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Mairia Cahill: A Senate sniper to shoot barbs at Sinn Fein

The potential election of Mairia Cahill to the Republic's upper chamber gives rise to the mouthwatering prospect of renewed skirmishing with republicans in Leinster House, writes Henry McDonald.

Published 07/10/2015

Mairia Cahill this week after announcing her decision to run for the Irish Senate
Mairia Cahill this week after announcing her decision to run for the Irish Senate
Mairia Cahill's uncle Joe Cahill, a legend among republicans

One of Sinn Fein's most articulate, able operators both in the Dail and on television entered southern public consciousness via the Seanad.

Donegal's Pearse Doherty rose to prominence serving as the party's first representative inside the Dublin parliament's second chamber.

In many ways the Seanad, which is elected in a closed, collegiate system comprised of votes from TDs and panels made up of the likes of trade unionists and academics, was Doherty's springboard into political fame.

So, it might be one of the richest ironies - politically speaking - if someone who was once a member of Sinn Fein's youth organisation is elected to that same second chamber at Leinster House and who has the potential to become a formidable parliamentary foe to the party she was once wedded to through family, background and history.

Mairia Cahill's decision to join the Irish Labour Party and run as its candidate in a by-election to replace Senator Jimmy Harte from Donegal could set up a mouthwatering, long-running bout between her and Sinn Fein at Leinster House.

A rape victim who was subjected to an IRA "kangaroo court" rather than be allowed to report her abuser to the police, Mairia Cahill has arguably more "on the ground" knowledge about the workings of mainstream republicanism than most of the Seanad put together.

She comes from (forgive the oxymoron) "republican royalty", with her uncle Joe being, of course, one of the Provisional IRA's founding fathers and an old reliable important loyal ally to Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness as they steered the movement out of the cul de sac of "armed struggle" towards peaceful, democratic politics.

Mairia Cahill grew up among some of the most prominent figures in the organisation and knows how Belfast still holds the centre of power within the party, contrary to Doherty, Mary Lou McDonald or any of the neo-Shinners who are useful in detoxifying the party's brand among Middle Ireland.

She has also been relentless in her battle for justice and truth when it came to her own abuse and the corporate cover-up of it.

"For me, it's another message to my abuser and the IRA - and those who have attacked me daily on social media since then - that you may have tried to break me, but I am not broken," she said at the weekend.

Sinn Fein is said to be actively considering running a can- didate against her for the Seanad seat - although if Fine Gael supports the Labour nomination (as it is likely to do), then it is fairly certain that Cahill should make it over the line and into the second chamber. Once this happens it will provide for some fascinating contests both inside Leinster House and in recording studios across the Republic in the run-up to the general election.

In spite of her ordeal at the hands of her abuser, the IRA and latterly a host of internet trolls on Facebook and Twittter, Cahill has proven to be a formidable operator herself, with a thick hide and an ability to confront her opponents head-on.

The Irish Labour Party clearly recognised these qualities when it decided to invite her to stand as its candidate once Jimmy Harte retired.

It is questionable whether her nomination will do anything at all to ameliorate the battering Labour is expected to endure - especially in greater Dublin - in the next general election.

Anger over water charges and memories of austerity cuts imposed by it and the majority partner in coalition, Fine Gael, are likely to be punished in working-class dominated electoral areas of the capital.

The north - and even cases like Mairia Cahill's of paramilitary intimidation and injustice - are not high on the public's agenda when it comes to southern electoral politics.

As the Sinn Fein high command has had to learn, partitionist attitudes pertain "down south" when it comes to the important business of choosing a government.

But never mind the north - it's the economy, stupid. Sinn Fein's greatest hurdle in its quest for actual power, as opposed to the glorified county council with no tax-raising powers (aka the Stormont Executive) is economic.

The party has to convince more voters far beyond its mainly urban and poorer redoubts that it can be trusted with running the economy. Recent polls point to this key problem facing the party south of the border.

One found that Irish farmers deeply distrusted Sinn Fein when it came to economic and agricultural matters. Adams continues to state the party is supportive of business and enterprise, which in turn opens up flak from the Left, with other, rival parties like the Socialist Party, or the latest alliance of other Leftist TDs, alleging a Syriza-style sell-out.

Mairia Cahill's increased presence and profile, meanwhile, will be a constant, unhelpful reminder to that key strata of the Irish electorate - the struggling, but always law-abiding middle classes - about the historic linkage of Sinn Fein to the IRA, even if republicans continue to protest that the "army" has left the stage.

Her potential elevation to the Seanad may not yield many votes for a party set for major losses whenever Enda Kenny calls the election, whether that be next month or Labour's preferred date of February 2016.

Paradoxically, however, Mairia Cahill's entry into southern Irish politics and what it symbolises might just be enough to put off a critical segment of Middle Ireland voters from giving first or second-preference transfers to Sinn Fein candidates.

Perhaps the richest irony of all is not that Mairia Cahill is following the path trodden by the likes of Pearse Doherty into the Seanad and, ultimately, possibly the Dail itself.

No, the most ironic outcome of her participation in the Republic's electoral battles might be to deny the chance for the man her family loyally stood by and helped promote for four decades to be at the centre of real power in the year of the Easter Rising's centenary.

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