Sinn Fein stays popular by promising, not doing
The party's big secret is that it doesn't even want to be in government, writes Eilis O'Hanlon. In opposition, it is safely protected from failure
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said something revealing in the course of the first televised leaders' debate on TV3, though it was not picked up at the time, either by his opponents in the studio or by observers afterwards.
It came after the other three leaders - Fine Gael's Enda Kenny, Labour's Joan Burton, and Micheal Martin of Fianna Fail - each ruled out the prospect of going into coalition with Sinn Fein, declaring that the IRA's political wing was unfit for government.
Why, Adams demanded to know with his trademark supercilious smile of a fifth-form debater convinced he's about to score a knock-out blow, should any party in the Dail consider SF to be an unsuitable partner when the Democratic Unionist Party, sworn enemies of Irish republicanism for a generation, had agreed to share power with former IRA commander Martin McGuinness and others?
Pat Kenny cut him off by pointing out that government in the North was decided on a complicated D'Hondt system which wasn't comparable at all to politics in the Dail, and he's right; but that was to miss the much more glaring contradiction in Adams's words, which was that if FG, FF and Labour were being inconsistent in deeming SF unfit for coalition when the DUP did not, then SF was being even more equally inconsistent in ruling out FG, FF and Labour as suitable coalition parties whilst being prepared to share power with the DUP.
Mary Lou McDonald stressed again during the deputy leaders' debate on TV3 last Monday that "we will not prop up either of the conservative parties". In other words, SF is prepared to "prop up" the DUP, which is far more regressive than any of the main parties in the Republic, but will not sully itself to get into bed with parties who founded the State and guided and shaped it for decades through difficult and happier times alike.
SF is, in effect, treating FG and FF as if they are insignificant second stringers whose only function in Irish life has been to keep the seat of power warm until SF, its rightful inheritors, came to claim it for themselves. Adams has more respect for the DUP, because at least it comes from the North, the true Ireland, the one which had now finally been lifted to its deserved place and given the task of leading the false Ireland in the South to the promised land.
By flatly rejecting suggestions that SF should share power under any of the three main parties, Adams confirmed two things. The first is his latent kneejerk hostility to the character of the State that he has designs to lead and to which the Constitution compels him to show allegiance. The second is that SF has no intention of, or interest in, serving in government at all.
Stormont doesn't count. That is not a natural government by any standards. SF could bankrupt Northern Ireland, increase poverty by 3,000pc, and have the homeless piling up in the streets, and it would still waltz back into power in the North, It's an abnormal society which elects abnormal administrations decided solely on sectarian head counts. The largest unionist party must share power with the largest nationalist party, so as long as SF outpolls the rival SDLP its path back to power is guaranteed, and it can easily do that as long as it outdoes the more sedate nationalist party on the green rhetoric. Extremism is rewarded in the North, not results.
Knowing that power is divided up this way encourages voters to head to the fringes in order to strengthen the bargaining hand of their particular side. SF and the DUP have that racket sewn up between themselves for decades to come. There are no penalties for failure in the North's administration, none for broken promises.
The Republic isn't like that. There are consequences for failure in the Dail. A party which fails to deliver on its commitments will be punished at the next poll, as Labour, FG, FF, the Greens and Progressive Democrats have all discovered to their costs in recent years. Sometimes, in the case of the PDs, the damage is fatal. More often, as with Labour, it's cyclical. SF has no experience of this type of politics and it has even less appetite for discovering what it's like on that side of the fence.
Its political experience in the North is akin to that of an invading army. Electoral areas are territory to be won by overwhelming force. Once won, they hold on to them. They're hugely successful at it.
In the Republic, it's different. Votes are borrowed, not seized like the spoils of battle. Fail to deliver and they'll be taken back and handed to another party. Right now SF is concentrating on building up the war machine, ready for the big push, but its mantra is "not now, not yet", because it knows that this momentum will wither the moment it has to disappoint the loyal foot soldiers with difficult decisions.
Better to stay safely out of government, remaining as a fulcrum for discontent, without risking unpopularity with hard policy choices. The last thing they want or need right now is SF ministers being held accountable or answerable for real, rather than fantasy, funding options, and facing the criticism of eloquent opposition deputies who can outflank them from the left, stealing the clothes in which SF now wraps itself.
It's as an opposition force that SF is most dangerous, where its political influence is most malign. Imagine SF ministers trying to reform a health service which has defeated bigger and better politicians in its time. The magic would quickly lose its glow for voters.
It's plausible that a SF-led government would wreak havoc with the country's economy and security, as it played brinkmanship both with the peace process and financial realities. That possibility should not be discounted.
Just as likely, though, is that SF would be forced to realise that its rhetoric is bigger than its ability to deliver. That's what happened in the North last year. Faced with an inability to get its way on welfare reform, SF simply caved in on its promise to protect the poorest from cuts and instead cobbled together a shabby deal with the DUP to send back all responsibility for the issue to Westminster.
It's worth pausing for a moment to consider the significance of that act. A party whose entire raison d'etre is to return national sovereignty from Britain to the Irish people voluntarily gave up an executive power which had already been returned from Britain to an elected Irish assembly, simply in order to save face, having been caught out as being unable to make good on its political pledges.
These are people who claim that they would stand up for Ireland in Europe, but who wouldn't or couldn't stand up to a Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer.
The episode was staggeringly symbolic of the limits of SF's capabilities as negotiators and legislators, and was rightly condemned by the SDLP's Alex Attwood as a "grotesque abdication of political responsibility". SF would be equally scathing if FG, Labour or FF had pulled a similar stroke.
Not that such a thing is possible. Irish governments don't have the option of washing their hands of unpleasant financial decisions and begging the boy from the Bullingdon Club in 11 Downing Street to step in and sort it all out.
Even in the North, some voters are beginning to see through this charade. People Before Profit is making inroads into SF's core vote in West Belfast, but it will take time to chip away at that edifice. Voters in the Republic are less tolerant of failure and less respectful of reputation, which is why SF has calculated that it's safer to stay out of government, hiding instead behind waffle as it pursues the central aim of picking off its rivals one by one and becoming the main voice of opposition in the State.
The worst thing that could happen to it is to be put in a position where it has to do rather than just talk, because once it fails at real, bread-and-butter politics in Dublin, as it has in Belfast, the allure is gone forever.