnership. Fine Gael is a would-be Christian Democrat party. Or is it?

Gay Mitchell’s brother, the high-flying Jim, lost his seat. Jim Mitchell as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, carried the “anti-corruption campaign” into the lower regions of society, conducting an inquisition into how the Banks encouraged hundreds of thousands of enterprising citizens to save their money and keep it at home by registering their accounts at foreign addresses in order to reduce their taxes, instead of actually sending their money abroad. Reverent readers of the Irish Times would have gathered that harrassment of these prudent citizens was good for the country and that the country knew it was good for it. Jim Mitchell learned the hard way that the country knew better than he did what was good for the entrepreneurial spirit of the Celtic Tiger.

The anti-corruption campaign is conducted under the ideology of perfect competition, in a thoroughly capitalist economy, between absolutely isolated entrepreneurs who have no ‘crony’ relations with each other and no relations with the Government. This is kindergarten capitalist ideology of the kind preached by Van Hayek in opposition to the Welfare State sixty years ago. All actual capitalist economies function in a medium which, by the standards of this ideology, appears as corruption. But the interest which caused the Irish Times to peddle this infantile ideology was the crony capitalism of the old Ascendancy, which protected itself by tight control of strategic positions in Insurance, Banking and Accountancy, until the Haughey tendency in Fianna fail established native alternatives. When the Protestant religious Ascendancy saw that its position had become unsustainable, it adopted an ultra-liberal ideology for the purpose of condemning the popular forces that were supplanting it. That was in the late 19th century. And, in the late 20th century, it did likewise when its economic monopolies came under threat.
The spectacular economic development of the 1990s resulted from the combination of three elements—European money, native entrepreneurship, and a political development represented by Haughey, which came from the growth of native entrepreneurship, that was European rather than British in its orientation. The active role played by the Government at a critical juncture in this economic development—its choice of which enterprises to favour as exporters—provided the Irish Times with a pool of discontented entrepreneurs to draw on—those who had lost out in the competition for Government support.
Fine Gael participated in the Irish Times fantasy of perfectly atomised entrepreneurship operating beyond politics. The fantasy was rejected by the country. Fine Gael is now on the lookout for another model. But it is not as easy as that. Parties cannot be made by following the instructions in a pattern book. If they could, Africa would be full of democratic parties: they have copied the models of their colonial masters slavishly enough. Parties are forged in social conflict. And Fine Gael’s defining origins remain firmly in the Civil War. If Fine Gael were true to its heritage, it would be a frankly West British party. But there are not many votes in that direction. John Bruton’s attempt to appeal to Unionists was in keeping with this tradition, and it could be that, in a future United Ireland, Fine Gael’s existential problem could be solved by Unionist voters.
That is by no means a foregone conclusion, however, if Glen Barr’s pre-election call for the electorate to support Fianna Fail is anything to go by. Barr, a Derryman, was prominent in the 1974 Ulster Workers’ Council strike which collapsed the Power-Sharing Executive because of inept political handling by a Fine Gael Government in Dublin (under the influence of Garret FitzGerald and Connor Cruise O’Brien) and a Labour Government in Westminster. After some time with the Ulster Defence Association, he campaigned for Ulster independence in the New Ulster Political Research Group and then turning to community activism. He currently heads the Maydown Ebrington group, which provides entertainment and business facilities in the Waterside (a mainly Protestant area). He contacted the Irish News to call for the return of Bertie Ahern, describing him as “the best statesman on the island of Ireland” (16.5.02).
Part of the reason for the rout of Fine Gael was that the electorate chose to put off the demise of the Progressive Democrats. This seemed inevitable right up to the closing stages of the election campaign, with Desmond O’Malley retiring, and Bobbie Molloy forced out of politics by an ill-judged intervention in a court case. (He fell victim to a judge standing on the judge-made rule of ‘Separation of Powers’ and ‘exposing’ an attempt to contact him in a rape case he was hearing.)
Two things saved the Progressive Democrats this time. The first was the aggressive campaign initiated by Attorney General Michael McDowell, who was trying to regain his Dublin seat with the message One Party Government? No Thanks. (Curiously, Mary Harney, Liz McDonnell and Tom Parlon refused to use this slogan in their constituencies, and Harney had some difficulty in explaining why Fianna Fail, with which she had shared power for 5 years, was unsuitable for government: McDowell’s message was intended to convey the idea that Fianna Fail was sleazy, but she asserted that it was too spendthrift if left to govern alone.)
But more important than this was Ahern’s call to Fianna Fail voters to give their second preferences to the PDs. It was a clever move, which played well with the media, dominated as it is by the West British lobby. This must be the first election for some time in which the media has frankly supported Fianna Fail. The changed approach began when Fine Gael replaced John Bruton with Michael Noonan and the new leader said he would be taking a more nationalist approach to the Northern Ireland issue. He was immediately faced with a scandal concerning a donation by a bidder for a telecommunications licence, and the hostile press culminated in a dramatisation documentary about contaminated blood screened by RTE, in which Noonan, as Minister for Health, did not emerge with credit. Even getting the inveterate opponent of Sinn Fein, former Ambassador Sean Donlon, in as an adviser did not turn the tide. Fine Gael was to be punished for dropping Bruton.
Eoghan Harris broke the habits of a lifetime to vote Fianna Fail in this election, as he informed anyone who can bring themselves to read the bile he churns out every Sunday in the Independent. In his column of 12th May he explained he would be giving his First Preference to Desmond O’Malley’s daughter, Fiona (in Dun Laoghaire) and his Second Preference to Barry Andrews of Fianna Fail (David’s son). And he issued a dire warning to Ahern to bring the PDs into Government, even if he did not need to do so on the electoral arithmetic:
“…if Ahern wins big, and still wants a third term, he must take the PDs into power with him. And the more the Fianna Fail faithful are annoyed, the less savaging Ahern will get over the next five years.
“A certain amount of savaging is inevitable in any case. But there is a difference between being bitten and being agonisingly clawed to death. Because if Ahern dithers about bringing another party into Government, as a floating voter I can promise that he and his party will come out of the next General Election grinder looking like minced meat.”
Of course, it is not as a “floating voter” that Harris will savage Ahern and Fianna Fail, but as a columnist with the biggest-selling paper in Ireland, which toes the party line he lays down more faithfully than any Moscow hack ever followed the line of the CPSU. And it is not just the Sunday Independent. There is not a major paper in Ireland that stands out against the Liberal totalitarian line emanating from these people.
Bruce Arnold, in the Irish Independent, put forward a similar line on Polling Day, without the invective, in his Strategic Voting Crucially Important In Poll. Another Dun Laoghaire man, he explains the importance of preventing Fianna Fail from having an overall majority. He even says that it is for the good of Fine Gael that he is putting forward this proposal to deny the party the votes of their natural constituency! As he says, “Strategically, Fine Gael is better placed, in the future, if we have the restoration of the Fianna Fail-Progressive Democrat coalition”. But he does not explain why. It would not look too good for the pundits to admit that the Party is being helped towards undoing their mistake in ousting Bruton.
All this has gone to the heads of the PDs, who believe they are being supported in their own right. But the party does not stand for anything that the society can relate to. It ditched its founding programme and would be nowhere but for the sympathetic publicity it gets in the privately-controlled media. These mean Thatcherites stand for the rich getting richer, with some crumbs thrown to the voting fodder, and their sudden accession of high-profile candidates is nothing but opportunism by people who see a swift avenue into office by supporting a likely Coalition partner..
Mary Harney has let it be known that some of her new TDs are not eager for Office, “because they have seen huge changes in the political landscape and huge opportunities for a party like the Progressive Democrats” (22.5.02 Irish Times). The threat is, if enough of the aspirant Ministers are not gratified with Government posts, they will set themselves the task of superseding the present party system of the Republic.
It has recently become known that Garret FitzGerald encouraged Desmond O’Malley to split from Charles Haughey’s Fianna Fail, in order to spike that Party’s chance for single-party government and to obtain a suitable Coalition partner for Fine Gael, and to save it from Coalitions with Labour. If Fine Gael had ever been a true Christian Democratic party, of course, it would have had little difficulty with a generous social programme. But it yearned for balanced budgets and a disciplined workforce. It must be the crowning irony to a life of political failure for Garret FitzGerald to see his own party brought down by his master-scheme for power.
That said, it is just not possible to envisage the PDs replacing Fine Gael. The latter remains a party with strong roots in rural Ireland, and somewhere, under all the rolls of rich fat, there is a republican heart that beats in it. The money-men could never prevail against that.
If electoral success depended on permutations of popular policies—as perhaps might be imagined it would in a democratic society—party building would be a straight-forward exercise. It does not. Out there, the voters have a soul and are swayed by emotions and ideals. That is why Sinn Fein is the party of the future in Ireland—and why it is envied by its bigger rivals. The other parties are able to manage the inherited system—with varying degrees of adroitness: they have not the steel in their souls which produces real change. They have only pig-iron.
During the RTE coverage of the election count, when it was clear that Sinn Fein had done well, Gerry Adams was interviewed by Brian Farrell, presenter and academic historian. Farrell said: “This has been a great result for you… Looking back, do you think of the wasted years? You could have had this years ago if you’d opted in to Constitutional politics without queries”.
Adams replied:
“Well, we could spend a long time talking about this. It’s interesting that this is the first discussion I’ve had on this type of programme. And it doesn’t happen until after the Election. I was promised during Prime Time that I’d be brought back to talk about the social and economic issues. I’m only here when the Election’s over”.
Some of the dirty tricks played against Sinn Fein during the Election campaign were described last month, e.g., the harrassment and groundless arrest of Martin Ferris and his constituency workers. Slanted opinion polls were run to show Sinn Fein support falling off as the Gardai generated suspicion about the party. Even though it was clearly a party of the Left—indeed, one might even say the only party of the Left—the other parties conspired to represent it as a party of the ultra-right. Both Labour Leader, Ruairi Quinn and would-be Fianna Fail Cabinet Minister, Willie O’Dea (who has graciously been allowed a column in the Sunday Independent), absurdly compared it with Le Pen’s National Front party in France—and nobody in the media or the other parties pointed out the absurdity.
Then, as the votes were counted, it was seen that yet again the electorate was immune to the black propaganda of the Establishment. “The dog it was that died”—Dick Spring and Fine Gael having been to the fore in the black propaganda campaign. And then one Fine Gael candidate attributed the collapse of Fine Gael in his area to a false sense of security caused by media misrepresentation of the way public opinion was moving with regard to Sinn Fein.
Adam’s answer to Farrell’s attempt, in the face of indisputable Sinn Fein success, to hold onto something of the pre-Election hostility, was therefore a relevant answer in the immediate political situation.
And Farrell’s question, taken generally, was a historical absurdity. The Sinn Fein success comes from what the Provisional Republican movement has made of itself since it was generated out of the Unionist pogrom of August 1969. If, at the outset, it had “opted for Constitutional politics without any queries”, it would have been a thing of no consequence. Indeed, it would never have existed.
The Constitutional framework required for the operation of democratic politics did not exist in Northern Ireland in 1969, or before that date, or after it. Northern Ireland has never been a state, Constitutional or otherwise. It is the unconstitutional annex of a Constitutional state—unsupervised by its Constitutional master until 1969, supervised since then.
The word “Constitutional” is used to describe the Social Democratic and Labour Party, where the right word is Pacifist. The status gained by the SDLP in Northern affairs in the 1970s, after the war started, was not achieved through the workings of politics within a Constitutional framework, but was conceded to it because of the non-pacifist activity which became an effective force in the Catholic community. For many years the SDLP acted as if it understood this, but in recent years it has taken increasingly to acting as if it believed that it was functioning within the framework of a Constitutional state with a status accorded to it entirely on its own merits. This loss of realism has been accompanied by electoral decline.
Constitutional government arose historically in opposition to monarchical government. It meant representative government according to some regular system, under no control but that of the electorate. Chambers Dictionary gives a more limited definition of a Constitution: “a system of laws and customs established by the sovereign power of a state for its own guidance”. That has never been the political condition of Northern Ireland.
Since Lemass ordered the old Nationalist (Redmondite) Party to engage in the make-believe Constitutional politics of Stormont in 1965, the Dublin establishment has never faced up to the essentially unconstitutional character of the North and taken rational, realistic account of it. It has for the most part discussed the North in an empty verbiage—except for Haughey who said it was not a viable entity. Its great object has been to wash its hands of it, and in the attempt to do this it has been falsifying its own history. But circumstances made it impossible to treat the North as a foreign country. And the Republican movement generated out of the 1969 pogrom, having made its way through difficulties which the routine politicians of Leinster House cannot even imagine, has now been made an element in the Constitutional life of the Republic by an electorate which knows very well that the South has behaved very shabbily in the matter over recent decades.


Sinn Fein And The Election.

Roy Keane: A Strange Turn Of Events.

Brendan Clifford

Fifth Column:
Foster Makes Up Phil Lynott

An Cor Tuathail: Woe On Him Who Speaks Ill Of Women. Gearoid Iarla
Compiled by Pat Muldowney

The "Great Debate", Bertie Ahern vs Michael Noonan.

John Martin

The Archive (1)
The Palestine News (AC)

EU: Ignoring The Elephant In The Garden.
Jack Lane

Two Of A Kind:
Jack Lane

Iraq: Invasion Once Again?
Sean McGouran

RTE Apology

LABOUR COMMENT edited by Pat Maloney:
Defending The State?
Is This Justice?
Irish Election Results

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