GERARD HOWLIN: Referendum has moved Sinn Féin ever closer to the centre of power

Unless it’s squeaky tight, and it may be, we’ll know by lunch time on Saturday how Friday’s referendum went.

The result, however, is only a preface to the consequences. They are highly variable for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. That is not to mention the fact legislation has to be passed if the referendum is.

For that, Fine Gael needs Sinn Féin to make up the numbers to pass a bill into law. On abortion, there is a Fine Gael–Sinn Féin coalition in the making. Winning on Friday is essential for Leo Varadkar. It’s important for Micheál Martin. But for Sinn Féin, it’s different. I think, either way they will be in the winners’ enclosure.

In hindsight, the yes campaign will be seen as a key moment of normalisation for Sinn Féin, akin to the IRA ceasefire of 1994. If that seems an exaggerated comparison and lacking in similar historical drama, it is major cultural change on two fronts.

Firstly, it is social change on a scale that will take a long time to be fully appreciated. Secondly, 24 years later, it is further culmination of the strategy embarked on then. Sinn Féin–IRA as it was then, called a ceasefire and worked to get TDs elected to the Dáil for a
purpose, and that purpose was to govern. Unlike the parties of the left, who must have protest and preferably chaos to live, Sinn Féin is a party of power, and is ruthlessly efficient in its pursuit.

The referendum campaign has not just itself, but in conjunction with two other developments, put the party literally in the mainstream political picture for the first time. Around the country, groups of yes supporters tog out every evening with as many local politicians as can be found to support them. Prominent among them have been local Sinn Féin politicians. The obligatory photo then goes up on Facebook and Twitter. It sends a subliminal signal.

The shape of the Irish political establishment has changed. Sinn Féin is now part of it. Partly that is a function of passing time and prior events. The pre-2011 political order was never going to return. The interim, as exampled by the arithmetic of this Dáil, is the flux
of change. A new, relatively stable future has yet to emerge, assuming it ever will. For now, it is purely transactional.

Sinn Féin has sufficient numbers in the Dáil, and among its supporters to be required. The change — that which is sometimes a reality on local councils — is now a fact of national politics. One thinks back to the first handshake between President Robinson and Gerry Adams in 1996, on a visit to a community centre in West Belfast.

It caused a furore. Now, where they are to be found canvassing on the yes side, Fine Gael and some Fianna Fáil TDs are shoulder-to-shoulder with Sinn Féin. These are both images and facts that won’t be erased.

As once unbridgeable chasms are linked with the nuts and bolts of political necessity, another issue has come to the fore. Brexit has given Sinn Féin an opportunity to glide effortlessly away from being a Euro-sceptic party that opposed the Nice and Lisbon referenda.

Now it is a party of “cosmopolitan nationalism” and is being positioned on the right side of history, at just the right moment. How deep the cosmopolitanism has soaked into the nationalism is an open question. Last Saturday afternoon, John Brady TD from Wicklow and Sinn Féin’s social protection spokesman made a fool of himself ranting about centuries of British imperialism and RTÉ’s broadcasting of the royal wedding. The tone seriously challenged the depth of real feeling in that party for an Ireland of equals. It’s of a part with Donaghmede-based councillor and now Lord Mayor of Dublin Mícheál Mac Donncha calling the people who run Irish rugby “West Brits”.

Curiously, Brady’s posting has since been deleted and Mary Lou complemented the bride and wished the couple well. For now, the question of what Sinn Féin really stands for, when they talk alone with one another has not gone away, but it is in the background.

The third important event for Sinn Féin is the advent of Mary Lou MacDonald as leader. She is cruising politically on an upward trajectory. She is the face for her party’s yes campaign and she is making a difference. Sinn Féin traditionally had a significant gender gap in
its supporter profile. That’s been closing and is now virtually erased.

Politically, that is important progress for them. MacDonald, like Leo Varadkar with Fine Gael, is succeeding in refreshing her party brand. She is an excellent political performer on her feet, and critically she is not Gerry Adams.

Referendum has moved Sinn Féin ever closer to the centre of power

I am surprised at the apparent ease at which she has taken over, and had thought that Adams would be more missed as the cohesive, unifying figure in the party he clearly was. But it seems the party is moving on without him, and although it is very early days, to date the move on has been successful.

Next Saturday afternoon regardless of the referendum outcome, I think things will have moved on a little further for Sinn Féin.

They will be closer to the centre of events, and perhaps closer to government. They will certainly be required by the Government in the autumn to legislate for a successful referendum result.

Ironically the campaign has shown just a chink of pluralism in a once impenetrable monolith. Two TDs — Carol Nolan from Offaly and Peadar Tóibín in Meath West — have bucked party discipline and opposed the referendum.

There really are few good reasons left why Sinn Féin cannot be in government. The fact is that Fine Gael has already acquired the habit of getting used to them on a mission critical issue and that dependence will come into very clear relief next autumn. Then the facts of the legislative process will have to be gone through, and it will only succeed if Fine Gael have Sinn Féin lined up for every vote, every time.

There will be plenty of time to chat in the tá lobby.

Sinn Féin has been remarkably steadfast in its strategic ambition, and unusually adept in its tactics.

Militant republicanism, a commitment never to enter the Dáil, a commitment never to enter government unless they were the largest party, showboating as a party of the left which they most definitely are not... and I could go on. As times changed, so has the party, albeit sometimes belatedly and carrying extraordinarily heavy baggage.

The referendum has succeeded in putting cosmopolitanism into their nationalism, or at least the gloss of it on the surface.

Fine Gael is fundamentally a party of government, and won’t walk into the wilderness for the sake of keeping Sinn Féin out.

And then there is the curious coincidence that neither Mary Lou nor Leo are politically native to the party they lead.

Varadkar had no political background to speak of and MacDonald started off in Fianna Fáil.

Things will be slightly different when the votes are counted.

On abortion, there is a Fine Gael-Sinn Féin coalition in the making


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