THE announcement of the EU referendum and the subsequent hari-kari within Fianna Fáil may have drawn attention away from Aengus Ó Snodaigh’s remarkable campaign of state-funded printing, but Sinn Féin’s seemingly relentless electoral rise could be checked by any more similar revelations.
It may have seemed relatively trivial in the greater scheme of things — and may have been quickly surpassed by those other events — but this self-inflicted hit was in the public eye for long enough to cause injury.
Sinn Féin may be about to find that there is more public outrage south of the border at the expense to the taxpayer of spent ink cartridges than at the maiming and killing caused by the gun cartridges that some of its members once emptied.
It may have been “only” €50,000 or so that was involved in the waste of ink — and very small change compared to the money wasted by successive governments — but it is very easily understood.
This is not too far removed from somebody in Jackie Healy-Rae’s office using autodial to cast votes for his son (and now TD) Michael Healy-Rae in that RTÉ reality show Celebrities Gone Wild some years ago in an unwarranted abuse of the ability to use State money that was designed to heighten awareness of the candidate. The claimed purpose of Ó Snodaigh’s claimed use of these cartridges — for political pamphleting in his own constituency and not beyond — is not legitimate in itself.
Why should the State pay so much to copperfasten the position of an elected representative? Not that it is very credible that so much ink was used by him personally, given that it was enough to print 3.2m A4 pieces of paper.
Sinn Féin makes a virtue of the claimed personal austerity of its political activists, that they live apparently on nothing more than the average industrial wage (even if some still somehow manage to keep holiday homes in Donegal). How individuals disperse their own cash is their own business. All TDs get paid the same, Sinn Féin ones included. The point remains that the initial cost to the State remains exactly the same. A Sinn Féin TD is every bit as expensive to us as one from any other party (leaving aside the independents who cost more because of an anomaly that allows them to claim a €40,000 “leader’s allowance”.)
Sinn Féin takes public money from wherever it can. Even when it was refusing to take up its seats in the House of Parliament in Westminster it was claiming expenses on behalf of those elected, running to over £1m.
The hypocrisy of still taking the queen’s shilling while refusing to attend the parliament was justified gloatingly by some as some kind of clever stroke.
It was little wonder then that when the former hunger striker builder of the fire trap Priory Hall apartments in Dublin declared his bankruptcy he went to Britain to do so, thereby evading the more onerous bankruptcy laws here. Tom McFeely, resident of Ailesbury Rd in Dublin, one of the country’s most expensive locations, and who continued to declare himself an ardent republican, was also in possession of a British passport (as is his right).
Yet when I invited Gerry Adams on radio a few months ago to condemn the actions of his old comrade it was like trying to draw blood from a stone to get a specific reference to McFeely rather than a sweeping condemnation of all bad builders.
This tribalism in Sinn Féin runs as deep as it does in any other political party. Padraig MacLochlainn mistakenly grinned like a Cheshire cat on the Vincent Browne show on TV3 Tuesday evening, falling into a trap as Browne seemingly made a joke of the affair. Mary Lou McDonald’s qualified support for Ó Snodaigh may have had as much to do with internal party positioning as a realisation that Sinn Féin needs to distance itself from such behaviour.
Meanwhile, Ó Snodaigh has refused to apologise or admit that he has done anything wrong, even though he has been forced by the publicity to pay a long outstanding bill that fell due under the new regime for printing expenses.
But what the ink cartridge issue does, trivial as it may seem, is point out to all but the most loyal supporters that, when it comes to it, some Sinn Féin politicians share many of the same venalities as other politicians. They are much the same as anyone else, no matter what the spin.
Yet we’re in the remarkable position at present where Sinn Féin luxuriates in taking the high moral ground in Irish politics. Its previous support for violence is seemingly regarded by many as irrelevant and, in a particularly ironic twist, it demands praise and respect for bringing about peace. It does so as if nobody else had a role in that development, not least Fianna Fáil and the SDLP, the parties it has supplanted both south and north of the border, and as if it did not share part of the responsibility for the awfulness of the past.
Its supporters often go further than that, claiming smear whenever legitimate stories are reported. Some conspiracy theorists have been taking to the web this week claiming that the Ó Snodaigh report was a deliberate retort to latest opinion poll finding in The Sunday Times that puts Sinn Féin support at 25%, 9% higher than Fianna Fáil’s.
This is nonsense. The expenses of politicians of all hues have taken up much newspaper space in recent years, with Fianna Fáil TDs getting much scrutiny. For the newspapers a story is a story.
Sinn Féin is going to find itself coming under even more scrutiny, not for its past but for its present and future policies, as it rises in the polls. Its supporters may argue that the real story this weekend is the bickering at Fianna Fáil but in reality that party has become a less significant story.
Sinn Féin has largely succeeded in doing to Fianna Fáil in the south what it did to the SDLP in the North, supplanting it in the public mind, even if Fianna Fáil still has more seats in Dáil Éireann. The current trends in the opinion polls suggest that there is little chance of that situation continuing at the next election, unless some dramatic reversal in fortunes for both parties takes place.
Sinn Féin is benefiting greatly from its opportunist approach to the current economic crisis, in a way that Fianna Fáil cannot. Sinn Féin has fallen in behind much of the well-argued analysis from independent economists who argue that the EU plans to deal with the euro crisis will not work and that the continued austerity being imposed on the country will not assist in our return to economic growth. That is a fair political position to take, but Sinn Féin’s solutions are not convincing.
Given its experience in politics in the Six Counties, Sinn Féin should know better than anyone else that absolutist positions don’t work and nor do claims to superior moral positions. Look what it got out of the Northern peace process. It had to modify its demands. It had to negotiate, compromise and accept less than it wanted. It did not get a united Ireland. It settled, 30 years after it could have had it first, for power-sharing.
The idea that Sinn Féin in government would be able to renounce unilaterally this country’s debts is nonsense and as is the idea that it could suddenly transform the economy. It can print as many claims as it likes to this end, but if it achieves power then the public will find that Sinn Féin would be just like any other party in going back on its previous promises.
The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.
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