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In the Republic’s election pantomime Fianna Fail and Fine Gael cast Sinn Fein as the wolf in the fading balaclava, yet those same two parties want them at Stormont

Attacks by Varadkar and Martin are not only signs of desperation and hypocrisy, they’re benefiting opponents


Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald

Canvassing for votes are Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin (left) with Fianna Fail candidate James Lawless

Canvassing for votes are Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin (left) with Fianna Fail candidate James Lawless

Canvassing in Dublin Central are Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe

Canvassing in Dublin Central are Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald

The Republic’s election pantomime is going into its final week, with a plethora of parties and lots of bickering and slagging, fed by social media and TV debates with people shouting at each other. Northerners could be forgiven for looking on in unexpected bewilderment. Maybe Senator George Mitchell should come over and sort it all out!

One thing’s for sure. The villain in this Free State pantomime is usually Sinn Fein, and even more so now as the party unexpectedly surges in the opinion polls.

Few saw this surge coming. A few months ago Sinn Fein appeared to have flatlined in the polls, Stormont was in storage and there was widespread criticism of Mary Lou and Michelle O’Neill, much of it unfair and probably sexist, as it has been of the DUP’s Arlene Foster.

But now Sinn Fein is surging while Fine Gael is struggling, Stormont is back and apparently with a good chance of success, and Mary Lou McDonald has a spring in her step. Although the two political cultures are separate, the presence of Sinn Fein in a Stormont administration is always a shot-in-the-arm for the party in the South. It makes them look relevant.

But the big reason Southern voters are apparently going for Sinn Fein is because they are fed up with the mainstream Fine Gael and Fianna Fail parties and believe that the fresh new broom of Sinn Fein could hardly be worse. Sinn Fein has never been in government in the South, after all, not even as a junior partner.

By contrast, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have been constantly in power and still the enduring problems of cost overruns and hospital waiting lists endure. They are often drawn from family dynasties with the same tired faces on the posters. It is Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

So connected are the two main parties that in the last administratoin a minority Fine Gael government was propped up by a confidence and supply agreement. Fianna Fail criticised the very budgets it approved! It was at times ridiculous.

The two centrist parties should really just form a coalition government or even merge. But that’s another day’s discussion. Why would the two parties give up their alternating chances of seats, power, pensions and local fame? By contrast, Sinn Fein is an untarnished political force, even if the Troubles legacy issues have not been resolved.

Everyone loves a winner and so this support is exponential with many far Left voters being for them, but also the soft-Left middle class, which is what the party has always coveted.

The Sinn Fein surge is despite the continuing hands-off attitude that the political establishment (Fianna Fail and Fine Gael) have taken to the party, talking about their “shadowy decision-making”, and their unsavoury past. Indeed the evidence is that the party benefits from such attacks.

It looks like desperation, and it is. Sinn Fein is showing up the moribund nature of the two party system. It is especially desperate by Fianna Fail as the Sinn Fein surge is endangering Fianna Fail’s long awaited comeback. And it is taking Fianna Fail votes.

There is also the fact in the years of commemorations of the War of Independence period, and the subsequent Civil War which created Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, many voters are aware of the unsavoury past of Fianna Fail, and how long it took their version of the IRA to come in from the cold.

But most of all, voters see through the utter hypocrisy of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael ruling out a coalition with “undemocratic” SF, while working night and day to make sure that unionists share power with them in Northern Ireland.

It is also strangely Partitionist as it treats the North differently and relegates it to a post-conflict situation, in which such uncomfortable compromises have to be made. This is a quasi colonial attitude unworthy of the Dublin Governments, regardless of which Tweedle is in charge.

It is also wearing a bit thin: 22 years after the Good Friday Agreement, 26 years since the first IRA ceasefire but most of all, after 10 years of Government between the unionists and Sinn Fein in the meantime! Ten years, that’s two full terms of Government in the South.

The Irish and British Governments have helped this Stormont administration and told the world how great it was. But when it comes to Southern politics, Sinn Fein then reverts to being the wicked wolf in the fading balaclava.

Granted, Sinn Fein is still some distance from Fianna Fail and Fine Gael in economic policy, but given the way Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have been making election promises, that distance suddenly doesn’t look like much of a stretch? The EU will make sure no one goes mad with the cash register again.

And anyway, SF is changing its policies as they go more mainstream.

They now only want the South’s Special Criminal Court reviewed as opposed to abolished. But this doesn’t satisfy Fianna Fail, who still put the boot in. The last thing Fianna Fail want is a nice reformed SF eating its lunch.

Much has been made of Sinn Fein referring decisions back to its ard chomhairle. But is this such a surprise given the party’s highly disciplined centralised structure which, yes, also goes back to their paramilitary past. Maybe it will be put to some good use, rather than the casual decision-making we’ve seen in Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.

No, the real reason Fianna Fail and Fine Gael shun SF is because they are an electoral threat to their own Tweedldee and Tweedledum dominance.

They are now even fighting over who will resist them more. Fine Gael’s Paschal Donohoe warned voters of the dangers of a possible Fianna Fail/Sinn Fein government, something he characterised as a coalition of the wreckers and the reckless. He claimed Sinn Fein was a dangerous party, and that Fianna Fail was too “spineless” to resist adopting them in order to get into government.

Fianna Fail’s Michael McGrath responded by describing the FG campaign was becoming “more dishonest, more desperate and more duplicitous”. As Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty put it, the Fine Gael and Fianna Fail leaders are “squabbling like children trying to outdo themselves” in their attacks on Sinn Fein.

Not only that, they are doing Sinn Fein’s work for them. In a car crash election video — FG is not having a good election (but then they rarely do) — Leo Varadkar tells us that he has asked his ministers if they would ever share power with Sinn Fein. “No!”, they shout, one after the other, filmed in their suits and padded jackets. Given the current volatility in southern politics, the implication is clear — vote for Sinn Fein to get these guys out!

The slick video is a misreading of the public mood, and of how angry people are and how they are in the mood for a change.

The fact that the two parties should distract from their own failings by demonising a party with 24% in the latest opinion poll shows how out of touch they are. Sinn Fein, regardless of their policies or past, are a legitimate part of the political landscape and can form Governments and implement policies.

Sure, haven’t unionists in Northern Ireland known that for the past 20 years?

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