There's a bigger threat lurking for Sinn Fein
Gerry Adams's arrest may damage the party's election prospects, but it's their protest politics that will ultimately fail them at the ballot box.
Call me crazy, but it's possible that the questioning of Gerry Adams over the murder of Jean McConville may not be the major threat to the Sinn Fein surge. It may be something else entirely.
You will often find that big news about a company or the economy at large will not hit share prices when that news is finally confirmed. Because it is usually said that the market had priced that information in already.
In the case of Sinn Fein, a lot of the new Sinn Fein voters have priced in the information about Gerry Adams's past already. There is no doubt that it makes Mary Lou & Co squirm when they have to get weaselly about Gerry and his past and the past of the party grandees in general. And there's no doubt that reading afresh about Jean McConville being dragged screaming from her house in front of her kids reminds people where Sinn Fein comes from and possibly makes the things that were done back then more real for a generation who never lived through it. But will it turn them off to that extent? Possibly not.
Certainly ghosts like Jean McConville offer a reason not to vote for Sinn Fein, but do they really affect, to a huge extent, what people see as the positive reasons they have for voting Sinn Fein? These are reasons which have nothing to do with Northern Ireland then, and everything to do with the Republic now.
It probably isn't that important for the new breed of Sinn Fein to sever ties with the past. I suspect that most of the non-traditional Sinn Fein voters who constitute the surge have made that severance in their heads already. The past isn't that important to them; they don't hugely associate Mary Lou or Pearse Doherty with the past anyway.
People see that the old guard is an albatross around new Sinn Fein's neck. But they feel, in a way, that the Mary Lous of the party have outgrown that noose. She is known more for things that are nothing to do with the traditional view of Sinn Fein now than she is for anything to do with the National Question. She has transcended her party's past. Sinn Fein has managed to rebrand. It is no longer about Northern Ireland or Republicanism. How often do you see Mary Lou even talk about Northern Ireland or a United Ireland or any of that old rubbish? Sinn Fein now is pragmatic, and so are the voters. 'Everyone has baggage' seems to be the attitude, 'but what can you do for me in the here and now?' More than anything, the Public Accounts Committee has been a very effective carwash for Mary Lou to go through. She is now a sacred cow almost, a national treasure. All right-thinking people from all sides agree that, whatever you feel about Sinn Fein, Mary Lou is great.
But, funnily enough, this rebranding of Sinn Fein may be the factor that will threaten the party's surge. Because you ask someone what Sinn Fein is about now and most people will say it is anti-austerity, a party of protest. And protest is, like, so hot right now. We are all vaguely socialist and protesty these days. We are all against austerity. Who wouldn't be?
But while the rebranded Sinn Fein is having a zeitgeisty moment, you have to wonder how long that moment will last. Sinn Fein and the independents and People Before Profit are capitalising well on the general nihilism among Irish voters right now. The so-called natural party of Government melted down in the last general election, and the alternative isn't proving itself much more popular right now. People these days are against everything mainstream really, and they hate anyone who has been in government recently or who currently is. Which leaves them flocking to Sinn Fein and the others, who have never had an opportunity to blot their copybook by being in government.
But this is a very particular moment of time in this country. The electorate, and the population in general, are having an almighty strop. We are all suffering from a form of mass post-traumatic stress disorder. We are like teenagers who are rejecting our parents for ruining our lives, and we are having a little rebellious phase.
But everything is just phases with stroppy kids, isn't it? And we will grow out of it very quickly. And voters, as Sinn Fein has found to its benefit, have notoriously short memories, and will tend to vote on whoever is floating their boat at that moment.
The ideal time for the parties of protest to have their surge should have been the last general election. The people were at an all- time low in terms of disillusionment with mainstream parties and in terms of feeling hard done by by bankers, the Troika, etc. But along came Fine Gael, offering a democratic revolution and a new politics, and hijacking the middle-class revolutionary vote.
There will possibly never be a backlash against traditional politics like that again – and it didn't even backlash against traditional politics.
Right now, in the locals and Europeans, Sinn Fein still probably has a window to capitalise on being anti-austerity. But in two years' time? In a real election? When the existing Government will make sure that austerity is but a distant memory? Will it be enough at that point to be a party of protest? To be against austerity? Who knows. You would imagine that what the country will want at that point is a grown-up government fit to manage an economic resurgence. And, as good as it is at being pragmatic and responding to what people want, two years is a very short time for Sinn Fein to reinvent itself as a party of responsible financial management and economic growth.
There is an assumption right now that most of the people who are disillusioned with the mainstream parties and with traditional politics in this country are against capitalism, are vaguely of the left, and are for the overthrowing of everything. But dig into the polls and you find that there are a lot of centre right 'don't knows' in Ireland too. While we have all fallen a little bit out of love with capitalism, there is an awareness among most people that our economic revival will come from the private sector. While we all appreciate the Taoiseach and Bono going around shaking their little tushies at Davos to bring more hi-tech call centre jobs here, we recognise too that the vast majority of jobs in this country do not come from Foreign Direct Investment but from the local, domestic economy. And while public sector workers have been portrayed as the major victims of this bust, there is a huge awareness among most people that the ones who lost their jobs and had their pensions wiped out are those in the private sector. They are the ones really bleeding.
So the surge, the one that matters, the one that will decide the next government of this country in two years' time, will not be about being anti-austerity and a party of protest. The surge in two years' time will go to a party that promises to revitalise the private sector and help it to start creating jobs again. It will be the party that tries to help the coping classes of the private sector rescue their pensions, the party that will make sure their kids don't have to go to Australia, the party that will rebuild the battered main streets of Ireland.
That is where any new political party in this country needs to focus its attention if it wants to matter. Otherwise it faces getting into a dogfight with the sharp operators of Sinn Fein and the independents for a slice of a diminishing protest/anti-austerity vote.