Friday 24 May 2019

Sinn Fein's real problem is ghosts from the past, not its media critics

If Adams is such a great leader, then why do only half of his own supporters want him to carry on, asks Eilis O'Hanlon

Protestations of progress: Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams with vice-president Mary Lou McDonald and other party members. Despite all Sinn Fein's claims that the party has moved on, it is still guilty of a backwards-looking mindset Photo: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos
Protestations of progress: Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams with vice-president Mary Lou McDonald and other party members. Despite all Sinn Fein's claims that the party has moved on, it is still guilty of a backwards-looking mindset Photo: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos

Eilis O'Hanlon

If there's one word or phrase that comes to most voters' minds when they think of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, it's probably "IRA". He is indelibly associated with the Troubles in Northern Ireland, despite claiming to have played no part in any actual violence.

The one word that comes to mind when thinking of Mary Lou McDonald is surely "austerity". She's risen to prominence as a result of her opposition to economic cuts.

The place most associated with Adams, likewise, isn't even part of the State; it's Belfast, despite the fact that he's been TD for Louth since 2011. For Mary Lou, obviously, it's Dublin, heart of the country's political and economic life.

So when, in last week's Millward Brown poll for the Sunday Independent, Mary Lou McDonald was named as the clear favourite among SF voters to succeed Adams when, or if, he ever steps down - with a massive 65pc support - it's not unreasonable to interpret that as a sign of a desire among grassroots supporters to shift away from the continuing fixation on figures and affairs from a sordid past and towards more broadly based, left-wing issues.

In that same poll, only half said they want a united Ireland at all, despite the heightened emotions around the 1916 centenary celebrations, and despite Brexit.

So why keep harping on about a united Ireland? There may be a small number of people whose first thought on waking up is about reuniting the four green fields, just as there are some obsessed with abortion to the exclusion of all else, but they are always going to be a cultish minority.

SF used to direct its message squarely at such old school Catholic Nationalists. Only when it stopped doing so did it start to grow. The national question is still foremost in Gerry's mind, though. Even after the Brexit vote, his first reaction was how it could bring a united Ireland closer, rather than the more urgent economic threat it posed.

That's the sort of backward-looking mindset that lay behind last week's unveiling, inside Leinster House, of a portrait of IRA hunger striker Kieran Doherty, who was elected briefly to the Dail in 1981 on an Anti H-Block platform in Cavan/Monaghan.

The picture itself is a tacky bit of folk art - crude, gaudy, sentimental, and about as subtle as a gable end on the Falls Road. No surprise that it was painted by former prisoner turned mural artist Danny Devenny, who says of his creation in a video released by Sinn Fein: "There was no real thought put into it at all."

It shows.

The painting by the Belfast man depicts the dead IRA member kneeling by lilies, one of which has blossomed into a dove. Doherty didn't plant flowers. He planted bombs.

Of course Mary Lou was there at the unveiling, having her picture taken next to the portrait and hailing how "proudly" it hung on the wall.

Which is all very well, but flaunting these hangovers of a paramilitary past is hardly consistent with a party which regularly berates its critics in the media for not accepting that Sinn Fein has moved on.

The picture of Kieran Doherty is a reminder that the party, for all its protestations of progress, is still tied to the apron strings of Northern Irish hard men more interested in "normalising" the armed struggle within southern opinion than in building a bridge and getting over it.

Doherty had nothing to do with southern politics, not really. At the time of his election, SF actually had an absentionist policy and did not even recognise the legitimacy of the elected Dail.

There's no way of knowing whether Doherty, had he lived, would even have wanted his portrait in a place that, while he did live, he opposed. Any suggestion of what he might have thought now has all the authority of a wild guess.

But this is what SF does. It appropriates history and iconography and claims the right to exploit it in perpetuity.

It should learn the real lesson of that history. Doherty may have been elected in 1981, but he only got 15pc of the vote and it took him to the seventh count to get across the line, and all this at the height of passions over the hunger strikes. SF's own vote promptly halved at the next election only eight months later.

It was not until 1997 that it returned to the same level in the constituency, and another five years before it started winning further seats.

As with the party's vote in the North since the ceasefires, every advance has been a reward for leaving the past behind, not a retrospective endorsement of it.

Disquiet at this attempt to ride two horses is what lies behind SF's continuing unattractiveness to supporters of other parties, as revealed in last week's poll. The party remains toxic not only to 61pc of Fine Gael's supporters and 54pc of Fianna Fail's, but to 43pc of the supporters of independents and other parties too - the very forces with which SF needs to make common cause if it's serious about ever holding office. The party is more than twice as toxic overall as the Anti-Austerity Alliance.

The disquiet might also help to explain other curious aspects of the poll, which found that 76pc of party supporters claim to be satisfied with how Adams is doing his job as leader, but only 56pc want him to stay.

If he's that effective and popular, why do 44pc of his party's own voters either want him to stand down or otherwise refuse to back him?

If half of FG supporters wanting Enda Kenny to go is a crisis, why is it not a crisis in SF when only half of supporters want him as leader?

Far from challenging the culture which wants to keep SF as a heritage park for the worship of dysfunctional idols, many deputies join in with the general idiocy.

Caoimhghin O Caolain, the first SF TD to actually take a seat in the Dail, was soon waxing lyrical about "the cause" and promising that "the republican struggle, the struggle for which Terence McSwiney, Bobby Sands and Kieran Doherty gave their lives, and all who stood with them, is in very safe hands".

This language might tickle the fancy of ageing republicans, but it is irrelevant and anachronistic in today's political climate. Some of it was even silly to the point of absurdity.

At one stage, O Caolain referenced "Bobby Sands MP" adding that he was, "to me, Bobby Sands TD". Rarely has a more ridiculous statement ever been made by a public figure. To call Sands a TD is literally meaningless.

To whom is this nonsense meant to appeal? Certainly there's no evidence in last week's poll of a yearning for a return of "Troubles chic".

SF's appeal, such as it is, has nothing to do with some untapped well of longing for a united Ireland; it comes from discontent at austerity. The people whose support they need are those in our poll, not ghosts from the North. Once SF learns that lesson, it can finally stop playing silly buggers and get serious.

Sunday Independent

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