Fianna Fail must resist getting into bed with Sinn Fein 'tiger'
Nationalists in the North know all about the perils of flirting with the Shinners.
THE Chinese have a proverb, which goes 'to attend an emperor is like sleeping with a tiger'. Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams may not quite be an emperor yet but he certainly has aspirations beyond the limitation of his party office. In the aftermath of Sinn Fein's spectacular achievements in the recent EU elections in the Republic, I was surprised to see senior members of Fianna Fail starting to openly discuss the possibility of Sinn Fein as a potential coalition partner.
Obviously who Fianna Fail decides to get into bed with, politically speaking, is a matter for the Fianna Fail leadership – but it would do well to look at the experience of the SDLP in the North to see just how quickly sleeping with the enemy diminishes the partner who welcomes them to bed. If Fianna Fail listens to its own instincts, it will know that to let Sinn Fein into the bedchamber will be like sleeping with a tiger. If it does pursue that agenda then it's not the Fianna Fail of Sean Lemass, Jack Lynch, David Andrews or Brian Cowen that I recognise.
Having spent a large part of my adult life working for the SDLP in the electoral bear pits of South Armagh and West Belfast, I have some knowledge of what it's like to compete against, and coalesce with, Sinn Fein. I have warned and then watched how Sinn Fein can, with the effectiveness of a chameleon lizard, blend into any environment that suits but remain on the hunt. And they are strictly carnivores.
Despite warnings from outside and inside the SDLP, the leadership, or at least the coteries close to John Hume, sleepwalked the entire party into an uncomfortable relationship that became electorally toxic. Almost overnight a party that had a clear identity and purpose found its clothes and language shamelessly stolen. What the SDLP was left with was that awful feeling of the morning after the night before.
The skill of Sinn Fein in usurping the mantle of respectability given to it by rubbing shoulders on the world stage with the SDLP leadership was worthy of the illusionist Derren Brown. Sinn Fein is a party adept at taking and the SDLP leadership just could not stop giving. It's to the credit of Seamus Mallon, Eddie McGrady, Joe Hendron and some others that the implosion of the SDLP was slow in coming.
They knew how to keep clean green grass between the identity of Sinn Fein and the SDLP and the electorate recognised that.
During the early years of the power-sharing executive at Stormont, the SDLP had no choice but to remain shackled to Sinn Fein while the latter played fast and loose with its commitments and obligations to the letter and spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. Sinn Fein's shameful exploitations of the Good Friday Agreement eventually destroyed David Trimble's Ulster Unionists. In later years, the SDLP, paralysed by fear and inertia, found itself unable and, in some cases, incapable of taking on Sinn Fein electorally. Today the SDLP is a shadow of its former self and its lions have all but gone.
The SDLP has, to its credit, done much of the heavy lifting for peace and perhaps history will be kinder to the party than the electorate. But history is poor compensation in the competitive market of politics and power play.
Unlike the SDLP, Fianna Fail still has some life in it. The European elections may have been a basket case for them but the local government elections proved that the grassroots, particularly in the rural areas, is still fertile ground and may offer a route back to increased influence in Dail Eireann. Fianna Fail still holds the mantle of being the 'Republican Party' – they should think long and hard before sharing it with Sinn Fein as few, if any, ever learn to truly tame a tiger.
Tom Kelly is a former vice-chairman of the SDLP and was a central planner in many of the party's campaigns