The entry of Martin McGuinness into the presidential race has burst open the debate, inflaming the Republicanism embedded in the DNA of a substantial number of traditional Fianna Failers.
To underestimate the significance of the national question is to fail to understand the very backbone of traditional Fianna Fail voters. Couple that with the lack of obvious representation for the working class, a void filled by Fianna Fail before the advent of the Celtic Tiger, and the Labour Party prior to Coalition with Fine Gael -- and Sinn Fein is on the crest of a wave.
Sinn Fein is a national movement with a mission, some of which has already been realised. It has succeeded in becoming the dominant nationalist party in the North. As a political party it has capitalised on voter disillusionment and protest in the 2011 election in the Republic.
Once Sinn Fein wins a seat, it tends to hold on to it. Its elected members in the Dail are impressive. Contributing robustly to Dail debates while simultaneously exploiting the clientelism of our political system, building up loyalties among the voters to assure themselves of future electoral success.
In fact, not only do they work their own constituency but also expand into the neighbouring one in a bid to win further support. It's a strategy traditionally owned by Fianna Fail but in that party's absence, will be exploited to the full by Sinn Fein.
With the lack of coherent political direction from Fianna Fail, what's left of its vote and membership could well be up for grabs. On the surface Sinn Fein ticks all the boxes. Republicanism, tick. Working class, tick. Add to that an anti-Europe, anti-bank, anti-establishment approach and you get a very potent, populist political mix.
The derailing of the Sinn Fein steam train will not lie in attacking its past terrorist links. It will be in attacking its
policies. As Bill Clinton continuously reminded his campaign team, "it's the economy, stupid". To continuously attack Sinn Fein's past deflects from the real issue of ill-thought-out policies and will eventually result in voter exhaustion on the terrorist issue. Of course, as a minority party it doesn't have to follow through on its political stance. It can afford to be populist. Nevertheless, giving the party an escape clause by constant reference to past terrorist links absolves it of the need to explain the feasibility of its fiscal policies and, more importantly, in the current presidential debate, its diplomatic policy, given Sinn Fein's stance during the Queen of England's visit this year.
Evidence of its populist approach to politics was clearly visible in Martin McGuinness's recent change of heart with regard to meeting the Queen. When it was a real issue, he refused to meet her, but as a hypothetical possibility he claims he would be happy to meet her should she visit Ireland again. In my book, it's not so much what you say that matters, it's what you do. What precipitated a change in diplomatic policy in such a short period of time? And given the fluid, malleable nature of that policy, could he possibly revert back to his original position following the election?
He is the Republican person publicly recognised as having moved from violence to peace. He brought the Northern Republican movement into mainstream politics and has served as deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. He is an excellent choice of candidate for Sinn Fein.
If the present media fixation on his terrorist past persists, there will be voter exhaustion on the issue and he will effectively have mopped up the blood of the past for all future Sinn Fein candidates in local and general elections. It's a very clever 'win win' move by the party. These guys are in for the long haul. They're not interested in short-term gain. They see the bigger picture. Any short-term gain is a bonus.
The biggest hurdle for any political party is to engage the voter. McGuinness has certainly engaged the voter on behalf of Sinn Fein. He has got people thinking about the possibility of voting for him, voting for Sinn Fein. That is some achievement. More importantly, judging by Adams's electoral result following Fianna Fail's Dermot Ahern's withdrawal from national politics, Sinn Fein is set to collect the disillusioned Fianna Fail vote.
It will pick up the Republican vote in rural Ireland and the working-class vote in urban areas. However, its Republican position is not confined to the quest for a 32-county Ireland, and those holding Republican views with any inclination of voting for Sinn Fein on the back of its Republican stance would do well to investigate the full meaning of the national question as defined by it and not hold some romantic notion of Sinn Fein's Republicanism. What exactly would thumbing our nose at Europe or the IMF mean? Sinn Fein hasn't spelled out a viable alternative.
Its policy sounds great. For example, on workers' rights it quotes the 1919 Democratic Programme, "that all right to private property must be subordinated to the public right and welfare". Does that mean it can confiscate a farmer's land or a person's home or business? It supports a "'high-pay' commission, which would ensure the gap between the highest and lower earners in society did not exceed a specific rate". Does that mean that a business owner or farmer, regardless of how hard they work, will see their earnings above a certain level confiscated? How does it propose to allow business to grow and to increase employment if it refuses to allow business owners to make a profit? I'm not picking this stuff out of the sky, it's on the party's website and it's not qualified.
The meltdown of the Fianna Fail vote, disillusionment within the rank-and-file membership and the absence of a clear recovery strategy may well precipitate a defection of its Republican and working-class vote and membership to Sinn Fein. It's an issue Fianna Fail will ignore at its peril.