Sinn Fein proves there are no short cuts in evolution
Gerry Adams's party is slowly trying to become more mainstream but isn't ready to embrace normal politics, writes Kevin Doyle
Published 21/08/2016 | 02:30
Evolution is not a fast process, particularly in the area of politics. Parties tend to lean to the left or the right depending on the mood of the day but most remain steadfastly tied to an ideology that was born decades ago.
Whether voters agree or not, Fianna Fail still sees itself as a Republican party. Fine Gael believes in law and order. And the Labour Party pitches itself as the voice of workers.
Then there is the enigma that is Sinn Fein. Like most Irish political parties, it traces its roots back to heady days around the Rising and the battles over what type of independence Ireland wanted/needed. Today it represents left-wing populism while still pushing for a united Ireland.
The problem is that it has yet to evolve into a proper political party in the way that Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the Labour Party have.
While the other 'mainstream' parties have held real power over the decades, Sinn Fein has never genuinely sought to put itself in such a position.
Gerry Adams baulked at the idea of even discussing the possibility in the wake of February's unprecedented election result, refusing to even consider being the smaller party in a coalition.
Neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fail were worthy of his support.
Besides, as Transport Minister Shane Ross has learned in recent days, being in power means being held to account.
Yet there's no doubt that Sinn Fein's recent election campaign in the Republic saw it move more towards the mainstream it loves to ridicule.
Its manifesto touted all the usual aspirations about a united Ireland and promises to demolish the Special Criminal Court which targets terrorists.
But it also espoused an enterprise spatial strategy, fairness for farmers, a climate change plan and a progressive tax system.
So while Sinn Fein can't tolerate the 'Establishment', its policies are slowly developing in the direction of the more conventional parties.
At the same time, it manages to share power with arch rivals, the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland.
That relationship is driven by necessity, but shows that Sinn Fein can compromise when it suits.
However, last week we got an insight into why the party is still a long way from what we might consider normal in a democracy.
The fact that one of its MLAs "coached" a loyalist blogger in the best way to damage Peter Robinson is not as surprising as the claim that nobody else in the party knew anything about it.
Everybody immediately distanced themselves from Daithi McKay, one of the rising stars of the party north of the border.
McKay is to the party's Northern Executive team what Pearse Doherty is to its Dail line-up. Young, articulate and a presentable face that helps the party distance itself from the IRA, the Troubles and a generation of murder.
But his promising career is in tatters this weekend after plotting to help disgrace Peter Robinson - apparently for nobody's benefit except his own.
At least that is the Sinn Fein narrative that goes with the extraordinary story of how Jamie Bryson managed to bring allegations that Robinson shared in a £7m 'kickback' as part of Nama's 'Project Eagle' deal with vulture fund Cerberus.
It seems likely that the actual sources on Bryson's claims came from within Robinson's own party, but there's little doubt that it suited Sinn Fein's for them to find their way into the public domain.
McKay and Thomas O'Hara, who was a speaker at this year's Sinn Fein Ard Fheis, used Twitter to advise Bryson ahead of his appearance before Stormont's finance committee.
They discussed how to make the maximum impact from Bryson's appearance in front of the committee, which was chaired by McKay.
The party has claimed he went rogue and that nobody in the hierarchy knew anything about his fiendish and well executed plan. He was effectively a 'lone wolf' who within hours became a sacrificial lamb.
But that's not credible. Normal political parties are full of people with independent free thought, strong opinions based on their constituency issues and a sense of self-preservation.
Sinn Fein TDs and MLAs parrot the message handed to them by the leadership, which has been Gerry Adams and a small cohort of commanders since the early 1980s.
They don't gossip about the internal affairs or argue over policy in the way that other political parties do. And that is a major stumbling block on the way to the day when Sinn Fein will be ready to rule in the manner a modern society expects.
Of course, politics should not necessarily be based around arguments and dissent, but when 'group-think' amounts to 'Gerry-think', it's a dangerous place.
Cracks are beginning to form, though. Last month Thomas Anthony McNulty, who heads up the Virginia Mullagh branch in Cavan, claimed that Mr Adams was hindering the party's expansion in the Republic.
Senior party figures were stunned by his decision to make such public utterances. Any debate was quickly closed down with the leadership saying such debates would be discussed internally.
"(We are) not sure what he's at," one party source said.
Whenever Mr Adams does go, the party then faces the challenge of finding somebody who is acceptable to middle Ireland but able to keep control on people like McNulty.
Despite her own expression of interest in that job, most 'old school' Shinners don't see Mary Lou McDonald as that person.
The Dublin Central TD has stood by Adams through sex-abuse scandals, dismal election campaign displays and endless questions over his past - but the Belfast brigade will never accept her.
Power for Sinn Fein will only come in the Republic if it can move on from the past.
That still appears to be way off and there are no short cuts in evolution.