Monday 19 August 2019

With Mary Lou in frame to be SF leader, the starting gun has been fired for next election

As three ­combative ­leaders do ­battle, the campaign is likely to be one of the ­most acrimonious contests ever

A bad marriage in reverse: Leo, Mary Lou and Micheál are preparing their arsenal of insults for the next general election
A bad marriage in reverse: Leo, Mary Lou and Micheál are preparing their arsenal of insults for the next general election
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Gerry Adams has finally announced that he will quit, probably to spend more time with his rubber ducks lolling about in his bath and tweeting cringeworthy inanities to his 150,000 followers.

Now that Adams is finally being decommissioned and will soon be put beyond use, the real political war will begin - and no prisoners will be taken.

We can now see the shape of the coming conflict, and the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone are not part of this vista.

The Rathgar republican Mary Lou McDonald, heir presumptive of Sinn Féin, will slug it out with posh boy Leo Varadkar.

And we should not forget Micheál Martin, the leader portrayed as a choirboy who can deliver a punch from beneath his lilly-white surplice.

The results of this electoral scrap are unlikely to be pretty, with insults flying in all directions, but it will be a compelling spectacle, with no quarter given.

The coming election campaign - whatever its timings - will be like a bad marriage in reverse.

First there will be fights, acrimonious rows, outbreaks of ill feeling and accusations of bad faith on all sides.

But at the end of it all, two of these parties will have to form a loving partnership, or at least consummate a shotgun marriage.

We have already seen the opening skirmishes. Until now, as the leader of a party propping up the Government, Micheál Martin has had to be restrained.

But as the latest controversy over Sgt Maurice McCabe unfolded and the Taoiseach answered questions, the look on Martin's face in the Dáil this week was one of thinly-veiled disdain and weary contempt.

Martin has already branded Varadkar as the standard bearer for an "out-of-touch elite". The Taoiseach will be cast as Ross O'Carroll-Kelly's oddball cousin with a penchant for novelty socks, and a narcissistic obsession with self-promotion on social media.

As Martin put it recently: "He has appointed no expert to advise on health, or housing, or Brexit or any other of the most urgent problems - but he has an entire team to shoot videos to sell his image."

Varadkar has to hold back in delivering his customary barbs while he seeks Martin's support, but behind the scenes his troops have already been given their battle plans.

The Blueshirt battalions have been instructed to portray Fianna Fáil as a backwards-looking party "without substance", "stuck in the 1980s" and preparing to enter government with Sinn Féin.

On the hustings, Varadkar will highlight Martin's role in Fianna Fáil's past calamities as the ditherer-in-chief. Leo recently fired off an opening salvo.

He said of Martin: "He became a TD during the Haughey era, he became a Minister during the Ahern era, and he became an expert during the Cowen era. And he's spent the last seven years learning to be the new kid on the block."

Ceiling of support

Just as the departure of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe changed the order of things, the departure of Adams and the expected coronation of Mary Lou - with the support of the Army Veterans - has created a new dynamic for the next election.

Nobody should be in any doubt that Adams has been an enormously successful politician.

But in the south, his shaky grasp of economics, his demeanour resembling a somewhat batty Christian Brother desperately trying to be groovy with his laboured cúpla focail ("Tá mé ar Snapchat"), and above all his murky past, put an impregnable ceiling on Sinn Féin's support.

That barrier may now have been removed, as a more palatable version of Sinn Féin is sold by Mary Lou and her less militaristic followers.

It was said of Gerry Adams' poor grasp of finance that he had to take his socks off to count to 20. In the Dáil and on TV, Mary Lou has been a much more polished performer, capable of broadening her party's appeal with populist messages.

We were given a glimpse of her Rathgar republicanism some years ago when the Dublin Central TD took a leaf out of Mrs Thatcher's book, and was filmed for a TV3 documentary as she roamed around her local supermarket in Blanchardstown.

As she was discussing an article of faith of the Sinn Féin brand - a united Ireland - she broke off to say she was looking for Cheerios: "Cheerios and a united Ireland."

Mary Lou then went on to announce that she was also looking for prawns.

As the boys of the old brigade move back into the shadows, the boys and girls of Sinn Féin's prawn sandwich brigade are likely to have a more dominant position.

Both Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin have already set their sights on Mary Lou, and each has different reasons for going on the offensive.

It is in Leo's interests to elevate Sinn Féin as its principal opponent, because it marginalises its main opposition rival, Fianna Fáil.

Varadkar's underlying message in the next election, and before it, will be: "Unless you vote for us, you get Sinn Féin in government."

He spelled out his position early during his campaign to be leader: "Sinn Féin remains the greatest threat to our democracy and our prosperity as a State. Part of my mission... is to take Sinn Féin on and expose them."

Varadkar has been true to his word, not only comparing Mary Lou to Marine Le Pen in her style of presentation, but accusing her party of "an innate contempt for democracy and free speech".

Mary Lou was initially rattled by the forcefulness of the Varadkar attacks. But she will give as good as she gets when the election debates start, and in their most recent exchanges, described the Taoiseach as "facile and dismissive".

When he claimed that her concern for young families was "bogus", she snapped back that she was raising two young children.

That remark was interpreted as a reference to his childlessness, although it may not have been intended that way.

When Varadkar used a question about possible sexual harassment in Leinster House to attack Sinn Féin's heckling, she accused him of "glib, snide, political point-scoring".

Enmity between a Fine Gael Taoiseach and a Sinn Féin leader is only to be expected.

The more bitter battle over the coming months will be between Mary Lou and Micheál Martin, who are likely to compete ferociously for votes.

Some years ago, before the IRA decommissioned, Sinn Féin was described by at least one commentator as "Fianna Fáil with guns".

Now that the weapons have been buried, the organisations are closer in terms of their policies, as nationalist parties, with an agenda that pays homage to vague notions of fairness and social justice. That perhaps explains why the enmity between them has become so intense, and it is only likely to worsen as the election comes closer.

There are genuine fears in Fianna Fáil that Sinn Féin under Mary Lou will steal its clothes as a slightly edgier nationalist party, capable of winning over younger voters with a veneer of radical chic and a Che Guevara T-shirt.

Éamon Ó Cuív has warned in the past that Fianna Fáil is in danger of becoming a southern version of the SDLP, the once dominant party among the nationalist population of the North that was pushed to the sidelines and has almost become an irrelevance.

As much as Leo Varadkar, Micheál Martin will play up Sinn Féin's shadowy connections, and his attacks on Mary Lou McDonald are likely to become more personal in the coming months.

In recent days, Martin has referred to Sinn Féin as a "cult, a party that enforces rigid control from the centre".

He has repeatedly referred to the influence of the IRA army council on the party's decision making.

'Republic of Opportunists'

In the next election, Mary Lou will not be slow in returning fire. At the recent Ard Fheis she referred to Fianna Fáil as "paid-up members of Leo's Republic of Opportunists".

And she recently said of Martin: "There's more brass on the necks of the Fianna Fáil leadership than we would expect in a marching band."

Mary Lou's biggest advantage is that Fianna Fáil cannot be a fully-fledged opposition while it props up the Government with its votes.

Micheál Martin has one advantage over Mary Lou, and possibly over Leo. He can pull the plug on the Government at a time of his choosing, so long as Leo does not do it before him.

Martin may not be able to distance himself entirely from Fianna Fáil's colourful past of planning tribunals and economic collapse.

But he is more battle-hardened as an experienced electoral campaigner than his two rivals, who are in some ways untested.

As the election battles start, the effect of Brexit on the economy and the political landscape will be one of the great imponderables.

It remains to be seen if the Taoiseach's outspoken criticisms of the British government help to secure a deal that suits Ireland's national interest. But Leo's unlikely attempts to wrap himself in the tricolour play well at home.

As at least one commentator on social media has pointed out, the casting of Leo Varadkar as some sort of firebrand Irish nationalist by more jingoistic elements in the British media is one of the most amusing aspects of the whole Brexit debacle.

@KimBielenberg

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