Sinn Fein are winning the post-1998 peace. They are now the largest party in Northern Ireland, and almost certainly will be the largest party in the Republic after the next election. A combination of internal and external events have come together to make their brand of ‘left populism’ (housing spokesman’s Eoin Ó Broin’s telling phrase) seem unstoppable. The housing crisis in the South and the chaotic aftermath of Brexit, the Covid pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis caused by the Ukraine war in both jurisdictions have combined to make people fearful and angry, and Sinn Fein will be the beneficiaries.
To what extent are Sinn Fein under Mary Lou McDonald – a skilled Dublin politician with no history in or connection with the IRA – turning into a normal left-wing social democratic party? Here are some recent views. First is the opinion of a reader of this blog, Frank Schnittger from County Wicklow, in last month’s comments column.
“As someone who doesn’t support Sinn Fein, I am nevertheless impressed by the degree to which they have been able to reinvent themselves since the 1990s. They have been able to transform themselves from a hard right, socially conservative, proto-Fascist, anti-EU, hard line nationalist party into a relatively moderate, social democratic, relatively liberal, pro-EU party with some very articulate spokespeople to boot…I think we should give Sinn Fein some credit for largely leaving violence behind them over the past 25 years, facing down some dissident threats from their own side, and doing so far more completely than the loyalist paramilitaries.”
Many people in the Republic are coming to believe this. But is it the whole story? I have been reading the Monaghan-born comedian Ardal O’Hanlon’s new novel, Brouhaha, a story of violence, disappearance and death in a border town in the uncomfortable recent transition to peace (in the interest of transparency, it should be noted that O’Hanlon is the son of a prominent former Fianna Fail politician, Dr Rory O’Hanlon). A central character, a young woman newspaper reporter, is asking a Sinn Fein councillor at a public meeting about his involvement in the mysterious disappearance of a young local woman. “The thing that flustered her most was that nobody…backed her up. Obviously, she didn’t expect the average rank-and-filer of the Party to have his conscience pricked and publicly express misgivings. It was not that sort of party – one that brooked dissent or internal debate or independent thought or any deviation whatsoever from the message. Your average aficionado and assorted hangers-on were, understandably, in their element at this point in time, carried away by the momentum, by the showing in the polls, by the intoxicating message of hope, of salvation, of a better world. They were carried away by the novelty of it all, and the youthful character of it, the sophistication of the Party machine, and, yes, perhaps the fetching whiff of sulphur was part of the attraction too. Nobody was denying it. But what was most appealing to people – people who were so often dismissed as losers – was the genuinely serious chance of being part of a winning team.”
My Ireland-loving Belfast unionist friend Paul Burgess used to feel that republican triumphalism when speaking from Sinn Fein platforms in Cork (he has stopped doing that now). He said the capacity audience at a big meeting in Cork city “appeared elated at the inescapability of their own cause and seemed to prepared to pay lip service to the concerns of unionists, but little more.”
“An undeniable air of confident destiny prevailed. And a sense of political inevitability permeated the proceedings. One fellow panel member, drunk on the certainties provided by a rapt and uncritical republican audience, somewhat lost the run of himself. He suggested that liberal unionists were as rare as unicorns. And that, ‘once you had the unionist community by the balls, their hearts and minds would follow.” How the audience laughed.1
It is inevitable that people’s memories of a terrible period like the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ fade over time. We saw that in striking – even shocking – fashion in last month’s Belfast Telegraph/Lucid Talk opinion poll, which found that 69% of nationalists agreed with Michelle O’Neill’s recent remark that there was “no alternative” to the IRA campaign, that (in the wording of Lucid Talk’s question) “violent resistance to British rule during the Troubles” was the only option. This is not what the majority of nationalists who voted for the SDLP in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s believed. In a 1998 Northern Ireland Life and Times survey (historically the most accurate of all NI opinion polls), 70% of Catholics said they had “no sympathy at all” with the reasons republicans gave for violence. That’s a 360 degree turn-around in just 24 years – it’s almost unbelievable.
Now only a minority of older SDLP voters disagree with O’Neill. And moderate unionists are genuinely shocked that so many of their nationalist neighbours are now endorsing – albeit retrospectively – the IRA’s campaign of violence against them, their security forces and their society.
“Only those in advanced middle age remember the horrific reality of conflict: the shootings, the bombings, the tears and the funerals,” wrote the Belfast Telegraph’s political editor Suzanne Breen. “A generation of younger voters, without the power of recall, has a much more romanticised take on what occurred.”2 This amnesia among the young and young middle aged is the stuff of Sinn Fein dreams.
Take a microcosm of the nationalist vote in the largely middle class constituency of Belfast South in the May Northern Ireland Assembly election. Here Deirdre Hargey, not a particularly articulate or impressive Sinn Feiner (although a former Lord Mayor), took 20.3% of the vote, compared to 11.5% for the SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole, a young, personable and highly competent candidate who was considered one of the party’s star performers. Compare this to the comparable votes in the first Assembly election two months after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement: then the SDLP took 21.7% of the vote compared to Sinn Fein’s paltry 6.4%
It is particularly noteworthy that in 2005 Hargey was one of 70 people who said they were in the toilet in a south Belfast bar during the murder of Short Strand man Robert McCartney by a group of former IRA men and “saw nothing”. It was a particularly brutal murder: McCartney and his friend Brendan Devine (who survived) were attacked with knives taken from the kitchen, and McCartney was taken to a nearby alley to be finished off. The bar was then ‘cleaned up’ in classic IRA fashion. The dead man’s four brave sisters and fiancée mounted an initially high-profile campaign – which took them to the White House and the European Parliament – to try to bring his killers to justice. They courageously named a former IRA commander, Gerard ‘Jock’ Davison, as the man who had given the order that McCartney was to be killed (he was himself shot dead in 2015). For their pains they were “shunned, vilified and demonised” (in Catherine McCartney’s words) in the small republican Short Strand area where they lived, until they were finally forced to move away.
Such was the outcry at the time that Hargey was dropped as a Sinn Fein electoral candidate and suspended from the party. None of which stopped her becoming Lord Mayor 13 years later and topping the poll in Belfast South 17 years later. She may have turned a blind eye to a horrific murder, but that did not seem to bother the mainly middle class nationalist voters of the Ormeau Road, the Malone Road, the university area, Stranmillis and Finaghy, as well as the working class nationalists of the Markets area. That really is amnesia in spades.
And what about the Republic? Has amnesia had its effect here too? Among young people, like the Trinity College Dublin politics students I talked to last spring, the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ are ancient history, comparable to Fine Gael’s brief ‘Blueshirt’ phase in the 1930s.3 There are many people, like Frank Schnittger, who believe Sinn Fein has largely cast off its toxic military past. Then there are those who are only interested in the ‘bread and butter’ issues of housing, health and the cost of living in the Republic, all of which are (and will remain) in crisis mode. Finally, there are those people who want as little as possible to do with the North because they are happy with the prosperous, peaceful Republic as it is, and/or, in Fintan O’Toole’s words, because they feel “underlying anxiety about the spread of mayhem across the Border” in the event of a bungled reunification. Significant numbers in all these groups, except the last, are likely to vote Sinn Fein in the next election.
1 ‘A Shared Future? SF still believes its vocation is to deliver unity in its own, unapologetic image’, Belfast Telegraph, 29 April 2022
2 ‘Provos didn’t win their war, but in terms of the historical narrative, republicans are winning the peace’, 20 August 2022
3 ‘Discussing Irish unity over dinner with Trinity College Dublin politics students, www.2irelands2gether.com, 14 April 2022
Andy Pollak retired as founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in July 2013 after 14 years. He is a former religious affairs correspondent, education correspondent, assistant news editor and Belfast reporter with the Irish Times.