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'End' of Civil War puts Sinn Fein in quandary

By Malachi O’Doherty

Published 29/02/2016

Gerry Adams claimed the poll demonstrated a sea change in politics in the Republic
Gerry Adams claimed the poll demonstrated a sea change in politics in the Republic

A popular joke in Dublin at the weekend was that the Civil War had finally ended after 94 years.

The point is that both major parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, trace their origins back to the bloody conflict between adherents to the Treaty that ended the War of Independence. Then followers of De Valera wanted to fight on and took out their wrath on their former comrades, led by Michael Collins.

You wouldn't know it by the look of them today, but those IRA purists became Fianna Fail, winning their first shot at running the country in 1932, 10 years after the Civil War, when De Valera became Taoiseach and appointed as ministers old gunmen who had served under his command.

Sound familiar?

The question then as now was how much time might decently pass before the blooded and the bloody can be trusted to form a government.

Only now the question is about Sinn Fein, which is in rapid ascent. That worries the main parties and many of the voters 19 years after the bombing stopped, Sinn Fein having waited almost twice as long for power in Dublin as De Valera's crew did.

Today the country's political profile is in flux and forming a government presents a challenge that will require many to do what they said they never would. Sinn Fein, the third largest party now, says adamantly that it will not share power with either of the big two.

This may be a way of not wanting to be seen to be suggesting it. Both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have said that they would not share power with Sinn Fein.

Which means, logically, that they must share with each other.

That's what prompts the joke that the Civil War is now over.

But will they patch up historic differences and govern together?

The advice against doing that says that it would put Sinn Fein in the position of being the main opposition party. And oppositions become governments in time when governments fall, as they do, especially those which are as fractious a patch-up as that one would be.

But can we really imagine these two traditional parties of government scuppering their own prospects of power just because they don't like the party that would replace them when they fail?

Sinn Fein surely can't be seen to be refusing power either if out of the current mess a chance emerges to grasp it. It doesn't want to be the junior partner that traditionally discards its values and crumbles in coalition, but if it sends that signal to the electorate that it really doesn't want high office yet, or trigger another election, the electorate might decide that it is not serious. That is not the only paradox it confronts. Gerry Adams has injected huge energy into the party in recent years. Yet, despite having enlarged it, he appears to be a liability.

Few doubt that Sinn Fein would have done even better in the South if he had not botched major interviews during the election, and if he had not stood so loyally by "good republican" Thomas 'Slab' Murphy. He has yet to explain just what Murphy did that was of such value to the party, given that he has never held office in it.

In a normal party, a leader who was potentially such an embarrassment would stand aside, take the plaudits of his comrades for his achievements and let Joshua enter the promised land.

But what would happen then?

Can we imagine a southern leader of Sinn Fein being accepted in the North, or Pearse Doherty and Mary Lou MacDonald consenting to be led by, say, Conor Murphy?

The ultimate irony for Sinn Fein, post Adams, would be that it would itself be partitioned, and stand as proof that the division of the country is the natural order.

That the settlement that provoked Civil War and spawned the modern IRA was, ultimately, all that was possible.

That's another way in which this election result offers to draw that chapter to a close.

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