Friday 21 October 2016

Gang murder and 'Slab' sentencing have Sinn Féin in hole it just can't stop digging

Published 09/02/2016 | 02:30

Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy, who was convicted of tax dodging. Photo: Court Collins
Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy, who was convicted of tax dodging. Photo: Court Collins

So much in elections is down to timing and, what Harold Macmillan famously referred to as, "events". And right now it seems Sinn Féin's luck is out on that score.

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Bad enough that the sentencing of Thomas 'Slab' Murphy is due to come smack, bang in the middle of the campaign - but then last Friday's horrific gangland attack in a Dublin hotel turned the party's stance on the Special Criminal Court into an election issue.

Murphy's sentencing was always going to be awkward for Sinn Féin. For reasons best known to themselves, senior party figures, including Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald, continue to stand over their description of a convicted tax evader as a "good Republican".

It gives their opponents a serious stick with which to beat them. Given that a raid on his property in 2006 resulted in the seizure of €625,000 in cash and cheques, it also seriously jars with the party's stated policy of getting a bigger tax contribution from the wealthy.

And, perhaps more importantly, it re-raises age-old questions as to who is calling the shots in Sinn Féin? Which is more important to Gerry Adams - the views of Slab Murphy or those of the Irish electorate? And, if it's the former, as Adams's stout defence of Murphy seemed to indicate, why so?

Now Friday's gangland attack has piled further pressure on the party by turning the spotlight onto its strong opposition to the non-jury Special Criminal Court.

That opposition always looked utterly self-serving, given it was the court in which Murphy - and indeed many other 'good Republicans' - were convicted.

But, after last Friday's shocking incident, Sinn Féin's continued insistence the court should be abolished leaves the party open to the accusation it wants to take away a key weapon in tackling gangland crime.

With the public rightly shocked at the brutality and audacity of the gangland attack, that's not an electorally profitable place to be.

Ideally, of course, every case would be heard before a jury of the accused's peers. But, as the events at the Regency Hotel so brutally demonstrated, we don't live in an ideal world. There may be strong intellectual and theoretical arguments for abolishing the Special Criminal Court. But they won't find much traction in the heat of an election campaign, where the threat of gangland crime has suddenly become a central issue.

Many ordinary voters will instinctively scoff at the notion that gangland figures, with an extraordinary propensity for violence, can be tried by a jury free from the threat of intimidation.

There are, as Sinn Féin has argued pretty unconvincingly, measures to mitigate this threat and protect juries and witnesses. But which citizen - however civic-minded and courageous - would relish the prospect of being on such a jury, protected or not?

The report suggesting the AK-47s used in the hotel attack might be linked to a cargo of weapons brought in by the Provisional IRA during the Troubles complicates matters further for the party. It was predictably seized upon by the Taoiseach. If true, he said, it was "hypocritical" of Sinn Féin to talk of the abolition of the Special Criminal Court.

This was (not unfairly) dismissed as "political point-scoring" by Pearse Doherty. He insisted the IRA was gone and its weapons put beyond use.

In all probability, the nuances of where the guns may, or may not, have come from is unlikely to exercise too many voters. However, the Continuity IRA's claimed role in the attack - which emerged after the Taoiseach's comments - might have greater resonance.

To be clear, Sinn Féin today can't be held accountable for what dissident groups do. But not all voters - particularly those less clued into the splintering in the Republican movement since the PIRA ceasefire - will necessarily see it that way.

But the real problem for Sinn Féin is it's in a hole and it may be unable to stop digging. It can't with any credibility back down on its stance on the Special Criminal Court, even if it wanted or felt able to (and it doesn't seem to).

And, for its own internal reasons, it's not going to cut "good Republican" Slab Murphy loose, as every other political party would do in the circumstances.

The frustrating thing for the party is it had a good start to the campaign.

Who would have imagined that Fine Gael would have been on the back foot with Sinn Féin, all of a sudden the party of fiscal credibility, accusing it - and the other establishment parties - of getting their numbers wrong?

But the tables have been turned. It should be said that whatever happens, Sinn Féin is going to have a very solid General Election result, in all likelihood finishing somewhere in the twenties, seats-wise.

But, if it wants to be in the mid or high twenties as opposed to the low, it will need to go beyond its urban, working-class heartlands.

Shane Coleman presents the 'Sunday Show' on at 10am

Irish Independent

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