If the report into the status of paramilitaries in Northern Ireland proves anything it is that Sinn Féin is too politically toxic for coalition in the Republic. It would be very foolish indeed for another party to enter into such an arrangement with Sinn Fein after the general election.
Sometime things can be as plain as the nose on your face in politics, and indeed many voters have long since accepted the blurred lines between Gerry Adams, Sinn Féin and the IRA. But it takes something particular to happen to make the implications of that fully hit home, in this case an official report. I usually take with a very large pinch of salt any protestations prior to a general election from political parties, that they will absolutely never ever coalesce with party x or y. Give a politician a whiff of power and they’ll soon manage to find their way around even the stiffest of principles.
I’d have thought exactly that, with some reservations, in relation to our upcoming election, and the usual rigmarole currently being gone through that Sinn Féin wouldn’t be touched with a 40 foot barge pole by the other mainstream parties. The truth though is that no matter how the numbers stack up after polling day this would be a disastrous move.
Listening to Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams being vigorously being put through his paces by Aine Lawlor on the News at One on Wednesday concerning the allegations that the Provisional Army Council still maintains some control over Sinn Féin, it struck me that other political parties simply cannot afford to get too close to Adams’ party or they will be burnt. “We’re not directed by any outside body or organisation,” he told Lawlor in a very heated exchange.
Imagine it is six months from now and Adams is dismissing these claims as “nonsense” and insisting that it is Sinn Féin members who run the party. Imagine also though that we’ve had our general election and his party is now in Coalition, and Adams is a Cabinet member, how would those questions sound then? It wouldn’t bother him, he’s used to this line of conversation, but what sort of pressure would it put on the leader of the party they were sharing Government with, or on individual cabinet members out and about on a daily basis being asked questions about the IRA, and it’s possible role in supervising Sinn Féin and ongoing criminality.
I’m trying to imagine, say, Simon Coveney or Simon Harris, or Labour’s Alan Kelly, or for arguments sake Fianna Fáil’s Niall Collins or Willie O’Dea being “supportive” of their coalition partners on their daily doorsteps with journalists in the wake of a report similar to the one published this week. It was written by a three person group for Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers based on information from the PSNI and MI5 intelligence.
In her response this week Sinn Féin deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald said she is solely accountable and answerable to the electorate. Imagine her saying that as she made her way into a Tuesday morning Cabinet meeting in Government Buildings in a black Mercedes.
You listen to what she is telling you, and you also read the detail of the report, and you think of the assumptions you’ll have made yourself in relation to Northern politics through all those years of “constructive ambiguity’. You wonder is this pragmatism, stupidity, naivety or simply the truth as she believes or experiences it.
Is it credible that seemingly smart people like Mary Lou or Pearse Doherty or Peadar Toibin are unaware of the remaining influence of these “hardmen” in backrooms? If it is true, as they protest, that these people no longer have no influence at all, why not cut the links properly?
Imagine the Sinn Féin in government scenario, journalists gleefully driving a coach between the coalition parties, whoever they might be alongside Sinn Féin, while the Opposition bask in delight as they attempt to get the upper hand on the Government.
There’s always been the Gerry Adams denial of having ever been an IRA member to fall back on, but this fresh information would have more bite; what with the mention of access to weapons, and how PIRA have been directed to actively support Sinn Féin within the community including activity like electioneering and leafleting, as well as individual members remaining involved in criminal activity.
Of course while the report found that the Provisional IRA’s structure remains in place it said it is in a much-reduced form, and more focused on achieving a united Ireland by political means.
It pointed out that “the PIRA of the Troubles is well beyond recall”. It was their “firm assessment” that the IRA leadership remained committed to the peace process and that it was not involved in targeting or conducting terrorist attacks against the state, but this would be conveniently ignored in the controversy and media frenzy. The higher standards of being in Government, the intense scrutiny that being in power puts parties under, and the strains of being in a coalition, would make for a likely disastrous mix.
In the past it has been intriguing to see how controversies such as the rape of Mairia Cahill and the subsequent IRA cover up appeared not to put a dent in the party’s popularity. The same could have been said at the time that we learned of the sad case of Paudie McGahon and his rape by an IRA member. There has also been the ongoing awfulness of the murder of widowed mother of 10, Jean McConville.
Right now Sinn Féin is rather stuck in the opinion polls. It is difficult to tell if this is because voters have belatedly begun to be concerned about these issues, and indeed those raised in this week’s report, or are they more concentrating on, for instance, the party’s economic policy. Perhaps it is a combination of all those things and the fact that a general election is now upon us, and people are thinking more seriously about how they wish to vote.
It’s difficult to assess because it seemed amazing, particularly at the time of the publicity surrounding the Mairia Cahill case, that the party’s standing with the public did not suffer. It is suffering now. But Sinn Féin is still set to have a very good election and significantly increase its number of seats in the Dail.
It is 17 years since the Good Friday Agreement and even the most pessimistic amongst us would have been dismayed to realise that so many years on the link between Sinn Féin and the IRA had not been fully broken.
Nobody would have expected it to happen immediately, or even in the immediate years afterwards, but almost two decades on it’s quite inexplicable.
At any rate it makes the party too hot to handle in terms of other parties who may want to be in power but will recognise that such an unsorted legacy for Sinn Féin would be too high a price for them to pay.