News Eoghan Harris

Thursday 18 September 2014

Sinn Fein searching for soft coalition partners

Published 01/06/2014 | 02:30

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Illustration by Jim Cogan
Mary Lou  McDonald with party leader Gerry Adams
Mary Lou McDonald with party leader Gerry Adams

By and large I had a good election. At the micro level, apart from Ivan Yates, I was the only pundit to categorically predict Nessa Childers would win a seat. At a macro level, Sinn Fein's success means I am no longer a lone voice crying wolf.

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For years I have argued that the combination of a leaky consensus against armed nationalism, and public anger about austerity, would aid the rise of a nationalist-populist party like Sinn Fein. But now that the Sinn Fein wolf is within the fold I believe it offers a better target than when it was hiding in the woods.

First, the scale of Sinn Fein's success poses more problems for the party than a partial breakthrough would have done. From a party of protest they have become a potential partner in government. This is causing the first faint shadows of a future breach between Platonists and pragmatists to fall across the Project.

Right now the party's rank and file supports strategists like Councillor Eoin O Broin who believes the party can hold its breath for as long as it takes. Indeed he informed an RTE election panel that Sinn Fein would only go into coalition with another party if all of its policies were accepted by its coalition partner!

This is a retreat from reality. And that retreat from real life ruined the Workers Party when it rejected my proposal to move away from Soviet-style socialism to social democracy in 1990. Today social democracy is the only game in town.

So I say this to Sinn Fein. Enjoy your brief moment in the sun. Soon now, as you strut around like peacocks, real life will descend on you from the sky, red in tooth and claw, pluck your plumage and leave you lying there like every revolutionary party of the past, victim of the hard hawk of history.

My second prediction follows from the first. Sinn Fein simply can't afford to wait. No matter what strategists like Eoin O Broin might think, elected TDs need to be part of the government standing on the GPO platform in 2016. So provided they stand tough – as Moby Dick wants them to do – the two main parties can deprive Sinn Fein of that Holy Grail.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fail hold all the cards. They can form a principled alliance to keep Sinn Fein out of office after the next general election. Far from flourishing on the opposition benches, being permanently out of power would leave Sinn Fein stuck with the label of being a party of protest and condemn it to continual decline.

That is why Sinn Fein, pregnant with success, desperately needs a partner so it can give birth to its Project. But instead of calling on Sinn Fein to abort its Rosemary's Baby, faint hearts in all parties are presenting their backsides. Last weekend even Enda Kenny adopted the weak formula of "not ruling out coalition with any party".

Micheal Martin, to his credit, has held a hard line against coalition with Sinn Fein. This has been noted with approval by a nervy Middle Ireland, and his stand will help revive Fianna Fail's fortunes in Dublin. Alas there are still a few in that party who think they can handle a coalition with Sinn Fein and even eventually seduce them into Fianna Fail.

They should take a look at what happened to Labour after the arrival of the Workers' Party. I say Workers' Party rather than Democratic Left, a primping parlour which masked the fact that the most powerful faction in the Workers' Party was entering the Labour Party. And I say entering because I believe there was no real merging in any meaningful sense of the word.

The Workers' Party group who joined Labour retained its former culture and cohesion. The culture was composed of democratic centralism plus the discipline derived from the WP's roots in the militarist tradition of the republican movement. The cohesion came from years of common action for advancement within the trade union movement.

That culture and cohesion is clear to any outside observer. It surfaced clearly in the campaign to support Kevin Cardiff, which was driven by former WP members. It surfaced in the resolute refusal to support Roisin Shortall and in unwavering support for Alan Shatter. It surfaced in who nominated whom for the Labour leadership. It surfaced in the fact that not one former WP face could be found standing behind Joan Burton.

Finally, of course, it surfaced in Pat Rabbitte supporting his protege Alex White against Burton. Labour grandees like Ruairi Quinn asked no awkward questions about all this. Last week on radio, dealing with the dire election results, Quinn showed he had succumbed to a political form of Stockholm syndrome when he kept repeating, "As Pat Rabbitte said".

Quinn did not seem aware that, as Fiach Kelly reported, Labour canvassers were greeted by voters foaming at the mouth because Rabbitte had just been doing his dismissive riff on television. Nor did he seem to notice the role played by those with WP DNA in the Labour debacle. As Joan Burton and Brendan Howlin seem less star-struck, they might ask Rabbitte two rhetorical questions.

The first is where his protege Alex White stands on future coalitions with Sinn Fein. White cut his political teeth in a campaign against Section 31, which would have made him a hero with Sinn Fein.

He got his Seanad seat from a deal Pat Rabbitte brokered with Sinn Fein's Pearse Doherty. Posh Sinn Fein would have few problems with that pedigree.

They might also ask Rabbitte to explain his bizarre behaviour last weekend. Gilmore and Rabbitte are old comrades. So when White went against Gilmore why did Rabbitte then back White for the leadership? Not only that, he went on radio to praise White's rising generation who had just shown Gilmore the door.

Rabbitte's behaviour makes no sense. Unless of course, like me, you believe it was a last-ditch attempt to stave off a possible cull of those whose DNA goes back to the Workers' Party, and whose discipline, shorn of any ideological dimension, now appears to function solely to support Fine Gael and to protect its pay, pensions and patronage.

Given his support for White, Gilmore might well feel betrayed. He may be tempted to say like Julius Caesar: Et tu Brute? But Duncan in Macbeth may be closer to the mark. "There's no art/To find the mind's construction in the face./ He was a gentleman on whom I built/ An absolute trust."

Shakespeare's belief that you can't find the mind's construction in the face is not fully supported by pictures of White's face on Six One News last Monday. A phalanx of Labour mourners makes its way into Gilmore's dignified press conference.

Looming over these lugubrious faces is the cheerful visage of Alex White, eyes shifting towards the cameras, as the sunflower seeks the sun.

Joan Burton, in contrast, seems not to care about cameras. She and her husband, Pat Carroll, have been fighting for progressive causes since the 1970s. She is what she seems. Which is more than you can say about some of her colleagues.

Sunday Independent

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