Fianna Fail always knew it would have a fight on its hands once the republican movement ditched the armed struggle for good. Sinn Fein strategists recognized a long time ago that the retention of the IRA’s arsenal meant that the party was fighting elections with one hand tied behind its back.
While many observers have surmised that the decommissioning move was designed to restore power-sharing government at Stormont, it was more likely contrived to enhance republican electoral prospects in the republic.
Now that the guns issue is apparently sorted out, Fianna Fail can no longer object in principle to Sinn Fein’s involvement in a southern government. Bertie Ahern said he believes General John De Chastelain’s statement that all IRA weapons have been put beyond use.
With the International Monitoring Commission expected to report that the IRA ceases to exist as a functioning organization, Fianna Fail has run out of excuses why Sinn Fein should be excluded from government.
However now that the historic deed is done, and once the euphoria dies down, watch as Fianna Fail takes the gloves off with regard to Sinn Fein policy. The party has adopted a twin-track approach — it will attack Sinn Fein’s policies as potentially damaging to Irish prosperity whilst promoting itself as the true voice of modern republicanism.
The first of the broadsides came from none other than minister for foreign affairs Dermot Ahern at the weekend.
It was just a year ago that Ahern had offered his opinion that it was only “a matter of time” before Sinn Fein entered Government Buildings as a coalition partner. Ahern, while not explicitly lending Sinn Fein his party’s endorsement, was lumbered with the perception that he personally favored such a collaboration.
Quoted on Sunday, Ahern described Sinn Fein economic policy as a mixture of “secondary school Marxism and Mussolini protectionism.” He said the notion that you could build a 32-county republic on the basis of Sinn Fein policy was “hilarious”.
He added: “We will not countenance any arrangement with Sinn Fein after the next election on the basis alone of their economic policy and their anti-EU views, even if they get a clean bill of health on decommissioning, end of criminality and paramilitarism,” he said
Little ambiguity there it would seem. Meanwhile, Seamus Brennan — minister for Social Welfare — was calling for a revival of Fianna Fail’s republicanism.
Predicting that a united Ireland would be “a wonderful economic, social and cultural unit,” he said Fianna Fail should not feel guilty for openly promoting Irish unity.
“It is a message to Sinn Fein, too,” he said. “We have hidden or played down this aspiration of ours for very responsible reasons – because the taoiseach wanted to negotiate progress in the North and get the institutions back up and running without that tone in the middle of it.
“So, for very responsible reasons, we played down that, but it would be wrong to continue that now.
“Our own party needs to realize that the Good Friday Agreement is party policy, and that it allows persuasion to bring about a united Ireland. It allows us to persuade people to come to that position the same way the agreement allows unionists to move to the opposite position,” he said.
Again, little room for misinterpretation.
Fine Gael and Labor are not buying it. Fianna Fail, if needs be, will jump into bed with anyone — even the Shinners, they say.
Fianna Fail denies this and claim that it will not put the pursuit of power ahead of the country’s best interests. Suspicions abound however that, if Sinn Fein is in the mood to modify its economic proposals, Fianna Fail could easily reach an agreement with Gerry Adams.
Despite the hardening of Fianna Fail’s rhetoric, most recognize that it is something of a stretch to describe Sinn Fein’s economic agenda as “secondary school Marxism.”
The party’s 2002 election manifesto did propose an increase in corporation tax, but only one that would ensure that Ireland retains the lowest in Europe. Meanwhile its proposed employers’ PRSI increase would have only brought it back to the level it was in the late 1990s.
Sinn Fein has shown itself to be incredibly adept in refining party policy. Republican shibboleth after shibboleth has been discarded down through the years to facilitate the party’s development. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have not allowed themselves to be restrained by the sacred cows that impede political growth.
The task of delivering IRA disarmament, a mere seven years after the organization declared “not an ounce, not a bullet”, surely puts the matter of minor manifesto alterations in the shade.
The reality of Fianna Fail’s hard words is that they are designed to protect Bertie Ahern’s flank against the opposition coalition.
Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny knows that he can make political capital out of any notion of a Fianna Fail / Sinn Fein coalition. The last thing Fianna Fail wants to do is to give him a stick to beat it with in the run up to a Dail general election.
Ahern knows that many of his backbenchers are not adverse to the idea of government with Sinn Fein — indeed many view it as a type of prodigal son recently returned to the constitutional nationalist fold. Keeping such views out of the public discourse will be one of his main preoccupations over the coming months.
Who knows where Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein will be when the votes are finally counted.