MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Shinners are like the Fianna Fáil of old

THERE’S a big hole out there where establishment parties used to be, and there will be some fun in filling it.

 Last Sunday, a speculative punt in a newspaper suggested that Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein were gearing up to get into bed together after the next general election.

The two parties would join to launch a new “democratic ‘this time it’s for real’ revolution”. What was interesting was not the reaction, but where it came from. Both parties have ‘toxicity’ issues. Fianna Fail ran the ship of State onto the rocks, got pally with developers, and used appointments as goody bags for friends and acquaintances. Pretty shabby stuff.

Sinn Fein’s issues are different. Less than a generation ago, the party was a front for the IRA, which murdered for political ends. The party appears to have no shortage of money. Lately, its president, Gerry Adams, has been engulfed in an issue over whether he was involved in the cover-up of the rape of Mairia Cahill.

A few months before that, he was in the news for how he had dealt with his brother after it was alleged that Liam Adams had sexually abused his own daughter. This year also, Mr Adams was arrested — on what appears to be a flimsy basis — in connection with the murder of Jean McConville, one of the more notorious crimes of the Northern Troubles. Mr Adams is believed by everybody, including Paddy McGinty’s goat, but excluding party members, to have been a leading figure in the IRA for years. Through it all, the ‘bright shining young things’ of the party have stood by Adams with an unquestioning loyalty usually reserved for cult leaders.

So both of these political entities have major legacy issues that, ordinarily, would render each toxic to swathes of the electorate.

A visitor from Mars might assess that the Shinners’ legacy is a tad more negative, when one considers, apart from anything else, the ultra-toxicity of child sex abuse. But the same Martian would not have felt the economic pain of the last six years.

When the story of a potential ‘joining of forces’ of the two parties arose last Sunday, the Sinn Fein machine was the first out of the blocks to knock it on the head. No way. Absolutely no way would they ever get into bed with the scuts in Fianna Fail. After everything that Fianna Fail had done to wreck the country? The party’s TD for Meath West, Peader Toibin, dismissed it completely. “The report today is two parts fiction from the media, and one part wishful thinking by Fianna Fail. Needless to say, the story is nonsense,” he said. “Fianna Fail are a toxic brand with toxic policies. Citizens recognise their record of failure on water charges, housing, public services and the economy and view them as increasingly irrelevant.”

His words will have chimed with a growing cohort of the population. Right now, the past before 2008 isn’t just a foreign country, but an alien planet. The devastation of the economy, and the failure of the current government to address it with proper social solidarity, have ensured that all those who have governed since 2008 are no longer trusted by large sections of society.

In this milieu, Sinn Fein’s recent transgressions are regarded by many as relatively minor. Their main selling-point is that they have clean hands on the economy.

The party offers the only coherent alternative to ‘establishment’ parties. Their long struggle has rendered them highly organised.

Last week’s protest against water charges is a perfect example. Two months ago, abolition of the charges wasn’t a red-line issue for the party to enter coalition after the next election. After seeing a by-election whipped from them by the Socialist Party’s Paul Murphy, on a campaign based on abolition, the Shinners suddenly changed tack.

At last Wednesday’s gathering, the biggest cheers of the day were for Adams and Mary Lou McDonald. The party’s flag flew more prominently than others, above the heads of the assembled. Reportedly, members and supporters were bussed in from around the State. Their organisation and political nous have ensured that they are well-placed to steal the thunder of Murphy and his colleagues, who have driven the protests from the start. Another example of the Shinners’ nous was McDonald’s decision to name, under Dail privilege, former government ministers who were alleged — on an apparently flimsy basis — to be involved in off-shore tax fraud. (All came out immediately afterwards to deny any involvement).

In days gone by, her stunt would have been seen as a cheap shot, an abuse of Dail privilege to blacken the names of innocent former politicians. Yet, in this febrile political atmosphere, many will view the individuals as the recepients of fat ministerial pensions, who have sailed through the recession, and are, therefore, fair game for anything. The pain and anger has, in some quarters, eradicated an instinctive regard for natural justice, and the Shinners are in like Flynn to make capital on it. Will the party fill the growing vacuum? The jury is still out on how high it can go.

Others, particularly Fine Gael, have reacted to the Shinners’ rise by predicting that if handed the keys to high office, they would wreck the economy. There is no reason to take seriously such fears. The trend of recent Sinn Fein pre-budget submissions reminds one of Marlon Brando, who once declared: “I’ve spent most of my life trying to be less crazy”.

The Shinners’ economic policies have been progressively less crazy over the last five years, the closer they get to power. Right now, with a little tweaking, their policies wouldn’t look out of place next to Fianna Fail circa 1940, or Labour circa 1980.

Let’s face it, the wealthy Americans who flock to contribute to the party hardly envisage a socialist revolution should Sinn Fein assume power.

In fact, in its current guise, Sinn Fein’s modus operandi resembles nothing as much as that of Fianna Fail when it was in opposition, prior to 1997. Fianna Fail was notorious for plumbing the depths of expendiency, scrapping the bottom of any barrel to embarrass the serving government.

Then, when it had convinced the electorate of its bone fides, it habitually took office and carried on much the same as its predecessor. Taking account that standards, in general, have dropped precipitously in recent years, and that the Shinners are highly organised, they resemble nothing as much as Fianna Fail in the old days. In many ways, there’s no reason to believe that these two entities, with their respective DNAs and origins, couldn’t do business.

All that really separates them is that one is an establishment party, the other an establishment party in waiting.

Sinn Féin’s modus operandi resembles Fianna Fáil’s in opposition pre-1997


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