The View from Up Here


As a Northerner and part of a community that has experienced gerrymandering, exclusion and political discrimination, I find the attitudes of the main political parties in the South towards the prospect of Sinn Fein holding the balance of power after the next election, an amazing mixture of hypocrisy and posturing.

This hypocrisy is seen in their duplicitous attitude to the early release of prisoners under the Belfast Agreement for which they campaigned in the referendum. They tell unionists that in the interests of peace and prosperity they have to ‘swallow their revulsion’ at the release of IRA Volunteers convicted of killing their RUC kith and kin. (Incidentally, nationalists never got to experience similar ‘revulsion’ because the killers of their kith and kin - those in the RUC and British army - were never released from jail because they were never in jail in the first place.)

When the terms of the Agreement come to be applied to the South in respect to those convicted of killing gardai the main parties somersault and balk at the prospect.

This double-standard also applies to the issue of coalition government. It is expected that the poor, old, put-upon unionists should share executive power with, in unionist-speak, Sinn Fein/IRA in the Assembly, but Sinn Fein in coalition government in the South is totally unacceptable and is suddenly a moral issue until the party ‘resolves’ its relationship with the IRA. Such a yarn.

Make no mistake about it. After the next election, if Sinn Fein is eligible for government it will suddenly be found to be suitable for government by its current detractors if the alternative is to risk political instability and economic prosperity, or unless God can join together Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.

Perhaps, Caoimghin O Caolain will not be re-elected in Cavan-Monaghan where he topped the poll last time around. Perhaps, in the other five or six targeted constituencies Sinn Fein candidates will perform admirably but will fall short of the requisite quota and fail to receive the required transfers.

If this becomes the case then the issue of Sinn Fein holding the balance of power will be academic and the ‘problem’ for the mainstream parties will have gone away. But, despite the wishful-thinking of some, Sinn Fein’s vote is unlikely to collapse. In two recent opinion polls Gerry Adams received the highest satisfaction rating for any party leader in the South.

The reasons for Sinn Fein’s successes in the South are intrinsic and not based solely on the national question - though its core support is solidly republican. In the public mind the establishment parties are associated with sleaze and corruption. They certainly have a credibility problem when they, above anyone, accuse Sinn Fein of being ‘tainted’. Sinn Fein, on the other hand, is associated with those deprived communities which the Celtic Tiger bypassed. Even the party’s critics begrudgingly acknowledge the track record and commitment of its representatives.

But coalition presents Sinn Fein with more of a dilemma than it does its prospective partners. How best can the party effect change? Should it argue its republican labour policies from the opposition benches, with limited effect, or, enter coalition and risk having its radical identity swamped in order to temper the conservative thrust of government?

Interestingly, the party is divided over the issue of coalition and, ironically, many northern members appear to have a basically, pragmatic approach, possibly as a result of the ideological transitions they have undergone in the long battles they have fought with governments and parties and through the courts for the right of representation and the right to exercise power.

The analogy between coalition in the North and coalition in the South is not a sound one. In the North, an entire community which suffered decades of repression and disenfranchisement had to be empowered. Opposing deprivation and privilege in the South is a different order of battle.

In the North, Sinn Fein relentlessly pursues a republican agenda. It recognises the institutions and the new dispensation as contributing towards removing the causes of the armed conflict: not as ends in themselves but as incomplete breakthroughs, advantageous to the peaceful achievement of its ultimate goals. David Trimble, at the helm of mainstream unionism, chose to nit-pick the historic compromise of the Agreement and to resist real change. He also tried to justify to his unionist critics his limited engagement with Sinn Fein by falsifying the republican position as one of acceptance of the Union and surrender to British rule. A chicken that is now coming home to roost.

But even in the event of the collapse of the power-sharing executive in Belfast, voters are unlikely to blame Sinn Fein, if another recent poll is anything to go by. It showed that 44% of the southern electorate would accept Sinn Fein sitting in coalition without IRA decommissioning.

In my opinion, Sinn Fein should shun the opportunity, or temptation, of coalition and continue along the path it is pursuing. There should be no rush. In Leinster House its representatives should find their feet while giving voice to the dispossessed and the disadvantaged. And government will discover that the fresh wind that blows through the Southern Assembly is the same wind that blows through the North.

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison