Michael Clifford: Is Sinn Féin really what it claims to be?

Could they all be wrong about Sinn Féin? Could it be that those who suggest it is not a normal political party are being spiteful, opportunistic, fearful?

Michael Clifford: Is Sinn Féin really what it claims to be?

Could they all be wrong about Sinn Féin? Could it be that those who suggest it is not a normal political party are being spiteful, opportunistic, fearful, or part of an establishment that despises what the party represents?

Last Thursday was historic for the country and for Sinn Féin. The party’s president, Mary Lou McDonald, received more votes for taoiseach than any other candidate, including more than did the leaders of the two parties that have largely governed for the last 100 years.

That is a unique achievement. History will record that on February 20, 2020, Sinn Féin arrived at the top table of politics in the Republic. Outside of parliamentary politics, McDonald is the most popular political figure in the State.

She has at her side a handful of colleagues who are as able as any opponents in articulating issues and presenting solutions. Eoin Ó Broin, Pearse Doherty, David Cullinane, and Louise O’Reilly have not yet been tested in government, but even if stripped of the rhetoric of opposition, they would most likely be as competent as any recent cabinet ministers.

For those who believe the country needs a government of the left, Sinn Féin has now brought the possibility closer than at any time. Some people — including this columnist — are of the opinion that the Sinn Féin manifesto laid out a populist programme, rather than anything that could be described as left-wing in a traditionally redistributive sense.

But even within that context, the chances of attaining a more equal society under the Shinners are probably greater than under a Fianna Fáil-led administration and are certainly greater than under Fine Gael.

So what’s the problem? Since the election, the party has made all the running towards government formation. In the media, Sinn Féin politicians refer to their mandate for change, plans to reduce the pension age, to fix health and housing, and to prepare for unity.

There was precious little talk of preparing for unity during the campaign. The issue featured in the party’s manifesto and got a mention when prompted in interviews, but the thrust of the campaign was in sorting out health, housing, and pensions.

Why has unity suddenly jumped into every utterance on how they would govern? Families looking for a break are not pinning their hopes on a united Ireland. Their thirst for change has nothing to do with whether there is a border on this island. Sure, most people would one day like to see the country united, but what’s the urgency? There are far more pressing needs.

That question is related to the one about who is in charge. If Sinn Féin is a normal political party, as claimed, then why does it look abnormal in several ways? Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, the party’sfinance minister in the last Stormont government, wrote to an unelected figure associated with the IRA in a deferential manner about government business; in August 2018, McDonald declared that then was not the time for a border poll and promptly did a U-turn, within 24 hours; in 2015, a report commissioned by the secretary of state for Northern Ireland stated that the army council was intact and overseeing the political project in a peaceful manner. Would the army council be overseeing governance in this State, if Sinn Féin was at the cabinet?

There are other abnormal features, such as the proliferation of bullying complaints, usually involving an older member (from the days of conflict) and a younger member. There is no John McGuinness or John Deasy in the Shinner ranks, articulating views that would meet with disapproval by the leadership.

And so on.

Take a simple issue, the substance of which doesn’t really matter, at the moment, but its handling by the party speaks volumes. Was Gerry Adams a member of the IRA? He always denied it. Yet anybody with knowledge of Adams and the conflict in the North was of the opinion that he was a central figure in the organisation. This included politicians, journalists, security personnel, and former activists in the IRA.

Only members and representatives of Sinn Féin, and they alone, have stated they accept his claim not to have been a member.

What does that say? That Sinn Féin members, including those who were around during the conflict and those who weren’t, are abnormally gullible or abnormally perceptive? Or is it that everybody else is just out to get Gerry?

Back when the planning tribunal was delving into Bertie Ahern’s finances, it was amusing for a few months to observe Fianna Fáil bigwigs being wheeled out to say they believed Bertie’s version of how he handled his wads of cash.

The tribunal didn’t believe it and pretty soon the public didn’t, either. As theevidence mounted up, the support from colleagues was watered down until they were forced to desist from defying the evidence. In Sinn Féin, evidence from the past often has no effect on members, irrespective of how compelling it might be.

Far more important than the past is the future.

On Thursday, in the Dáil, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin set out his objections to Sinn Féin. Martin’s own party is going through an existential crisis as a result of the election, but his words are worth examining.

He said his objections weren’t just about the association with the murder campaign during the conflict, but “this is more fundamentally about today. It is about practices which any party which shares government with Sinn Féin must accept as normal.

“Every single time an issue arises about the behaviour of people associated with the Provisionals movement and today’s Sinn Féin, the response is to attack and dismiss. Only when the evidence keeps piling up, and the political pressure grows, is there any movement. Offersto meet are expressed and calls forco-operation with law enforcement areissued, but nothing ever happens.

“No one ever comes forward. Victims never get justice.”

Martin obviously feels he couldn’t live with that. Other parties will have to decide whether they could.

If the Shinners are not as they project, there is another issue about governance.

What if it is deemed strategically advantageous to collapse a government in pursuit of unity, irrespective of the consequences for advances on bread-and-butter issues? Wherefore change in such an instance?

Maybe everybody who questions the party’s bone fides is out to get Sinn Féin.

Maybe the Shinners are despised by the establishment and its assorted allies and lackeys, but loved by the people for their honesty and integrity. Maybe all the circumstantial evidence is manufactured. Maybe.

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