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Opinion: Be careful of wishing for a Sinn Féin after Gerry Adams

Adams might be the last roadblock to Sinn Féin managing to uncork its potential to conquer the left wing, working class and republican ground in Irish politics.

Aaron McKenna

BY ANY MEASURE in any democracy, it has been an extraordinary week in Ireland. The leader of one of the largest parties on the island, with some 344 elected representatives north and south, went into police custody to answer questions in relation to the murder of a woman in the 1970s.

Irish politicians from the three main parties have been hammering Gerry Adams over the death of Jean McConville and his wider role in The Troubles since he came into the Dáil in 2011. There is a not entirely facetious joke in politics that Enda Kenny’s standard response to a question on most matters posed by Gerry Adams is “Yeah, well, you were in the IRA.”

It is, perhaps, a good bottling up strategy to use against Sinn Féin. But we may now be seeing Adams’ long tenure coming to an end, and a new generation coming to the fore. For all the schadenfreude felt by those in traditional Irish political parties at seeing Adams sat in a jail cell, there could be bigger political headaches to come from the downfall of its old guard.

The Troubles

The chequered history of Sinn Féin, Gerry Adams and their relationship to the Provisional IRA during a conflict that claimed the lives of over 3,500 people and injured 50,000 more needs no retelling. The tragic story of Jean McConville, a single mother of ten ripped from her children, tortured, murdered and buried on a beach in Louth is a telling microcosm to the brutality of that conflict.

The past is a very difficult place to explore after a conflict in any country. Wounds are difficult to heal, and at best they scab over most of the time; waiting for some irritation to rip them open again. In some senses we were lucky to get the peace that we did in Northern Ireland after much trying and failing. In another way, it is a damn shame that we never got to the stage of agreeing to truth and reconciliation in the much celebrated South African fashion.

It has left too much room for too many mealy mouthed statements and left too many without the closure they deserve, let alone any sense of justice. The truth in Northern Ireland has been left to different communities to interpret as they will, and reconciliation is still one discussion of how many days a flag should fly over a particular building away from a riot.

A major political threat in the Republic

But, what we got is what we’ve got. Men like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness and their peers have come from violence to peaceful political construction. Most Irish and British politicians would have welcomed this with open arms as the express intention of the peace process in the late 1990s. About half of Sinn Féin’s representatives in the Northern Ireland Assembly served time in prison for IRA-related activities. A number of their Dáil representatives today share the same republican badge of honour.

With their success, however, has come a major political threat in the Republic. Sinn Féin has been rather good at increasing its footprint on the political landscape, and they look set to increase their share of the local electoral vote from 7.8 per cent in 2009 to over 20 per cent this time out. They are riding in relative close contention to Fianna Fáil and not a million miles behind Fine Gael in the polls of late.

Sinn Féin has been organising and working hard to increase its footprint in the south, and circumstances have conspired to provide them a breakthrough that seemed far-fetched a decade ago. They have been capitalising on the collapse of both Fianna Fáil and Labour, hoovering up traditionally working class and staunchly republican votes that FF in particular kept bottled up.

Working class republicans don’t have much time for a party that bailed out banks

When Bertie Ahern famously said that he was a socialist, much to the delight of Joe Higgins, he was reflecting the broad church that was Fianna Fáil: A party that rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous, but that came from a republican background that was the bedrock of its early success. Unfortunately, working class republicans don’t have much time for a party that bailed out banks, cut the arse out of public spending to pay for it and then handed the economic keys of the country to foreigners.

The Labour Party claimed to be the shining white knight on the left, but contentions that they’ve lost out on every argument they put forward on their famous Tesco spoof, “Fine Gael: Every Little Hurts”, has killed them. They will be praying for an economic miracle to keep themselves in business after the next election, and it’s likely a lot of the old boys who brought them into government in 2011 will slink off into retirement in a fashion not dissimilar to much of the Fianna Fáil cabinet of Brian Cowen.

For all that 2011 was a landslide election Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil won about the same combined percentage of the vote overall that they had done in prior elections. We got a Fine Gael-Labour government, which is pretty much how Fine Gael gets into government in recent memory.

A shift in perception?

Now however, we’re seeing a potential big change as Sinn Féin beds itself down as a popular party with what they hope is a sustainable portion of the vote, at about a fifth to a quarter of ballots that will be cast. Their vote hasn’t always held up from polling to booth, but the theory goes that their hard work on the ground is paying dividends and they are speaking to a constituency on the left that feels abandoned.

The main problem that Sinn Féin has, many in Irish politics believe given how often they repeat it, is that they are led by a pack of former IRA heads who were caught up in nasty, nasty stuff.

What of Sinn Féin that is led by someone like Mary Lou McDonald? She has shown herself well able to be as mealy mouthed as her old guard counterparts, referring to the death of Jean McConville as a ‘killing’ rather than a ‘murder’; but at the end of the day, she was not involved in the troubles the way McGuinness or Adams or any of their lot were.

Adams might be the last roadblock to Sinn Féin

If Sinn Féin managed to turn their 20-25 per cent poll ratings into actual results, given their politics we could actually see a proper left wing appear. The Labour Party is not a proper left wing party, or at least it has not been able to deliver on the goals of working class people whilst having such a middle class base to try and pander to at the same time. Fianna Fáil is a broad church for the left to centre, as Fine Gael is for the centre to right; and both parties have swung between left and right wing policies as it has suited over the past decades.

Adams might be the last roadblock to Sinn Féin managing to uncork their potential to conquer the left wing, working class and republican ground in Irish politics. For many politicians who rely on this constituency to prop themselves up, they might stop ribbing Adams and wish that he stick around a bit longer so they can try and win back some of those votes for themselves.

Then again, perhaps a proper left-right divide in Irish politics wouldn’t be such a bad thing to get, rather than auction politics between a bunch of populists.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

Follow us on Twitter: @TJ_Opinions

Read: The PSNI is asking a court for more time to question Gerry Adams

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