SINN Fein has had the political initiative ever since Pearse Doherty's victory in November's Donegal South West by-election, but the manner of the countdown to the imminent general election -- with Fine Gael and Labour falling over themselves to meekly facilitate the rushing through of the Finance Bill -- has handed the Shinners a golden opportunity to present themselves as the only people truly offering an alternative to the Brussels bailout.
The problem is, they're dead right. Sinn Fein is indeed the one party promising to tear up the deal with the IMF/EU and start again. Fine Gael and Labour are still pinning their hopes on getting some vague agreement with European partners who have no incentive whatsoever to make things easier for us. Enda Kenny and Michael Noonan flew out to a meeting on Friday with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso to press for a lowering of the interest rate on the bailout -- but what if Europe keeps saying no? There is no Plan B.
Boston radio host Michael Graham, a regular guest on Newstalk's Right Hook show, raised that question last week. Europe's obsession with trying to have a 'one size fits all' approach to widely different economies was a major factor in Ireland's collapse, Graham pointed out. Europe forced Ireland to seek a bailout when the people and the Government didn't want one, and rubbed salt into the wound by punishing the country with a vicious rate of interest on the loan; so where are the candidates who are saying enough is enough and urging Irish voters to tell Europe where to get off?
Graham is no Joe Higgins. As a true blue, colours-to-the-mast, liberal-baiting US conservative, he wasn't looking for economically-illiterate People Before Profit loons. What he expected to see in Ireland was a pro-business, pro-enterprise, pro-democratic, pro-low tax alternative to Europe's failed way of doing things. So he had a simple question: who's advocating that alternative? The miserable answer being that there's no one.
Outside of a few brave independents, there is no choice for voters who are fed up with the sneaking encroachment of Europe but don't want to back anti-EU parties if that means supporting the sort of fifth-form communism being peddled on the other side. Hence a large number of voters have effectively been disenfranchised. Which isn't good for democracy, to put it mildly, not least because leaving Sinn Fein unchallenged as the voice of disenchantment with Europe gives it an opening to break through the political glass ceiling at this election.
Of course, some feared that would happen last time, and it didn't. Maybe the Sinn Fein surge will fizzle out again. But it would be a foolhardy soul who'd put money on the Provos crying into their beer at the end of election night 2011. They're better organised this time; the whiff of cordite which hung around the party when the blood was flowing North of the border fades into an ever more distant memory. Younger Irish voters, what's more, don't necessarily have that ingrained respect for the Dail and the rule of law which their elders always held dear. Best of all, Sinn Fein has a new secret weapon. It's called Pearse Doherty.
Ah, Pearse Doherty. Every party should have one. He's the real deal. A polished performer, in total command of his brief, Pearse is formidably clever, and alarmingly unflappable under pressure from both his opponents in the Dail and media interrogators. He also looks and sounds like something approaching an actual human being, which
isn't always the case with republican politicians. Partly the air of confidence comes from never having to parry awkward questions about kneecappings and the Disappeared which has been the media fate of most Sinn Fein spokespersons of the older generation. He's fortunate in that. But how Sinn Fein must wish it was the Donegal TD who'll be representing them in those televised debates, whenever and in whatever form they take place.
Seeing Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams discuss economic policy is like watching a woolly mammoth trying to rollerskate. (The extinct hairy beast metaphor is deliberate). Pearse Doherty's opponents are still trying to deal with the newcomer by patronising and dismissing him, but their attacks glance off his armour like sparks off an anvil.
Miriam O'Callaghan on Thursday's Prime Time showed the glimmerings of another way -- and Fine Gael's invariably impressive finance boffin Leo Varadkar soon got the message too. They had Pearse's colleague Caoimhghin O Caolain across the table, which made for an easier challenge, but O'Callaghan knew that her journalistic duty was to take Sinn Fein seriously. If the Provos are going to make a breakthrough at this election, then voters have a right to expect that the party's economic policy be subjected to the same forensic scrutiny as the other parties, who have all come under sustained pressure on that front from Miriam and her colleagues down the years.
Standing up to Europe is one thing, but Sinn Fein would still have to find a way to pay the country's bills afterwards. On that score, it is as bereft of practical suggestions as a eunuch at an orgy. All it has to offer is more of the same "tax the rich/raid the pension reserves until the cash runs out/nationalise everything that moves" nonsense which passed for a finance policy when the IRA was still blowing up cenotaphs and gunning down census collectors. Even if they swept to power with an overall majority next month, burnt the bondholders, and gave two fingers to the EU, there's no way the Shinners have the stomach for the kind of hard choices which would then be required as they attempt to balance State spending with State revenue. Explaining away the deaths of children murdered by explosives planted in bins is one thing, but telling the public sector workers that the gravy train won't be stopping at the station any more is quite another. Hence the one weapon which their Brussels-appeasing opponents have to counter Sinn Fein's monopolisation of simmering resentment with Europe's use of the bailout as a weapon of punishment is a relentless, merciless unstitching of the party's economic policy.
Even that might not work because rhetoric doesn't have to translate into realistic solutions in order to win an election, it only has to be popular. The one hope is that Irish voters never had much truck with socialism before, and may be only flirting with it now out of a temporary despairing madness. Seeing how Pearse Doherty responded to probing on his party's DNA-deep relationship to the Northern slaughter might be enlightening too.
Gerry Adam's successor as Stormont representative in West Belfast recently spewed out the charming suggestion that the IRA campaign was "quite civilised". Does Pearse have any of his usual clever answers on hand to explain away that kind of ugly tribal fairytale?