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Editor's Viewpoint

As Sinn Fein rises in Republic, will past continue to haunt it?

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Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald

PA

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald

As Sinn Fein surges into the lead in the polls ahead of the Republic's general election on Saturday, it finds itself caught up yet again in the fall-out from one of the most controversial killings post the ending of the Troubles.

And once again senior republicans find themselves at odds with the facts surrounding the death of Paul Quinn, the young south Armagh man beaten to death in Co Monaghan 12 years ago.

Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald said she would ask Conor Murphy, the new Finance Minister at Stormont, to speak to the Quinn family to clarify remarks he made after the killing in which he denied that republicans were involved - a claim widely dismissed locally and especially by the Quinn family.

But what rankled them most was Mr Murphy's assertion that Paul had been involved in smuggling and criminality. Ms McDonald says he told her he never said that but this newspaper has uncovered a television interview in which he made those remarks. In the family's eyes republicans not only killed Paul - breaking every bone in his body - but also attempted to blacken his name.

Sinn Fein has a history of bending the truth in controversial incidents. The abduction, torture and murder of Co Louth farmer Tom Oliver was allegedly carried out because he gave information to the Gardai but there are suspicions that he was actually killed to protect the identity of the IRA double agent Stakeknife.

In Belfast, Sinn Fein members who were packed into a public house in January 2005 were unable to identify who had knifed a man to death in a row which started inside the building and continued outside.

Senior figures initially denied that republicans were involved in the death of Robert McCartney but later admitted two of the four men they had identified were IRA members.

This is the sort of baggage which has played badly with voters in the Republic in the past and given political opponents a reason to deny forming a coalition with Sinn Fein.

But Fianna Fail and Fine Gael then have to answer the question why they urged the DUP to go back into devolved government with Sinn Fein at Stormont. Why should parties in Northern Ireland which bore the brunt of three decades of republican violence be prepared to share power with Sinn Fein when their counterparts in the Republic refuse to do likewise.

The simple answer is that Sinn Fein has a very large nationalist/republican mandate in Northern Ireland which cannot be ignored in a democracy. If it were to secure a similar vote in the Republic this weekend what would be the reaction of the two parties which have ruled there for the vast majority of the near 100 years since partition?

It is not a palatable task for wholly democratic parties to treat Sinn Fein as equals given its background. Yesterday's ground-breaking decision by Sinn Fein to attend a PSNI recruitment is a welcome development but it comes 12 years after the party first pledged support for the police force. If ever there was an example of lip service that surely was it.

Some people - most obviously the Quinn family - feel that senior republicans are often equivocal in their support for law and order, especially if republicans are alleged to have been involved in some illegal activity.

Sinn Fein may now feel it is a legitimate potential partner in government in the Republic but will its past continue to haunt it?

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