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NI Election: Sinn Fein's success will be prelude to new push in Republic of Ireland

By Eoghan Harris

Tribal passions are putting the centre under severe pressure both in Northern Ireland and the Republic. Should this go on, the middle ground will soon give way under our feet.

In Northern Ireland the Assembly election results reinforce the truth of Churchill's caustic comment about its sectarian politics surviving the deluge of the Great War.

No matter what horrors happen in the wider world, as the waters of conflict fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.

The reverse is true in the Republic. As the dreary steeples of religious bigotry fall back, it is the waters that are rising in populist water charge campaigns.

Most readers in the Republic, apart from members of Sinn Fein, take only a peripheral interest in Northern politics unless they impinge on us via violence or Brexit.

We forget that they also impinge on us via Sinn Fein. The success of that party in the Assembly elections will soon spill over into southern politics.

Once again we will find out the hard way that a humiliation for unionists in the North is not something to celebrate down here because it is always a prelude to a new push by Sinn Fein in the Republic.

Sinn Fein's strategy is to create controlled crises North and South until electoral success in both parts of the island puts it in a position to pressure the British and Irish Governments to impose some fresh pan-nationalist humiliation on unionists.

Centrist parties like Fianna Fail and Fine Gael still find it hard to believe that Sinn Fein marches to a different military drummer.

They seem blind to the meaning of Sinn Fein's new militancy in Northern Ireland, particularly its willingness to sacrifice the Good Friday Agreement on the altar of Sinn Fein's aim - to achieve hegemony in both parts of the island.

The Rip Van Winkles in Fine Gael and Fianna Fail will say I am crying wolf when I warn about Sinn Fein's new political potential following its success in the Assembly election.

Sinn Fein has a new mojo, North and South. So it is logically likely to conclude that it would benefit as much from a snap election in the South as from the snap election it forced in the North.

How? By exploiting big populist issues in a private sector that has been badly left behind - think of pensions - while the major parties mollycoddled the public sector.

The starkest symbol of populist politics are water charges. Policy wonks, especially in Fine Gael and Labour, have no problem with water. Just meter it, charge for it, obey the EU.

But we do not live in a world ruled by policy wonks. There are two good reasons not to treat water as a technical policy issue.

First, people were, and still are, deeply divided about metering as a way of paying for water. There is no consensus on the issue. Second, the angry debate around water charges suits no major party except Sinn Fein. Even more so now.

That is why Fianna Fail was perfectly correct to make a prudent decision to park water charges as far away from the arena of anger as possible.

The brutal truth is that it is not Fine Gael but Fianna Fail which will have to be the bulwark against Sinn Fein in working-class areas after it has gobbled up the Left and the Trots - as it has just done in the North.

To my mind, acting as a bulwark for Irish democracy against Sinn Fein's dark strategy is more important than being consistent about water charges.

Fianna Fail has taken a lot of stupid stick for trying to bury the water charge issue in general taxation. But in future we may be grateful it took that big bone away from the Sinn Fein dog.

Fine Gael could now do its bit for Irish democracy by not using water charges to measure testosterone in the Fine Gael leadership stakes.

Meantime, in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein sits like a vulture waiting to feast on the corpse of a body politic that seems to have a communal death wish.

Apart from the Alliance Party, there are now nothing but hard tribal faces peering over the horizon.

But dark days are the best time to light candles, no matter how small. Two will be lit at lunchtime in Maynooth University next Tuesday at 1pm. Brian and Linda Ervine, who come from the loyalist radical tradition, will be giving talks on loyalist identity and the Irish language.

Later, Linda will be interviewed in Irish and English about how she promotes the Irish language in Protestant east Belfast.

Linda has been welding long broken links in the rusty chain between loyalists and the Presbyterian scholars and enthusiasts who did so much to keep the language alive from the 18th century onwards.

Linda's husband Brian, the brother of David Ervine, will also speak about 'Loyalist Identity: From Somme Day mourning to the Belfast Agreement'.

The talks are part of a wider reaching out to Irish Protestants by the Edward M Kennedy Institute at Maynooth, whose simple title is Getting to Know and Respect our Loyalist Neighbours.

Last Friday Professor Brian Walker launched a book at the Deanery of St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, that I believe will become the classic guide to some of the grimmer experiences of southern Protestants.

Robin Bury's Buried Lives: The Protestants Of Southern Ireland is the most detailed account so far of the marginalisation, intimidation, murder, and boycotts suffered by southern Protestants from Ne Temere in 1907 to the 2010 speech of regret and reconciliation by the late Brian Lenihan at Beal na Blath.

As always there will be some southern Protestants anxious to assure the nationalist media that everything was rosy in their garden.

Roman Catholics and real republicans don't need these reassurances, and are now ready to recognise the thorns beneath the roses.

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