Sinn Fein credentials remain dubious
Extremist politicians have gained ground across Europe but their chances of having real power remain slim
There is no little concern across Europe about the rise of extremist and even anti-democratic forces. Last week's Europe-wide election results show that the threat is over-stated in most countries, but under-stated in this country.
In the European Parliament elections across 28 countries, as in most others since the economic crisis erupted in 2008, the most prevalent trend has been anti-incumbent, not pro-extremist, a point underscored by two Trinity College political scientists, Gail McElroy and Michael Marsh, in detailed presentations on the Europe-wide results in Dublin last week.
Of the 28 countries in the EU, most saw no significant increase in extremist parties in last weekend's votes. Some – Italy, the Netherlands and Finland for instance – saw support for moderate centrists increase and the extremist-tending parties, which have risen to prominence in recent times, falling below expectations.
And even in the countries whose non-mainstream parties really did do well, their chances of taking power is, with a few exceptions, very low.
In Britain, UKIP topped the poll, winning one in four votes. The result certainly adds to the momentum behind a British withdrawal from the EU. But for all the excitable talk in the Westminster bubble, Nigel Farrage's moment of glory is not a game-changer.
With turnout far below that of general elections and only half of UKIP voters telling exit pollsters that they will back the party at next year's Westminster election, all commentators and analysts agree that UKIP will struggle to win any seats at all in the next parliament. While it may seem perverse to Irish eyes that a party winning a significant share of the vote struggles to get into parliament, such is the nature of Britain's first-past-the-post electoral system. UKIP itself knows how big of an obstacle this is and is targeting just 20 seats (out of 650) in next year's general election.
At the very most it will win a mere handful of seats. With such small numbers, its chances of holding the balance of power are very low and there is no prospect of a place for Farrage at the cabinet table.
In France, the Front National also won a quarter of the vote, but its prospects of having any say in running that country are even slimmer than UKIP's in Britain. Again, the electoral system is front and centre in explaining this, as was to be seen just last month when the FN managed to win just one in 100 mayoral elections in municipalities with more than 10,000 inhabitants.
If Marine Le Pen were to become president of France in 2017 it would amount to a game changer – for France and for Europe (France pulling out of the EU and the euro, as Le Pen advocates, would blow the integration project apart). But the chances of a President Le Pen are next to zero. The French presidential electoral system pits the top two candidates in the first round of voting against each other in a head-to-head second round vote. It is by no means certain that she will even make the second round in three years' time, particularly if the deeply unpopular incumbent, Francoise Hollande, makes way for another member of his socialist party to run in his place.
But if Le Pen does not fall at the first hurdle, she will crash at the second, just as her father did before her. The demagogic Jean Marie Le Pen managed to make it to the run-off in the 2002 presidential election. Despite running against an unpopular incumbent, Jacques Chirac, Le Pen was humiliated. Chirac won 82pc of the vote, compared to Le Pen's 18pc – up a single percentage point on the share he obtained in the first round, reflecting the very narrow bloc of FN voters.
It is conceivable that his daughter could do considerably better if she makes it to the second round in 2017, but inconceivable that she would win. There is nothing close to a majority in France for the FN's brand of narrow-minded, aggressive and intolerant nationalism.
The British and French electoral systems all but ensure that UKIP and FN will not get their hands on the levers of power in the foreseeable future. Ireland's electoral system could hardly be more different, and the outcomes will be different too, despite the very limited role anti-immigration and anti-EU sentiment played in the local and European elections here.
As the debate on future coalition partners within Fianna Fail last week illustrated, Sinn Fein could well form part of the next government. Though its brand of nationalism may differ from reactionary parties elsewhere in Europe, the party's democratic traditions and culture are among the weakest of any in Europe.
While the movement had moderated and the younger generation is untainted by involvement in the Provisionals' campaign of violence, the culture that evolved in that movement over its decades spent on a war footing has not gone away. As with the culture of any large organisation, change happens slowly.
And it is hindered by the continued presence of the hard men of Gerry Adams's generation. They, directly or indirectly, involved themselves in the taking of human life over decades and the martial values that come to dominate any organisation that kills are deep in the marrow.
Such values are diametrically opposed to democratic values. Still today these values and the culture of the war years are to be seen in the closing down of internal dissent and sect-like secrecy which makes Sinn Fein one of the most unusual – and least democratic – political parties in Europe.
This is in stark contrast with the rag-bag of bigots, buffoons, and mavericks in the likes of UKIP and FN, whose members are rarely team players and, despite their reactionary instinct for order, are unable to maintain party discipline once they take on the responsibilities of governing. On the rare occasions that they have been brought into coalitions in the past, they tend to implode. That is exactly what happened to Jorg Haider's Freedom Party in Austria and the Lijst Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands a decade ago. The steely, disciplined determination of Sinn Fein makes it very different, and potentially much more dangerous.
A final point is worth making about the history of Irish political parties. It is often glibly said that both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael evolved from militarism, as if to say that there is no cause for concern about Sinn Fein and that all political parties become democratic by some automatic but ill-defined process. This is complacent and lazy-minded, not least because it ignores a critical issue – time.
Fianna Fail and Fine Gael emerged from the 1916-1926 period, a turbulent but relatively brief time and much of which passed without conflict. That was very different from the history of modern day Sinn Fein. The period from 1969 to the 1994 ceasefire and the decommissioning of Provisional arms in 2005 represented most of an adult lifetime for those involved. Add into the mix the anti-democratic Marxist ideology that the movement adopted in the 1970s, and the mindset and political culture of the Adams generation is profoundly different from those who emerged from the wars of 1919-23.
Until the Adams generation has departed political life entirely, Sinn Fein will remain one of the most democratically dubious parties in Europe.