Sinn Féin outflanked by the hard Left and in political quarantine
Published 26/10/2015 | 02:30
In politics, as in life, timing is everything. This time last year, we were in the midst of the water protests. For the hard Left, the water protests represented the golden cow that kept giving. From the Socialist Party to the AAA and everything in between, water was gold. People on the streets, a Government that was retreating and loudhailers galore. What more could the fragmented Irish Left want?
Alan Kelly's package in response to the protests did steady the nerves of backbenchers in both Fine Gael and Labour.
Water is still an issue and will no doubt resurface during the upcoming general election campaign, but the poison that it once represented is no more.
Judging by the latest published opinion poll, a lot has changed over the past year. In polls, as in politics, the trend is your friend.
During the past year combined support for Fine Gael/Lab is trending higher, while support for Sinn Féin is trending downwards.
All that pretend anger and fake indignation, so common this time last year, hasn't paid off.
SF must be scratching their heads. What has gone wrong for them? In effect, during the past year, SF has lost more than a quarter of its support. I think the reasons are straight-forward enough. Try as Sinn Féin might to move on from the criminality of the IRA, the public just don't believe it. That sense of disbelief also occurs every time Gerry Adams tells us he wasn't in the IRA. The legacy problem hasn't gone away. SF still walks in the shadow of the gunman.
The other problem they face is that their flip-flopping on water has been badly exposed by the hard Left. On water, three things come to mind. First, the major about-turn on water was brought about on the back of the Dublin south west by-election. Until that point, SF said very clearly that the issue of abolishing water charges would not be a red-line issue for their participation in government.
Being honest, their finance spokesman had a very balanced position. Realising that the party might lose the by-election, which they eventually did to the Socialist Party, they flip-flopped in the middle of the campaign and declared that the charges would have to go before they would enter government. A new red line was created.
Next, they flipped on Irish Water itself - first saying that Irish Water would have to go, then saying that they would keep it. And then, in the most bizarre twist of all, their MEPs voted for "progressive charges" for water in a report in the European Parliament, charges not just for Ireland but for all of Europe!
The truth is that SF were late on to the water pitch by comparison to others. Up until that point, they were doing their best to appeal to the middle classes. Suddenly, they wanted to be trusted on the economy. But the water protest put paid to that and ensured that they had to reverse engines and fight the Left. In short, they were being outmanoeuvred.
On legacy issues, there is no doubt that the cases of Mairia Cahill and Paudie McGahon over the past year, exposing cover-up, abuse and intimidation within the republican underworld, cost the party significantly. Last week's Report on Paramilitary Activity has legitimately asked new questions about the continuing and murky relationship between the IRA and SF. The issue for SF is not what they believe about that relationship; it's what the public believe.
I have no doubt that many of the young public representatives who have been elected for SF are good people. Many are idealistic and see in the party a radical alternative. But their failure to confront SF's past, to ask hard questions, denotes a real danger that the party is too controlled by a group that lives in the shadows.
Mary Lou McDonald never asks a hard question of the man who sits beside her in the Dáil every week. While many of those councillors, and indeed MEPs, are genuinely looking for something radical, can they find it in SF? What exactly does the party stand for? Is it a genuine party of the Left or just some opportunistic populist nationalist party of the ugly European variety?
POLITICS in Northern Ireland is not like politics here in the Republic. Our election is not some sectarian headcount, as is the case in the North. So the idea put forward by SF that they would only serve in government if they were the largest party, thereby representing a majority within the make-up of that government, may well be sending out the wrong signal to the people who would vote for them.
Unlike northern politics, where you are never punished for sitting out of office or for showing no responsibility whatsoever, our politics is different. If you constantly sit it out, believing that you can continue to grow in opposition, frequently you find that someone else comes and takes your place.
It is the danger of being outflanked. This strategic position was adopted by SF this year. Whatever the argument of other parties not wanting to be in government with SF, that's another question entirely. But basically saying to your own support base that the priority is building up the party by staying out of office, until you have reached a critical mass, gives the clear impression that the party is more important then the people you want to represent.
I suspect SF know that if they went into government, within six weeks half their support base would go. So they will continue to sit it out.
The net effect of last week's report is that no political party in the Republic can touch them. They are still in quarantine.