A cartel that puts the mock in democracy
Sinn Fein isn't the only party with a past, and as long as it has the votes its mandate cannot be denied, writes Gene Kerrigan
It's entertaining, up to a point, to watch Fine Gael and Fianna Fail dancing around Sinn Fein.
"No way will we even consider accepting them as coalition partners," say both the major right-wing parties.
And then a Fine Gael minister, Jim Daly, murmured, "Oh, I dunno about that", or words to that effect.
Daly says SF has a mandate. Others in FG denounce them in the usual terms. Micheal Martin makes it clear he will not allow the pristine record of Fianna Fail be sullied by contact with the unclean Shinners.
We all know what's going on. It's the pre-election courting ritual, to be followed by the post-election carnal fever. At which point a new political partnership will be consummated.
And, though it's a long time since my dancehall days, I seem to recall that one of the stages of courting involves pretending that you've no interest whatever in that sort of stuff. FF/FG thereby shore up their own support by loudly claiming to have no interest in the Shinners, hope they won't need them, and simultaneously cross their fingers behind their backs.
The point at which the FG/FF dance ceases to be entertaining is where Sinn Fein decides to prop up one or other of those failed old parties after the next election.
That would be unfortunate. But, let's not get ahead of ourselves.
To start, we have to seriously consider this: are the Fianna Failures telling the truth when they scathingly dismiss any possibility of coalition with Sinn Fein?
I know, "Fianna Fail" and "truth" are words that fidget uneasily in the same sentence. Consider the context.
There are two completely separate and distinct periods: before the election and after the election.
Before the election, every single thing you do and say is calculated to increase your vote. Every single thing.
The moment the polls close on election day, your pre-election words melt like snow. Anyone seeking to hold anyone to their word is dismissed as a crank.
"Before the election I was talking about snow. But today there's a heatwave and it'd be irresponsible to live in the snowy past."
After the election, it's all about getting into government.
The classic case is the Greens in 2007. Their leader, Trevor Sargent, promised before the general election that he'd never lead the party into government with FF. After the election he negotiated a coalition deal with FF, then resigned as leader and accepted a position as junior minister in the new government.
He kept his promise: he led the Greens to the point of entering government, but didn't lead them "into" government. He, and they, just went into government under a new leader.
So, is FF telling the truth? Yes, it's the truth right up to the moment the polling station doors close. And not a second longer.
Same applies to FG.
But, aren't the Shinners untouchable, morally impure, unfit for government (except in the North, where we relax our standards)?
Well, the IRA ceasefire was 24 years ago. In comparison, Fine Gael was formed in 1933, from three entities, one of which - the National Guard - was an unashamed fascist outfit.
The official FG line these days is that its first leader was WT Cosgrave. But that's not true. Its first leader was Eoin O'Duffy, a fascist. (He later led 700 men to Spain, to join the fascist forces in the fight to suppress an elected left-wing government and impose a dictatorship.)
In I948, just 15 years on from those roots, FG was in government. In 1954 it made a junior minister of Oliver Flanagan who in the 1940s spoke approvingly of the Nazis and told the Dail it was time to "rout the Jews out of this country". Oliver was FG's kind of guy. This unapologetic anti-semite was made a full minister as late as 1976.
It's valid to remind FG of its past. It is not valid to describe FG today as fascist - they're right-wing Christian Democrats, with a sideline in social liberalism.
It's valid today to point out, as this column has already done, that Sinn Fein continues to drag its past behind it like a corpse. It is not valid, 24 years after the ceasefire, to deny the party's democratic mandate.
While Jim Daly suggests a possible FG coalition with SF, party grandee Brian Hayes has a conniption at the very thought of the Shinners.
Brian, in Alan Partridge fashion, displays a level of pomposity only seen in those who lack an awareness of their own limitations.
He recently wrote eloquently of the need for "free speech" in political parties. Tell it to Lucinda Creighton and her mates, driven out of FG when they wished to defend views on abortion that differed from those of the leadership.
Brian throws insults around, and says SF will "over time" evolve into an "acceptable" party. Well, that's not for Fine Gael to say. It's for the voters.
As it happens, I don't vote for Sinn Fein. I vote to the left of them - though I've once given it a later preference. But, anyone can see that there's talent there, and the voters have obviously seen something they like.
I derived great amusement from the 2016 general election, when Fine Gael and Labour and Fianna Fail totted up their figures and told us about the "fiscal space". And Pearse Doherty told them they'd got their figures wrong. And the Department of Finance confirmed that Doherty was right.
(To be fair, FG was wrong by a mere €2bn, out of €8bn.)
In the long term, what's valuable about Sinn Fein has been that it's outside the rightwing cartel. For decades, FF and FG passed power back and forth between them. Two halves of the same ideology, their cartel has put the mock into democracy.
One of them takes office, and caters to whichever business sector is prospering at the time.
When voters wise up that these people have interests other than our best welfare, we demand change. And the only change on offer is to swap one wing of the cartel for the other.
In 2016, Labour was demolished by the voters, after years of propping up the cartel. So, FG/FF devised new arrangements - "confidence and supply". They applied a marketing brand, "the New Politics". Business as usual.
What mattered most, even more than a share of the State cars for FF, was to preserve the dual nature of the cartel, to ensure its long-term survival.
These are the parties that took a functioning economy and turned it into the Celtic Bubble, enriching their builder and banker friends.
They're the parties that crashed the economy, and then bailed out their banker and bondholder friends, and sent us the bill marked "austerity".
They're the parties that thereby created a lost decade, slowing down recovery. They shackled the economy with fiscal rules that should have been applied to the bubble - not to the recovery period.
One of the primary roles of government has been to ensure that people can afford a roof over their heads. Instead, FG/FF protected land hoarders, corporate landlords, vultures, bankers and the wealthy speculators whose "buy to let" investments drive so many out of the housing market
Their primitive understanding of the role of the State has year after year ensured that more and more people are made homeless.
So, the cartel frets. Can Labour revive, or will they need SF?
Sinn Fein might have played a historic role in ending that cartel, in forcing FG/FF to share government, with liberating consequences down the line.
Instead, it appears the urge to get into office to display its undoubted talents might be too much for Sinn Fein to resist.