Gerard Howlin: It’s not about Sinn Féin’s past, it’s about their policies for the future

At last this dullest of elections has caught fire. Now it threatens to be a bonfire.

Fine Gael’s slide, Sinn Féin’s surge, Fianna Fáil’s stagnation, and the Greens’ stalling momentum make 2020 a continuation of change elections in 2011 and 2016.

A protest balloon on show as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar goes on a general election campaign trail at Crescent Shopping Centre in Limerick. Picture: PA
A protest balloon on show as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar goes on a general election campaign trail at Crescent Shopping Centre in Limerick. Picture: PA

Already more than 80% of all TDs were elected since 2011. When the votes are counted, it will be more than 90%. That’s a Pol Pot purge, Irish style.

Panic is spreading among the moneyed elite. I am reminded of white Russian ladies fleeing the Bolsheviks, the last diamonds nestling in their compact box and guards at the border distracted as they powdered their nose and passed. It has come to that again.

Change will continue on Saturday, and perhaps dramatically so. Parties and personnel will change. The rubble all around will make it seem like a revolution.

The lather of excitement on those who imagine they have mounted barricades is intense. But we miss the point. This is all old fashioned populism, it is not a new beginning.

A Sinn Féin surge, and I believe at least some of it will materialise, is not a shift to the left.

It is the distillation of the ambition and the cussedness of people outside looking in, by politicians determined to get in, at any cost. This is a rightward journey. Everything else is either innocence or cynicism, and I don’t detect much of the former.

Politics is always about aspiration. Irish aspiration is constant. It is for a house, a job, an education and a holiday. Those who imagine they are genuinely of the left, might carefully note the obvious failure of Sinn Féin to rule out coalition with Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil.

At the moment the nominal Left finally has the collective makings of a government in its sights. Their eyes are not raised towards the new dawn, instead they are fixed on today’s dinner.

This is as it should be. The confidence and supply arrangement did the country some good. It was then, and in hindsight, vastly preferable to the alternative of a grand coalition. What is now a shrinking centre, would be shrivelled.

It coincided with deep damage to Fine Gael but was not the cause of it. Lacking rudimentary political skill, otherwise competent people are now floundering in disbelief at the ingratitude of the Irish people. Fianna Fáil is different. Its master plan, or more accurately Micheál Martin’s, half worked. Keeping Leo Varadkar in government did him in.

But there was cross-contamination. Varadkar can’t credibly claim Martin is a dangerous risk because he was a pillar of his government. Likewise Martin’s claim to be the change people want is compromised.

And up the middle, past the Greens, sweeps Mary Lou.

This election is not a battle of ideas. It’s an old-style hustle to get stuff, and preferably get it wholly paid for or subsidised by somebody else: houses, old age pensions for the fittest 65-year-olds in human history, and Scandinavian-style services supplied on Irish taxes.

On policy there is no difference in principle between Sinn Féin and its competitors. There is a difference in degree.

Sinn Féin’s are simply more outlandish and improbable. But no matter. They are not intended to be implemented in government. Their purpose is to ensure a greater command of opposition, the better to harry the next government more.

This is one more step in a longer journey for Sinn Féin. Their destination is government, but not yet. They will leave Dáil seats behind them on the field in this election.

They will want to go back one more time, and collect them. Mary Lou’s manoeuvre is a two-step, not a big leap.

Picking off the shrinking centre in government, will be a picnic.

Fine Gael’s failure was reinforced concrete before the campaign began.

Their leader’s poster says it all. It says nothing. Just a nice photograph of Leo, on a blank poster and the ask to vote Fine Gael, but no reason given. Not even a platitude.

But the campaign is an issue for Fianna Fáil and the Greens. Fianna Fáil is failing to re-establish relations with urban Ireland or the under 40s.

Sinn Féin eyes may be focused on the dinner, not the dawn but the dinner is the next meal for the other two opposition parties. Sinn Féin is facilitated by the dullness of their opponents who have failed to travel far beyond their base.

Polls put the Green vote up to 8% but it’s soft left stuff. There has been no deeper reckoning by people of what a decarbonised economy means. Why should there be? Pollution taxes pay for their lifestyle.

Some €2.5bn in annual excise revenues comes from the taxation of fossil fuels and significant further Vat revenues from fossil fuels as well. Additionally, some €2bn is received from the taxation of motor vehicles powered by fossil fuels (VRT, motor tax).

Decarbonisation means unmooring the economy from essential revenue. It requires wholesale reorientation of taxes, and new ones to compensate.

Comically, most on Left refuse to countenance carbon charges. Labour is not in that school but it led the charge to narrow the tax base by stalling the upward direction of the eligibility age for old age pensions. It will be poetic justice if they get no political gain from that ploy.

We have 20,000 new pensioners every year. On the basis of aging alone our pensions bill increases by €1bn every five years.

But with magic economics all will be well.

A vision for the left is about contributing for a better community. It is by this litmus test we can be absolutely sure there is nothing leftward about to happen.

What’s offered are more chances to take without having to contribute any more at all. One of the fascinating things I see is the spectacle of the “woke” sucking in the exhaust fumes of the carbon economy.

Sinn Féin’s recent past, including an at times brutal subjugation of dissent in nationalist communities, is anaesthetised. But why not?

If granny walked past the Magdalene Laundry on her way to Mass it shouldn’t be beyond us to step over uncomfortable truths. Leo Varadkar summed it up. It not about Sinn Féin’s past. It’s their policies for the future. Well, their policy for his future is the dustbin of history.

There is now an imperative. Responsibility has to be foisted on power. The Taoiseach said it is a matter of policy, not principle, and I agree.

After the people have spoken, he can reprise the comeback of Albert Reynolds after the 1992 election and return to government with the unlikeliest of partners. Few in Fine Gael have the nerve or the vision. But this would be a Nixon in China moment and it would be Leo’s, if he dares. Micheál Martin won’t.

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