Monday 10 December 2018

Leo Varadkar may bet on taming the Sinn Fein tiger

Eoghan Harris cartoon june 24
Eoghan Harris cartoon june 24
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Leo Varadkar would like to do a deal with Sinn Fein if he was let - and only the pundits and his party are in denial about it.

The pundits totally missed the Taoiseach's courtship of Sinn Fein which I spotted six months ago and have chronicled since.

Breathlessly trying to catch up, they keep repeating the mindless mantra that both Varadkar and Martin would do a deal if the "numbers are right".

Remember when you last heard that "numbers are right" mantra - and from the same pundits?

That's right, after the last general election - when they kept predicting Micheal Martin would form a coalition with Fine Gael - and I correctly predicted they would not.

In a normal society, a political columnist who got things consistently right would be a welcome guest on television and radio.

RTE reverses that natural order - it never invites me on its shows while those who get it wrong have reserved seats out at Montrose.

My absence allows the pundits to go on repeating the nonsense that Varadkar and Martin are equally likely to do a deal with Sinn Fein.

Anyone who heard Micheal Martin tearing strips off Sinn Fein on RTE radio last Sunday knows he will never do a deal.

That's because Martin demands that Sinn Fein denounce the IRA murder campaign as morally and politically wrong.

Mary Lou McDonald, who followed his tour de force, was clearly rattled by his relentless assault.

But later that day, Michael O'Regan, of The Irish Times, reassured RTE that if the "numbers are right" a deal could be done.

A moment's reflection should show O'Regan that Martin has - deliberately in my view - made such a deal politically impossible.

Martin has savaged Sinn Fein so many times in a series of formal speeches that he could not possibly survive their playback by Fine Gael if he ever contemplated such a deal.

In contrast, Leo Varadkar has - equally deliberately in my view - been wriggling his toes in the Dail with those of Mary Lou McDonald since December.

The pundits missed the significance of these exchanges. Last week they again failed to report on revealing Dail criticisms of the Taoiseach's failure to challenge the Provo IRA narrative when he launched Feile an Phobail in Belfast.

Micheal Martin believed that this omission "has something to do with the Taoiseach's satisfaction with the new electoral alliance with Sinn Fein which he recently road tested in the Seanad elections".

Joan Burton was even more blunt. She said it was "unprecedented for a Taoiseach to launch included events such as IRA Prisoners' Day at the Felons' Club, particularly when the Chief Constable, Mr George Hamilton, recently referred to his concern that the IRA army council was still involved in Sinn Fein's strategy".

Brendan Howlin hammered home the message the same day, referring to FG's deal with Sinn Fein on the judges.

"In the circumstances, nobody could believe they would be incapable of cutting a deal with Sinn Fein on anything - including going into government."

But it was the lethal leader in the Irish Independent last Tuesday, starkly headed 'SF contradictions may come back to haunt FG', that left no doubt that Leo Varadkar was living dangerously in dallying with Sinn Fein.

In sum, last week both politicians and media outlets not controlled by consensus called on Varadkar to cop on and stop dog whistling to Sinn Fein.

Could the political correspondents also cop on and acknowledge that nobody has to call on Martin to stop playing footsie with Sinn Fein?

That's because Martin is more likely to cut his own foot off than fondle the feet of Sinn Fein which has never denounced the IRA for murders such as that of Det Sgt Jerry McCabe.

Time the pundits faced the fact that Micheal Martin and his loyalists are now the only reliable political force that stands between Sinn Fein and its IRA advisers getting into government, North and South.

Clearly, Mary Lou McDonald doesn't know how to deal with a Fianna Fail republican leader who rejects the Hibernian nationalist narrative.

The reason Martin does so with such confidence, and Varadkar is so vague, is that Martin is a historian by training and a Wolfe Tone republican by conviction.

Let me predict with iron certainty that short of Sinn Fein denouncing the IRA murders of Billy Fox, Det Sgt Jerry McCabe and Brian Stack, there is not a snowflake's chance in hell of Martin doing a deal - and FF dissidents dare not challenge him as it would finish the party. So no deal, full stop, put my house on it.

That being so, Bertie Ahern should stop following sensible statements on the North with what look like petty digs at Martin.

Last Thursday, Ahern rightly rejected calls for border polls. But he then contradicted his own pluralist position by saying that Fianna Fail should produce a "credible policy" on Irish unity.

Micheal Martin has a perfectly credible policy in that area - and it's exactly the same as Bertie Ahern's.

Martin's policy is not to provoke unionist tension by talking as Leo Varadkar glibly does about "tectonic plates shifting".

Like Ahern, Martin believes in letting the Good Friday Agreement work its amazing grace, in avoiding border polls, in letting time bandage wounds.

In sum, he remembers that Wolfe Tone founded a society of United Irishmen, not a sectarian lobby for a united Ireland.

But now I want to come to the core question: how seriously do Fine Gael blueshirts really oppose Leo Varadkar's risky strategy?

Let me pause here to point out that, for me, the term "blueshirt" is shorthand for both bad and good traditions in Fine Gael.

Eoin O'Duffy's Blueshirts were bad news. But later the term took on centrist anti-IRA connotations whose supporters I now benignly call "blueshirts" in inverted commas.

This "blueshirt" group in FG has reacted to Leo Varadkar's cosying up to Sinn Fein with political cognitive dissonance.

Sincere stalwarts such as Charlie Flanagan are forced into confused and contradictory positions.

Frequently he follows a Varadkar dog whistle to SF with a tough speech attacking its IRA links.

But now he finds himself in cahoots with Sinn Fein on judicial appointments.

Some change. During the Dominic McGlinchey extradition hearing in the 1980s, Justice Kevin O'Higgins didn't have time to even take his raincoat off before his Supreme Court panel voted en bloc to hand McGlinchey over at the border to the RUC. Happy days.

But the confusion raises an even more fundamental question the pundits have avoided. Is there any longer a "blueshirt" group strong enough to defy Leo Varadkar, a notoriously lucky politician, if he can dictate harsh terms to a Sinn Fein that is clearly desperate to get into government?

Here I have no crystal ball. The Irish people can still surprise me. Suppose the electorate no longer cares about IRA links and decides Leo is tough enough to tame the Sinn Fein tiger?

If so, can the "blueshirts" still say no?

Sunday Independent

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