GERARD HOWLIN: Electoral advance of Sinn Féin will be a painful blow to Fine Gael

THE appalling vista for Fine Gael is that the ultimate outcome of the debacle involving Alan Shatter, Martin Callinan and An Garda Síochána will be that it allows Sinn Féin to make its most significant, strategic electoral gains yet in the Republic. Compared to the rise of Sinn Féin, the reputational decline of Shatter is small stuff.

If Fine Gael stands for anything, it stands against the Provos. That is the central pillar of its self-identity. Reflecting out of the mirror it gazes into, which is not mist-free, is an idealised landscape of public decency separating it from Fianna Fáil. A bastion against the shenanigans of that party and the recently disavowed terrorism of Sinn Féin-IRA, Fine Gael believes it stands not only for public decency but for public safety as well. Now it is suffocating in a mess of its own making. It is not pleasant, especially when that mess is An Garda Síochána, the organ of the State it historically identifies with most closely.

With just over seven weeks to go to local and European elections, The Sunday Business Post/Red C opinion poll predicted a quantum leap in Sinn Féin support to 21%. That poll could be peaking the party too soon. Sinn Féin have historically failed to deliver electorally on opinion poll predictions and, in any event, the cause and effect between Shatter and Sinn Féin is tenuous. But if even half the gains promised in opinion polls for Sinn Féin are realised, it potentially changes everything for Fine Gael.

Sinn Féin’s advance is foremost at the expense of Labour and to an extent of Independents. The memory of the 2007 General Election still haunts Enda Kenny. Then he successfully led Fine Gael back from the abyss of 2002, increasing the party’s number of Dáil seats from 31 to 51 seats, with 27.3% of the vote — just one point above where it was positioned in last Sunday’s poll. Labour under Pat Rabbitte, however, flat-lined and returned just 20 seats. Enda Kenny wasn’t Taoiseach.

Sinn Féin’s advance, and Labour’s commensurate retreat leaves Fine Gael with the potential challenge of finding another coalition partner after the next general election. Such promiscuity would leave it looking wanton in its appetite for power, indistinguishable from Fianna Fáil, and with its indelible decency around its ankles.

Not only has Labour plummeted in a long line of opinion polls, Fine Gael is now suffering serious setbacks. Critically, Sinn Féin is for the first time positioned to become the dominant party of the Irish left. (I should say as an aside that I predict Sinn Féin will ultimately be as disappointing for the left as Labour has been, but that is for another day. For now, their onward march is upwards)

Once in a generation, local and European elections can subsequently be seen as seismic. The last time they unquestionably were was in 1979. Fianna Fáil under Jack Lynch had returned to government with a record majority in 1977. Tellingly, on the night of his triumph, Lynch had a premonition of the difficulty managing his majority would be; and so it proved. By 1979, his parliamentary party was fractious. Newly elected and under-employed TDs walked the corridors of Leinster House as stalking horses for Charlie Haughey. Lynch’s already fraying authority was further undermined by a postal strike and a bus strike. A pre-electronic economy dependent on the post to deliver cheques fell into chaos. Political capital combusted and was never reclaimed.

Fine Gael — under new leader Garret FitzGerald, on his first electoral outing — capitalised.

FitzGerald secured 35% of the vote for his party and got a cadre of new young candidates elected that sustained the Fine Gael project with personnel and ideas until the disastrous reversal of 2002. Gay Mitchell, only now retiring as an MEP in this election, was one. Nora Owen was another.

Lynch’s woes were added to with the loss of two by-elections in Cork that autumn. By Christmas, he was gone and Haughey was Taoiseach. The gains that Fine Gael made in those local elections gave it and its new leader a credibility and a corps of credible candidates that ensured Haughey never secured an overall majority. In a sense, those local elections, were a distant antecedent of the end of the electoral hegemony of Fianna Fáil in 2011. Henceforth, it could only go into government as a minority government or in coalition. Now it is not clear when, if ever, it will go into government again.

A new seismic shift is under way. It is far greater than any that is gone before and it is far from over.

It is still unclear if the general election of 2011 was the main shock or its precursor. Fianna Fáil’s once vast stock of political capital is irretrievably scattered. Labour’s is in the pawn shop and unlikely to be redeemed. Shatter has crystallised public discontent into an unwelcome negative focus on Fine Gael. Seven weeks out from elections, the timing could not be worse. Worse than courting political controversy, he has become a political inconvenience.

If in a political landscape already deeply disconcerted, Sinn Féin elects a significantly enhanced national network of councillors, its further advance can be virtually assured. For a Fine Gael minister for justice, a successor to Kevin O’Higgins, to provide that opportunity out of willful obduracy is truly an appalling vista. Tonight in the Dáil, Fine Gael TDs will surround and support Shatter and they will win. Fianna Fáil’s motion of no confidence will be defeated. It will be a victory that contains within it the seed of its own ultimate defeat.

LAST week, as the full force of the current crisis struck the Government, it put its biggest gun, Michael Noonan, on RTÉ’s Prime Time. A politician who, in his second coming, has successfully specialised in offering reassurance at moments of crisis, he failed to offer any reassurance at all. Sent out to save Shatter, but increasingly irritable on air, he sacrificed some of his own credibility instead.

The assisted euthanasia of Martin Callinan as Garda Commissioner remains unexplained. The bonds of trust within Government and between the Government, its civil service, and the police force have loosened. Every subsequent volley intended as a defence of a beleaguered minister left the Government looking more like a circus without a ringmaster.

But with or without Shatter as Minister for Justice, this series of crises will eventually unfold and then fall away. Perhaps profound policy changes may come as a consequence.

But in an atmosphere of intense political fluidity, virtually on the eve of elections, the obduracy and arrogance of a Fine Gael minister for justice is creating the circumstances for a significant and perhaps irreversible step — forward for Sinn Féin. For Fine Gael, that is the harrowing of hell.

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