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Fine Gael and Sinn Féin are going at it like cats and dogs - and expect it to continue

As long as the two parties are polling well, the strategy is unlikely to change.

Leo Varadkar and Mary Lou McDonald in RTÉ ahead of the 2020 general election.
Leo Varadkar and Mary Lou McDonald in RTÉ ahead of the 2020 general election.
Image: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

AN OPINION POLL published last week succinctly displayed what is becoming clearer: that Fine Gael and Sinn Féin are currently the big beasts of Irish politics

This isn’t necessarily a surprise but the fact that both parties have a combined support of nearly two-thirds of voters means that, as of right now, any upcoming general election increasingly looks like being a choice between the two. 

It is within that context that we must look at what is the increasingly fractious debate and apparent animosity between the parties. 

Fine Gael’s call this week that Sinn Féin TD Brian Stanley lose his chairmanship of the Public Accounts Committee comes on the back of Sinn Fein’s efforts to pass a no confidence motion in Tánaiste Leo Varadkar last month. 

Depending on your view, either man may deserve to lose his position, but the fact that both parties were actively trying to unseat someone shows you where the relationship stands right now.

It also perhaps points to where the political debate is heading in this current Dáil and asks the question whether the people are best served by point-scoring.

Sinn Féin’s confidence motion in Varadkar is perhaps a case in point. The party tabled a motion of no confidence in the Fine Gael leader over his 2017 leaking of an agreement to the medical union the NAGP. 

Varadkar answered questions about the incident in the Dáil and acknowledged “errors of judgement” but faced no formal sanction, something Sinn Féin said was insufficient. 

The subsequent confidence vote went predictably along party lines and Varadkar survived, but not before insults were just as predictably thrown around

Sinn Féin accused Fine Gael of an “old boys network” while Fine Gael spoke about “victims of the IRA across the country that are still buried”.

Whatever about the substance of the debate, the main takeaway for anyone listening in was that these two parties were at the centre of it. A fact that’s also reflected in the polls.

Some Fine Gael representatives have argued that focusing on Sinn Féin is counterproductive, but it’s also been pointed out that it has the benefit of sidelining Fianna Fáil, which is perhaps Fine Gael’s long-term strategy. 

Online abuse

What is perhaps a more troubling question to consider is whether animosity is actually the most effective language in political debate right now. That is not to say that it is a good thing, but rather an acknowledgement that the people who shout the loudest or angriest get the most attention in a social media world. 

And it is this particular sphere that’s come in for particular attention this week, first because of Stanley’s controversial tweets but also more notably because of Varadkar’s claims about Sinn Féin supporters online.

Speaking at a parliamentary party meeting, Varadkar claimed that he has been targeted online by Sinn Féin supporters with racist and homophobic abuse.

Sinn Féin called the claim baseless but this or similar charges are likely to continue, indeed they are far from new as the party’s supporter bas has been criticised for some years.

In recent years, Sinn Féin has actively sought to grow the number and reach of its online supporters. Indeed, it still carries a page on its website specifically for growing this cohort. 

This effort by the party has been hugely successful but it also means it has a responsibility not to feed into a worsening public discourse.

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Sinn Féin publishes guidelines for its representatives and activists about how to behave online and it’s understood to have been reminding members about their responsibilities this week.

But there is also the question of where the responsibility lies for people who are merely  voters and aren’t active members of the party.

A party may have no control over individual tweeters but if it has encouraged the growth of its online support to a level that is out of control or chaotic then perhaps it bears some responsibility for that. 

Claims about online abuse from unnamed supporters can be difficult to counteract, not because they’re not true, but rather because a party cannot reprimand people who they don’t know to be members. 

Varadkar didn’t name any names when he was speaking to party colleagues, and the party’s MEP Maria Walsh didn’t specify Sinn Féin supporters when she also spoke about online abuse this week. 

But vague claims about the behaviour of individuals online can have the effect of focusing attention on that issue rather than something else, which is what Sinn Fein’s Louise O’Reilly suggested was Varadkar’s intention.

Indeed, Varadkar’s claims were made on the same evening the government voted against a motion to pay student nurses and midwives.  

What this all means though is that as long as the two parties are talking about one another, they are still being talked about.

As long as the polls stay the same, expect that to continue.

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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