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Poll success brings out Sinn Fein's true colours

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A mural in honour of Gerry Adams in the Falls Road, Belfast

A mural in honour of Gerry Adams in the Falls Road, Belfast

PA

A mural in honour of Gerry Adams in the Falls Road, Belfast

The Red C poll published last weekend didn't give Sinn Fein quite as big an advantage as the Sunday Independent poll a few weeks earlier, but it confirmed the trend. For Sinn Fein's core support, child safety clearly means nothing next to water charges.

Whatever happens from here on in to the election, though, it's been a valuable insight into how Sinn Fein behaves when it's on the up. There's only one thing worse than being a bad loser, and that's being a bad winner. If Sinn Fein's enemies had conspired somehow to manipulate these polls to give a false sense of security to Gerry Adams and his colleagues, thereby giving them a chance to unwittingly reveal what life will be like if the party ever does seize power with the proverbial ballot box in one hand and an aggressive belief that it's always in the right in the other, they couldn't have dreamed that the picture would be so unpleasant.

Since that one single poll affirming Sinn Fein for the first time as the largest party in the State, Adams has ditched the usual pieties about the Troubles being a tragedy for which all sides must take responsibility, and gone back to being an open apologist for the integrity of the Provisional IRA; he has made menacing "jokes" about pointing guns at newspaper editors' heads and smashing printing presses.

He has also repeatedly brushed off legitimate questions both about his personal role in the Mairia Cahill case and the republican movement's wider handling of rape and sex abuse by its own members. Now comes this latest gaffe, as he brands unionists in the North as "bastards".

Adams denies that he meant unionists per se, and says he was referring only to "bigots"; but the full context of his remark reveals no such convenient nuance. He simply let the mask of post-conflict inclusivity slip for a moment, not realising that his words were being recorded by a reporter, and once again Sinn Fein has been forced to come out and spin as best it can on behalf of a leader who increasingly cannot be trusted to be left alone with a microphone nearby, for fear of what might come out of his mouth. Even his revelation that he now has a list of suspected Provo abusers exiled to the south raised more questions than it answered.

Adams's home in Belfast has more security than Fort Knox. To paraphrase the famous internet meme, one does not simply walk up to Gerry's door and pop sensitive information through the letterbox.

The tactic from Sinn Fein, as usual, has been to defend Adams on a minor point, namely his use of the word "bastards", which, crude as it was, hardly mattered in the scheme of things, whilst ignoring the bigger questions still dogging him. It's a classic diversion, no doubt intended to draw attention away not only from the collective smear behind the word, but also from their leader's admission that pushing equality issues in the North was a "Trojan Horse" by which republicans hoped to win their squalid war by other means.

That wasn't a surprise either. Many commentators have been making exactly the same point for two decades, having seen from the start that Sinn Fein's pretended interest in a settlement based on equal rights was simply a ruse both to retrospectively justify the IRA campaign - as if blowing up children was ever about securing extra funding for the Irish language - whilst camouflaging the movement's unchanged hardline objectives.

Equality was always just another weapon to republicans. The surprising thing is that Adams felt safe enough last week to acknowledge it publicly. "Whatever you say, say nothing" has long been the watchword of the republican heartland. It was always nonsense. One only had to sit in a republican bar and wait until the local "freedom fighters" had downed enough pints to hear them drunkenly spouting off secrets. But the politicians amongst them at least prided themselves on knowing what to say and when to say it.

Adams has kicked that notion out of the park in recent weeks with a series of ill-judged remarks, and he has done so because of an over-confidence in the party which can be directly traced back to that original poll putting his party in first place, even as it battled lurid allegations surrounding the treatment of sex abuse victims, and its complicity in spiriting away offenders to safety across the border. Safety for them, that is, not for the inevitable future victims.

The latest row in the Dail is another example of republicans throwing their weight around in a belief that they are currently invulnerable.

This is the third time in recent weeks that it happened. Each episode followed the same pattern. The first came after the BBC Spotlight programme on Mairia Cahill. The second was the day after the Dail debate on abuse cover-ups by the republican movement. The latest followed another Spotlight programme which highlighted Sinn Fein's misdirection of huge sums of public funds into the republican movement's coffers. This was a rare example of a story about Sinn Fein's activities in the North which made it south of the border. Most of the time, partition works to its advantage and it gets away with having its hands in the till in Belfast whilst playing the whited sepulchres in Dublin.

This time, people actually started to see Sinn Fein for the sinister, semi-constitutional fraud it is. Sure enough, that afternoon Sinn Fein managed to get the Dail suspended again, thereby giving them an opportunity to wallow in victimhood.

In many ways, the last weeks have been like one long extended Sheffield Rally, the notorious event held by Neil Kinnock's Labour Party days before the 1992 UK election, when it looked as if the Tories were about to be kicked from office. The impact of the rally has probably been exaggerated by pundits looking for easy answers as to how Labour managed to throw away a commanding lead, but there's no denying that triumphalism is never a pretty sight.

Sinn Fein ignored all the traditional caveats about polls and began behaving as if it already had the country in the bag. On reaching a certain level of support, any movement with its head screwed on would consolidate the gains by proving that it was a safe pair of hands, ready for office. Instead Sinn Fein went in the other direction, making itself even more transfer toxic in the process.

If hubris was the worst of it, it wouldn't be so bad. But the last few weeks have felt at times as if the country's living in a Martin Scorsese movie, in which "made men" strut around the place as if immune to criticism, and women are supposed to know their place. If Sinn Fein acts like this on the basis of a couple of polls, it doesn't bear thinking about how untouchable it's going to feel if it ever got within a sniff of real power.

Sunday Independent