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To succeed, S.F.’s Southern strategy must avoid missteps

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

In 1995, Sean Donlon, Ireland’s former ambassador to Washington and the then special adviser to the taoiseach on Northern Ireland, told a reporter that in Southern Irish politics Sinn Fein was the up-and-coming party. He predicted that it would pose a real threat to what he saw as the rather self-satisfied world of the Irish political establishment.

At the time, Sinn Fein had 1.7 percent of the vote in councilor elections, and no TDs. Seven years later, with one TD, 62 local councilors (which equals 3.5 percent of the vote) and opinion polls predicting the party could win 8 percent of the electorate to its cause, Donlon’s words might well be coming true, as the party gears up for the Irish Republic’s upcoming general election. At least, rival politicians and political pundits are acting as if the threat of a Sinn Fein breakthrough was imminent, given the number of attacks being directed at the party in the last week, even though as yet no date for the election has been set.

Beginning with a hard-hitting attack from the Irish Attorney general, Michael McDowell, who on Feb. 21 accused Sinn Fein of not being loyal to the Irish constitution, Fine Fail and Fine Gael political heavyweights have brought the big guns to bear on the party in an attempt to sink its political hopes as soon as possible. A few days later, Des O’Malley accused Sinn Fein of “having contempt for our police and our army and for our state itself.” Just last week, the Irish government’s chief whip, Seamus Brennan, called remarks made by Sinn Fein’s only TD, Caoimhghin O Caolain, about not giving information to the police, as “reprehensible,” “a disgrace” and an “insult to every member of the Garda Siochana.”

During an RTE interview, O Caolain had been asked if he would urge people to give information to gardai about the murders of policemen. He replied: “I am not going to urge people to take a particular position that challenges them individually and, indeed, within their own communities.” He had also declared his allegiance was to the “Republic declared in 1916.”

This week, TDs of all the parties in the Dail will decide how O Caolain should be punished. Some argue he should be suspended, and others suggest bringing forward a motion calling for all members of the parliament to affirm their support for the gardai. Either, it is thought, would be an embarrassment for Sinn Fein because they highlight what many politicians and commentators see as the party’s still ambivalent feelings about the Dail, the gardai, and the other institutions of the Irish state.

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Historically, this view of Sinn Fein is justified. The republican movement has long given its allegiance to the leadership body of the IRA, the Army Council, which republican traditionalists believe is the true government of Ireland in direct descent from the Second Dail.

What was certainly embarrassing was the fact that O Caolain’s remarks came just 24 hours after his party leader, Gerry Adams, had tried to remove any perceived ambiguities about Sinn Fein’s position in relation to the Irish state. Adams had said:

“We are very clear in terms of our recognition and acceptance and support for the Garda Siochana as the only legitimate policing service in the state and also in terms of the legitimacy of the Defense Forces as the only legitimate force.”

The continuing republican ambivalence (notwithstanding Adams’s declaration) expresses itself not only in words, but in actions. The most obvious manifestation has been the reported rise in vigilante attacks in the Irish Republic that resemble those so common north of the border. However, no statistics on punishment beatings as such are kept by the Garda Siochana. They are classified merely as assaults on the person. But Irish newspapers have drawn attention recently to two.

In December, a group calling itself Concerned Parents Against Drugs emerged in North Kerry claiming responsibility for the abduction and beating of an alleged drug dealer. The name echoes Direct Action Against Drugs, a name used by the IRA to claim responsibility for a series of murders of drug dealers in Northern Ireland in 1995 and ’96. Just last week, the gardai arrested the election agent of Martin Ferris, Sinn Fein’s Dail hopeful from the area, and questioned him along with three other men in connection with the abduction and beating. He accused the police of playing party politics. Since then, Ferris has seen a decline in poll ratings, indicating that he will not take the seat as had been long expected.

In March last year, in Finglas, Dublin, a petty criminal called Kenneth Williams was set upon by six men wearing balaclavas, who beat him with a hammer and wooden clubs. Reportedly, they said they were “Dessie’s lads” — a presumed reference to Dessie Ellis, convicted IRA bomb-maker who will be Sinn Fein’s candidate in Dublin North West.

However, it is far from certain how much such accusations and allegations will adversely affect Sinn Fein’s electoral hopes in the Irish Republic. Years of similar attacks on the Worker’s Party, which was linked to the Official IRA, did not stop its three TDs from being in a position of power-brokering in 1982 or the party from winning seven seats in the Dail in 1989. Indeed, vigilantism has a certain appeal, especially in the poor inner-city areas of Dublin, which are tormented by drugs and criminality. Here the average unemployed 25-year-old is probably not particularly interested in the esoterica of Sinn Fein’s relationship to the Irish constitution, and more concerned about whether it has a remedy for making the streets safer and his life more prosperous.

Even the issue of paramilitary weapons decommissioning, so big in Northern Ireland, and used as proof that Sinn Fein has not shed its loyalty to an illegal army, does not have the same resonance among voters in the south. In a recent poll, only 3 percent of voters in the Irish Republic put Northern Ireland as their main issue, compared to 65 percent who chose health. And decommissioning is a subset of the Northern Ireland issue. If you are not much concerned about the first, then it is likely that the second will be of even less concern to you.

That is, regardless of the recent declines for Sinn Fein candidates as registered by opinion polls, it remains to be seen if the alienated urban and suburban voter, where the party has its strongest appeal, will pay much attention to the attempts of commentators and the political establishment to whip up fears about the alleged threat it poses to Irish democracy.

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