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Larry Donnelly Sinn Féin is now under a microscope because the party is on the rise

Our columnist says SF may find recent media scrutiny tough, but it’s nothing compared to the questions they’ll face in government.

“WORDS FAIL ME. Good night. @rte.”

This was the reaction of the President of Sinn Féin, Mary Lou McDonald, to Claire Byrne’s Monday night programme on RTÉ One that focused on the emergence of the erstwhile political wing of the Irish Republican Army as the most popular political party in the country.

Sinn Féín is arguably too sensitive with respect to the media scrutiny it is being subjected to at present. McDonald’s perfunctory Tweet is Exhibit A on this score. The fourth estate would not be doing its job if journalists did not question and probe representatives of a party – which has soared in the polls as it relentlessly attacks the government – about its own policies and, yes, the undeniably disturbing aspects of its history.

Reasonable critique

That said, some of the rhetoric about Sinn Féin in 2022 is overblown. The repeated allegations that a cabal in Belfast “calls the shots” and that capable individuals, such as McDonald, Eoin Ó Broin and Louise O’Reilly, are mere puppets don’t fully add up.

One can absolutely acknowledge and be troubled by the fact that, given its provenance, Sinn Féin is different from other Irish political parties and thus operates unusually without buying into darker theories about who makes decisions on a daily basis.

What’s more, when those who openly loathe Sinn Féin and despair at the increasingly probable prospect of they soon being in government, north and south, allow their deep-seated disdain for the party to get the better of them, it backfires. For instance, the financial adviser Eddie Hobbs suggested on Claire Byrne Live that the business executives responsible for the foreign direct investment that, for good or for ilk, has become Ireland’s lifeblood would be “outta here” if Mary Lou McDonald were to become Taoiseach.

Most observers recognise this as nonsense. As it has demonstrated, Sinn Féin may be a non-traditional political party, yet it is politically astute and nuanced or “cute” enough to pivot away from principle when the situation calls for it.

Witness how long-standing opposition to the non-jury Special Criminal Court was summarily dropped. Knowing that Sinn Féin would do what is necessary to retain existing and to entice new foreign direct investment is among the primary reasons that the hard left groupings are so wary of their purportedly socialist competitors.

Political pragmatism

Only three years on from a dire performance in the 2019 local and European campaigns, Sinn Féin enjoys the support of more than one-third of the electorate and is more than 10 percentage points ahead of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in the latest opinion survey. This dramatic reversal of fortune in a very short space of time is why national and, indeed, international onlookers are now shining a spotlight on McDonald and Co, with the worst of Covid-19 seemingly behind us and a semblance of politics as we once knew it resuming.

And of course, it has been the spiralling cost and dwindling supply of housing that has catapulted Sinn Féin to the top spot and facilitated a significant expansion of its appeal beyond ardent republicans and the working-class all the way to the middle-class, middle-aged demographic.

In particular, younger women and men who are worst affected by the housing crisis are drawn to the messaging that the two centrist parties have failed utterly in this regard and the sort of direct state intervention urged by Ó Broin is warranted. 35% of those aged 18-34 and 38% of voters between the ages of 35 and 54 are solidly in Sinn Féin’s corner according to a January RED C poll.

In this context, the lamentable inflation in the price of a range of household goods should also benefit Sinn Féin, politically speaking, in a similar fashion to how Republicans in the United States are poised to gain in the mid-term elections from the explosion in the cost of “gas and groceries” during the Biden presidency and a period of Democratic control of both houses of the US Congress.

In short, in the wake of the pandemic and as they can’t afford homes and find the things they require to survive inordinately expensive, an awful lot of people here are frustrated and furious with the government. Sinn Féin is riding the crest of a wave of that anger.

These disenchanted citizens are either wholeheartedly vesting their hopes in the party or willing to do what had been unfathomable and take a chance on leaders of a new generation who are a considerable distance removed from the past.

Sinn Féin in government

But what will Sinn Féin do when this unwieldy coalition delivers them to the promised land of government, as currently appears inexorable?

Surely, far-reaching action on the housing front will be a top priority. And that, as well as other initiatives intended to improve the lives of low earners, would necessitate an array of higher taxes being imposed on the wealthy and not so wealthy.

The issue of Irish reunification will be central, too, and the layers of complication that inhere in it would swiftly come to the fore. And climate change will have to be combatted, though concrete measures to ensure a just transition would need to be reflected in related legislation.

These are the big picture, big-ticket items that are attracting a broad swathe of voters who are tired of the incremental, less than visionary moderation that has always defined the dominant forces in Irish politics. But successfully addressing housing, Irish unity, climate change and much more besides will not be easy, especially when the party is, in truth, less radical than rumour might have it. Moreover, Andrew Adonis tellingly writes in Prospect magazine of the “striking absence” of “any Sinn Féin plan for economic growth and wealth creation.”

Like any political party, when in power, Sinn Féin will let people down. And if Mary Lou McDonald et al think various media organisations are after them with a microscope in one hand and a scalpel in the other while in the comparatively cosy confines of opposition, they should wait until they are in charge. Their counterparts in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael can offer plenty of salutary lessons.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a law lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with The Journal. His new book – The Bostonian: Life in an Irish American Political Family – is published by Gill Books and is now available in all bookshops.

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