Wednesday 23 January 2019

Sinn Fein likes to divide and conquer

History has shown us what can happen when centre ground parties do not stand up to radicals, writes Brian Hayes

SF leader Mary Lou McDonald. Picture: Reuters
SF leader Mary Lou McDonald. Picture: Reuters

Brian Hayes

Without free speech democratic politics is a sham. The freedom to speak out and say what you want is the real litmus test as to whether a society, or indeed a political party, is actually democratic and free.

Jim Daly deserves credit for speaking out last week on Sinn Fein and the potential of a coalition after the next election with Fine Gael. Jim is not afraid of the principle of free speech, something that's denied to many in SF. Indeed for those who have left SF, they make this exact point. That the party is based on a command and control system, rather than on freedom of speech.

I defend Jim Daly's right to speak out, but I fundamentally disagree with him.

For me, it's nothing to do with policy incompatibility between SF/FG, the point that Jim Daly made so cogently last week. Because, of course, there are major policy differences between us.

For me, it's about what Sinn Fein is now and how credible it is to describe it as a normal Democratic Party of Ireland which might go into coalition government with others.

For Fine Gael, a government with Sinn Fein, described this week by the Taoiseach as a "sectarian party", would deny the pluralist, tolerant and accommodating tradition of the modern Fine Gael party. It would cause a civil war within Fine Gael and a permanent rupture between our members and the parliamentary party.

In short, there are no circumstances where Fine Gael could, or should, enter such a government after the next election. No circumstances where our party could remain credible with the people who vote for us. Or no circumstances where we might be credible with other traditions on the island.

I accept that SF is a party in transition. Many of its new public representatives are idealistic people who see SF as a vehicle for change. They don't see SF as an uber-nationalist party that relies on national identity and sectarian division to garner votes.

What Seamus Mallon reminded us about just last week when he referred to the Balkanisation of Northern Ireland. Two big national silos - green and orange - facing each other off every day, completely unable to compromise or give way. If Sinn Fein were in the government of this Republic, our hand of friendship to unionist Ireland would look menacing.

I hear every day SF berating the DUP for propping up the Conservatives in Westminster. Would the same criticism apply if the shoe was on the other foot and it was fully in government here in the Republic? How could an Irish government ever again be seen as even-handed in its dealings with northern parties were SF to be in government? Our role as a government being one of the guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement would be severely undermined.

Being in the government of Northern Ireland, a regional government which was devised to take account of the conflict and the special nature of Northern Ireland, is not the same as being in a sovereign government fully accountable to a sovereign parliament with international obligations.

In any circumstance going from being a paramilitary crime gang to a proper democratic party takes many years. But in the case of SF, it's not policy on tax or the EU that defines it, it's the type of "political party" it is. Its politics is, of course, populist in that European tradition, but it's also based on a complete loyalty to the party that smacks of anti-democratic practice.

People don't trust Sinn Fein. There is something of the Taliban about them. You are never fully sure that its first loyalty is to Ireland and its people. You get a clear indication that it's Sinn Fein first and foremost. That the party is more important than Ireland as it fanatically attempts to rewrite history and justify the murder machine that was the IRA.

Yes, of course, it has a mandate, but lots of very dangerous people and parties have had significant mandates all across Europe. We know that from recent European history. And history also shows us the disaster that can happen when centre ground parties don't stand up to radical parties.

Both Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin are right to say no to a SF coalition following the next general election and I believe both of them.

Actually, in my view, Sinn Fein is using this debate from a purely tactical viewpoint. Deep down it doesn't want to go into government because it knows that within six months half of its support base will wither away. This debate is designed to cause trouble and to divide parties here in the Republic. It's designed to make SF look like the victim.

Over time, Sinn Fein will evolve and it will inevitably become an acceptable partner in a modern government. But that requires others to agree. It requires, as is the case in Northern Ireland, a voluntary decision by other political parties to want to go into coalition with SF.

That decision must be respected and SF must become much more attuned to the opinions of others.

A party which still believes in paying homage to the IRA is always going to be suspect by the great majority of Irish people.

Brian Hayes is a Fine Gael MEP for Dublin

Sunday Independent

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