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The Sunday Times: Sinn Fein could also share power in the republic

EXTRACT: …in recent weeks he has resumed his attack on Sinn Fein, specifically blaming it for orchestrating anti-gardai protest tactics at the proposed Shell gas refining terminal in west Mayo. It is clear that other left-wing elements are at least equally involved in stirring the locals, but that is of no concern to McDowell once he gets into mud-slinging mode.

THE ARTICLE

December 03, 2006

Comment: Matt Cooper: There’s a danger Sinn Fein could also share power in the republic 
 
As Sinn Fein moves closer to power in Northern Ireland, the possibility of the party entering government in the republic could prove to be one of the defining political developments of 2007.

Bertie Ahern has stated consistently that Fianna Fail will not entertain the notion of dealing with Sinn Fein. And you can bet that he will maintain that stance throughout next year’s election campaign. Failure to do so would scare off more than just the party’s wealthy backers. But what happens if the post-election numbers dictate that coalition with Sinn Fein is Fianna Fail’s best chance of returning to power? The continued existence of the IRA is a direct snub to the republic’s Defence Forces, the only legitimate force recognised by the government. But an accommodation of sorts could be reached if Sinn Fein signs up to policing in Northern Ireland, becomes part of a power-sharing executive with Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist party and the IRA remains inactive. 
 
But that presupposes plenty. Recognising the PSNI is vital but with political progress in Northern Ireland painstakingly slow, there would still be no guarantee that the March deadline for completion of the agreed initiatives would be met.

A deal completed in the first three months of next year would be perfect for Sinn Fein’s electoral ambitions in the republic — assuming Paisley’s hardliners can be brought on board by the DUP. The “peace dividend” for Sinn Fein is respectability.

If DUP members are expected to shed their visceral hatred towards a party that has wreaked violence on the Protestant community, it will become more difficult to argue that Sinn Fein is not suitable as a political partner for government in the south.

Once Northern Assembly elections are out of the way, Sinn Fein can focus on the general election in the republic. And in the event that the numbers fall in its favour, the party could end up setting down terms to Fianna Fail because nobody else is in a position to do so.

For some that is a nightmare scenario in which the reward for a past involving ruthless murders is power. For others it would be the logical conclusion to a process in which Sinn Fein has renounced violence, recognised the legitimacy of the border and the 26-county republic and devoted itself to democratic politics.

One person definitely horrified at the prospect of Sinn Fein holding power in the republic is Michael McDowell. The thought of losing office is bad enough, but the notion that his place at the cabinet table might be taken by the Shinners is something else altogether.

McDowell’s prediction last week that the next government will be a combination of Fianna Fail “and somebody else” is both obvious and accurate given the gap Fine Gael and Labour have to bridge. But naming Sinn Fein as one of Fianna Fail’s likely coalition candidates put a topic that many had forgotten back on the agenda.

Most comment on last Friday’s Irish Times opinion poll failed to add Fianna Fail’s vote to that of either Sinn Fein or Labour, leaving the impression that a Progressive Democrats- or independents-backed Fianna Fail coalition is Ahern’s only option. But if Fianna Fail’s 40% rating is combined with Sinn Fein’s 7%, then, translated into seats, that’s a viable coalition. The combined 43% for the current coalition government is not.

McDowell’s problem is how best to confront the issue. The tanaiste has never flinched from attacking the real or perceived presence of Sinn Fein/IRA in any controversy. He has linked Sinn Fein expressly to criminality, including the now largely forgotten Northern Bank heist two years ago and the callous murder of Robert McCartney. He also used the party to blacken the name of the journalist Frank Connolly. But these attacks may have been counterproductive.

The public’s distaste for McDowell’s stridency (he is now the least popular party leader in the country) and growing appreciation of Gerry Adams’s apparent striving for peace has actually cast Sinn Fein into the unlikely role of victims. It is no coincidence that Sinn Fein’s slippage in the opinion polls coincided with McDowell turning down the volume.

But when McDowell has an itch he has to scratch it. So in recent weeks he has resumed his attack on Sinn Fein, specifically blaming it for orchestrating anti-gardai protest tactics at the proposed Shell gas refining terminal in west Mayo. It is clear that other left-wing elements are at least equally involved in stirring the locals, but that is of no concern to McDowell once he gets into mud-slinging mode.

The PD leader might be better off concentrating on the weakness of Sinn Fein’s economic ideas, creating a red scare rather than a green one. Sinn Fein’s Achilles heel for voters in the republic is its emphasis on higher tax and outdated, small-minded, unpopular ideas about investment and wealth redistribution based on discredited far-left ideologies.

Listening to Adams talking about economic matters, you quickly realise he has been tied up in the internal politics of Northern Ireland for so long that he has failed to realise the significance of the seismic economic changes that have taken place south of the border. The republic is now Me Fein as opposed to Sinn Fein. And that probably explains why Sinn Fein’s 7% poll rating is at its lowest in the south in years. 
 
And here’s something else that McDowell could play upon in election year: Adams, Sinn Fein’s best-known face, could become an electoral liability for the party in the republic.

Given his status and consistently high personal poll rating, most people would expect Adams to front Sinn Fein’s campaign in the south. Admired in the republic for carrying so many northern nationalists in his wake in the transformation to democratic politics, his past in the IRA, which he continues to deny, is seemingly irrelevant. 
 
But the skills he has displayed in the north and the issues he has concentrated on, including policing and power-sharing, won’t play with voters south of the border. His attacks on the republic’s health service and societal developments not to his taste are much the same as those espoused by many other politicians and parties.

In other words, his point of difference disappears when he embroils himself in southern debate. That is the ground the southern establishment has to drag him onto.

And there are other credibility issues. Adams is not standing for election himself, so how can he seek votes when he and other Sinn Fein members are based in the north? The candidates in the republic, compared to the party’s stars in the north, are intellectual pygmies. The party will counter that those considerations didn’t damage it in 2002, but nobody thought of Sinn Fein as potential government partners back then.

Of course, Sinn Fein might decide it is too soon for the party to get into a formal alliance with Fianna Fail. The dangers of the embrace could outweigh the positives, since many of its supporters would prefer to posture as the alienated rather than become part of the establishment.

Adams has previously stated that Sinn Fein would only go into government in the republic on its terms. It would be a further irony if, having entered government with Paisley and the DUP, Sinn Fein decided that Fianna Fail was too toxic a political partner. But will the electorate even allow Sinn Fein to get into a position where it would have that choice? 

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2091-2484177.html

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