Wednesday 16 January 2019

Stunned Coalition gets rude awakening on risk of ignoring threat of Sinn Fein

Mary Lou McDonald has been SF’s star TD. Photo Tom Burke
Mary Lou McDonald has been SF’s star TD. Photo Tom Burke
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

If the Government hopes to stem the Sinn Fein surge before the next general election it will have to do more than make snide jibes about Gerry Adams' alleged IRA membership in the Dail.

In an attempt to shift blame for the massive collapse in their support in the weekend's elections, Fine Gael and Labour representatives donned their 'mystic meg' hats, gazed into the minds of the electorate, and took to the national airways to describe the drubbing they received as a protest vote.

Voters, according to this analysis, are ingrates. Fine Gael and Labour saved the country from catastrophe but instead of falling to their knees and venerating their saviours, voters have instead, inexplicably, opted to deliver them a paralysing kick to the groin.

The inference of this self-serving version of events is that voters are too stupid to know how good they've had it. Fine Gael and Labour saved the day but now face obliteration from the fickle oiks who elected them just three years ago.

The Government would be wise to abandon this patronising narrative, accept that they have let people down and determine to take the threat from Sinn Fein more seriously or else face annihilation in 2016.

Up to now, ministers have shown a staggering condescension towards Sinn Fein, despite its rapid rise in the opinion polls, which presaged its performance at the weekend.

They didn't take the threat seriously and now they have been left counting the cost.

Enda Kenny, in particular, has preferred to make cheap asides about the IRA in the Dail whenever he faces a difficult question from the party. While he may be obsessed with the IRA, the rest of the country has moved on.

According to an RTE exit poll at the weekend, when casting their first-preference votes just 2pc of voters were influenced by party leaders. Much more important to voters were the Sinn Fein brand and its anti-austerity policies.

And, while 34pc of voters think Adams should be replaced, even more think both Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore should go – so, really, they're in no position to judge.

Even the arrest of Adams for questioning in connection with the notorious Jean McConville murder a couple of weeks before the election didn't stem the tide of new support.

Just 23pc of voters said they were influenced by the arrest but, significantly, Sinn Fein supporters were most influenced, with 38pc of them saying that their anger at his treatment encouraged them to go out and vote.

So, the message is clear. Voters are well aware of Adams' background but they either don't care or don't see it as relevant in domestic politics. It's time that the rest of the political establishment accepted that.

While Kenny and his frontbench chums have been busy carping on about the IRA, high-profile members of Sinn Fein have spent their time much more effectively, eviscerating the Government at every opportunity.

Young and articulate TDs like Pearse Doherty and Padraig Mac Lochlainn have been more than capable in their briefs, but the star performer, without doubt, has been Mary Lou McDonald.

Arguably the best performer during leaders' questions, McDonald doesn't take any guff from the government benches when attempting to hold the administration to account.

She has also not been afraid to call out puerile, sexist comments that seek to demean her as some haranguing busybody instead of a public representative diligently doing her job.

One of the most high-profile members of the Public Accounts Committee, it was she who first recognised that former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan's use of the word "disgusting" to describe the whistleblowers was a watershed moment.

After he made the remark, she gave him a number of opportunities to withdraw it but he stubbornly refused, ultimately sealing his fate.

McDonald has helped change the image of Sinn Fein from that of a fringe mono-issue party, exclusively focused on the national question, to that of a rapidly-growing party of the left.

Establishment parties have derided Sinn Fein as offering nothing but fantasy economics and half-baked policies but an increasing number of people think differently. They see the party as offering an alternative to the seven-year diet of austerity that they have endured.

The challenge for Fine Gael and Labour will now be accepting that Sinn Fein poses a credible threat and deigning to debate the merits of their policies instead of the past of their leader.

Irish Independent

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