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Sunday 21 February 2016


Taoiseach Adams ... the first 100 days

If you're thinking of a Sinn Fein protest vote, you should read the manifesto carefully, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

EMPTY-HANDED: Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams addressing the media at Leinster House. Photo: Tom Burke

What Gerry Adams had hoped for was the pulverising of Labour and Fianna Fail, leaving a weakened Fine Gael in hock to a few dodgy Independents and Sinn Fein as the main opposition party with a good chance of bringing down the Government within 12 months. What he got was victory - courtesy of young anti-establishment voters like those flocking to Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders - through the huge increase in seats for Independents, the death of Labour, collapse of Fine Gael and beaching of Fianna Fail: only Sinn Fein could form a government on March 10.

Adams's victory tour had included a triumphalist parade from Belfast to Newry headed by old Provos. While he had to choose his words carefully to avoid annoying southern opinion, a press report of shouts of "Fu*k the Free State" added to the "What-have-we-done?" mood down south. Still, on the whole, Martin McGuinness had kept the euphoric Bobby and the boys under control by warning that Sinn Fein had to play it safe until its feet were well and truly under the government table.

For now, before the horse trading started in earnest, there was time privately with a few old comrades for high-fiving about how Gerry's government would turn the "sensitive and inclusive" 1916 commemorative events into a celebration of killing and dying for Ireland from the 12th Century to 1998 and how enjoyable it would be to force those bastards in the gardai and Irish army to participate in a proper freedom fighters' parade. "When it comes to banners, Bobby Sands and Mairead Farrell will be up there with Pearse and the other martyred dead," promised Adams to wild cheers.

"What about Seamus McElwaine?" cried someone, causing Martin McGuinness to shake his head. Arlene Foster's recent reminder that in 1986 he had described McElwaine - who had tried to murder her father - as a saint was an embarrassment, and there were assembly elections to be won in May.
Sinn Fein didn't have to give much ground in the negotiations. True to their word, the Healy-Rae brothers were simply about "improving the situation for County Kerry", which just involved haggling. Others emulated them and all the far left wanted was the implementation of such Sinn Fein manifesto commitments as the increase in the national minimum wage, tax rises, the abolition of water charges, the closing down of Irish Water and an end to sales of State assets and shareholdings or further privatisation of public transport companies. Questions about where the money would come from were easily fobbed off with talk of fiscal space, growing the economy and clobbering the rich.

Adams's acceptance speech as Taoiseach promised a legislative whirlwind of manifesto commitments for his first 100 days as Taoiseach. Shell-shocked Fine Gael and Fianna Fail deputies were too involved in party infighting to pay much attention to anything. First off - and easily sold to the Independents in the name of inclusivity - was to accord consultative and speaking rights in the Dail to every Northern MP, which, of course, in practice, meant only the four from Sinn Fein and three from the SDLP. Presidential voting rights were extended to all citizens abroad, which Sinn Fein felt would make Adams or McGuinness a shoo-in in 2018.

Many of the new supporters were delighted with the recognition of the ethnicity of Travellers and their right to "Traveller-specific" accommodation and the enactment of a beefed-up version of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties' Criminal Law (Hate Crime) Amendment Bill 2015. The Minister for Equality explained that its purpose was to eradicate such evils as racism, sectarianism, homophobia and transphobia; defamatory legislation would henceforward include offensive language towards the LGBT community.

An unhelpful deputy asked if that would outlaw such comments as Gerry Adams's at a public meeting in Enniskillen in 2014 that the point of equality was "to actually break these [unionist] bastards". When this was dismissed as the cut and thrust of politics, the TD pointed out that Sinn Fein MEP Martina Anderson had demanded the removal from a British National Party MEP of his European Parliament immunity from prosecution after his "hate speech" in tweeting that his Northern Ireland Twitter critics were "Fenian bastards".

During the same debate, an idealistic young woman spoke glowingly about the party's imminent plans to make all human rights "including economic and social rights" legally enforceable. She read from the manifesto the passage about the fundamental rights a government must deliver the citizen, which included housing, healthcare, a job in their own country, being able to use Irish in every aspect of daily life and the re-unification of Ireland. "So where's the bill to make yiz responsible for providing all that?" asked a grumpy Fine Gaeler, eliciting a smiling assurance that all these matters would be addressed in time.

The next major act was the Irish language bill which committed the government to invest heavily with a view to "the restoration of the Irish language as the spoken language among the majority of the people in Ireland", including the amendment of the broadcasting acts to require more Irish language and culture on all television and radio stations. The RTE board was replaced.

A newspaper headline 'Forward to the Past' went down just as badly with the Cabinet as persistent media questions about unaddressed manifesto commitments such as the repeal of the Offences Against the State Acts, so loathed when Sinn Fein was in opposition. In government, the political wing of an organisation that suppressed dissent ruthlessly, intimidated critics into silence and for decades had used the death penalty, shooting and beating as a means of enforcing its will on its own members, remained true to its authoritarian roots. In what it called "the national interest", it decided for now to hang on to the Special Criminal Court and to the power to suppress organisations or intern anyone deemed a threat to the State.

There was already under way a programme of giving judges incentives to retire early to make way for party loyalists. Like the judiciary, the gardai were already uncomfortably aware that promotion depended on party loyalty.

By now, the honeymoon was over. Most moderate opinion was alarmed by the aggressive cultural nationalism and the zealotry displayed in the far-reaching measures proposed in the green paper on Irish unity. Even the trade unions, who at first had been ecstatic about the largesse being lavished on the public sector, were becoming frightened that the only growth was in economic instability, while shares were tumbling, unemployment was rising and capital and young people were fleeing to safer economies.

It was now clear that the EU regarded the new Irish government as worse than the Greeks and Adams's promises to make Brussels cough up had proved empty. There were fears for democracy itself. There had been a vicious assault by the new Public Order garda unit on a march by people furious at being penalised for paying their water rates and saving for a pension.

It would be on Monday, the 102nd day of Sinn Fein's government, that the troika came back to town.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards