| 3.8°C Belfast

Alban Maginness

Why Sinn Fein in government in Republic would hinder and not help cause of a united Ireland

Alban Maginness

But will Fianna Fail or Fine Gael sell out their principles to share power with republicans, asks Alban Maginness


Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald is elected as ballot papers are counted in Dublin

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald is elected as ballot papers are counted in Dublin


Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald is elected as ballot papers are counted in Dublin

The southern general election, in which Sinn Fein became the lead party, is profoundly disturbing and will seriously impact upon politics here. The vote for Sinn Fein in the Republic was essentially a massive protest vote, particularly by younger voters, not just against the outgoing Fine Gael-dominated government of Leo Varadkar that had been in power essentially since 2011, but also Fianna Fail, hitherto the main Opposition party.

Since 2016 the Fine Gael government remained in power under a confidence and supply arrangement with Fianna Fail. This was little different from the DUP arrangement which kept the Conservatives in power at Westminster. In essence, this welcome arrangement provided a stable administration during the extremely challenging and difficult Brexit negotiations, which Varadkar and Simon Coveney conducted with great skill and success, thereby providing a secure foundation for the future development of the Irish economy.

In this regard they sought and received solid and enthusiastic support from the leadership of the European Commission, Parliament and member states. However, the irony is that the successful completion of the Brexit transition negotiations meant that this was not a live issue in the election and one that gave no benefit to the governing party. It would appear that eaten goods are fast forgotten.

Politics in the Republic has been in flux since the end of the 1990s and the emergence of the Celtic Tiger. The old loyalties to the Civil War parties - Fianna Fail and Fine Gael - have gradually declined. Their lack of ideological, as opposed to emotional historical, differences meant that Irish politics remained largely populist, varying marginally Left-wards and Right-wards as the situation arose.

In this general election the combined total for both parties was 43%, a far cry from the past when both parties combined received 80% of the total vote.

The vote for Sinn Fein was, therefore, a protest vote against both major political parties arising out of deep dissatisfaction with a number of socio-economic issues. Not least was the high cost of housing throughout the state, but particularly in the greater Dublin area, and persistent problems relating to the delivery of healthcare, which is an unsatisfactory hybrid of public and private services.

The high cost of private housing has meant that many young people and families have been unable to purchase their homes and have been pushed into the rental market, where they have to pay inflated rents.

The irony is that these problems are a product of the success of the Irish economy. This is the politics of affluence, not poverty. The booming Irish economy, through creating high employment and much wealth, has also generated ambitious social expectations for many people who wish to fully enjoy the success of the second Celtic Tiger.

Their exclusion from enjoying that success due to the increasingly high cost of living has created discontent and a questioning of traditional historic loyalties to the hitherto dominant parties.

This discontented section of the electorate wanted change and saw in Sinn Fein an answer to that urge for something different.

Little did Sinn Fein realise that they were seen in that light. If they had sensed that, then they would have put up more candidates and would have won the biggest number of seats in Dail Eireann.

The reality is that Sinn Fein are a party of political fashion that use whatever rhetoric appears to gather popular traction. Their election manifesto's spending plans were a wishlist to all and sundry.

Little attention was paid to the north in this election. The restoration of power-sharing at Stormont had no effect. Nor indeed did the controversy over Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy and his defamation of Paul Quinn as a criminal.

Paul's brutal murder, which only took place in 2007, may well have excited the media both here and in the south, but made no impact with a southern electorate largely indifferent to the violent history of the republican movement during the Troubles, or indeed post-Good Friday Agreement.

Nonetheless, the success of Sinn Fein in the south will disturb both unionists and constitutional nationalists, who will be very wary of Sinn Fein having a role in the national government.

They know that the shadow of the IRA looms over contemporary Sinn Fein. They accept that, when the PSNI state as a matter of fact, the army council of the Provisional IRA still exists, that it actually does.

They do not regard Sinn Fein as an ordinary democratic party and will be shocked if they become part of the national government. Their presence in the sovereign government will actively hinder, not advance, the cause of Irish unity.

The question now remains whether Fianna Fail or Fine Gael will sell out their principled stand against Sinn Fein being in government for the lure of political power.

Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.

Already have an account?

Belfast Telegraph