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29 February 2016

Big parties must bite bullet to keep Sinn Fein at bay

I am frequently accused of bias against Sinn Fein, which I freely admit. I find it shocking that people on both sides of the border vote for a party led by apologists for murder who hunger for power but have no principles.

But I work hard to look objectively at how Sinn Fein performs and am well aware of its strengths.

At the time of writing, there’s a long time to go before the final results of the general election come through, but it’s already clear that Sinn Fein had a disappointing election, though of course it won’t admit it.

But before its opponents get out the Champagne, there’s a sting in the tail, which I’ll get to later on.

Of course, Sinn Fein would have daydreamed about winning an overall majority, but knew that wasn’t going to happen.

In fact, for quite a long time its support was dropping: at its height it reached 26%, but it now looks to be under 15%.

Pleasingly — for it’s always good to see bad people brought down by their own sins — this was partly because of the drip-drip of embarrassing stories around Gerry Adams.

The revelations about the lies and tax evasion of Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy — whom Adams described as a “good republican” — were particularly bad news.

Still, the Sinn Fein strategists had realistically hoped until quite recently that it would win more seats than Fianna Fail.

The IRA has always hated and despised what in its heart it thinks of as ‘the Free State’, but though it deeply dislikes Fine Gael, it particularly hates and loathes Fianna Fail, which calls itself ‘the Republican Party’ and has a history of being particularly rough on the IRA.

A particular grievance is the 1944 hanging of Charlie Kerins, the chief-of-staff of the IRA, for murdering a policeman: he is still memorialised and celebrated as a republican martyr.

What Sinn Fein had its eye on was in effect a reverse takeover of Fianna Fail, which had such a terrible election in 2011 that it was seen by many to have on it the mark of death.

But the able and dogged Micheal Martin has attracted back many traditional Fianna Fail voters who had left the party in disgust and the big story of the election is its return to health.

What Sinn Fein would like now is for both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail to try and fail to get enough support to form a government, as in the election that would have to follow, the odds are that the two big parties would probably be severely punished.

An alternative, which is also sweet, is that after almost a century the two big parties would finally bury the Civil War hatchet and go into government together, leaving Sinn Fein — which has now replaced the hammered Labour Party as the third biggest party in the Republic — to become the official opposition.

With money still short, the recovery a bit shaky and an electorate that has clearly indicated its annoyance with austerity, Sinn Fein could have a field day probing the fault lines between the two traditional enemies.

Enda Kenny — or, for he may be dethroned, his successor — might be prepared to contemplate such a deal.

But Martin will be very nervous about it.

His loathing of Sinn Fein is as visceral as his very healthy respect for its ruthlessness and unscrupulous talents as a fighting machine.

The truth is that the voters have produced such an electoral dog’s dinner that every option is a nightmare for the winning parties.

Of course, if both leaders feel sufficiently in charge of their TDs to be able to agree on a joint programme of the government and the division of the ministerial spoils, and if they believe they can run a stable government together for five years, that looks like the least worst option.

If they don’t, we will be seeing Gerry Adams’ vulpine smile all too often.

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, will be published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards