Sinn Fein make big advances in recent Irish elections

by John Murphy

FIANNA FAIL were the losers and Sinn Féin the winners in Ireland’s local government and European elections in June. That was the rueful verdict of no less a person than Fianna Fáil toiseach Bertie Ahern in the aftermath of the count.

Two of all–Ireland’s 16 MEPs are now Sinn Féin — former Stormont minister Bairbre de Brun, who took John Hume’s old seat in the six counties, and the new Dublin MEP Mary Lou McDonald in the twenty six.

The current pattern of support for the 26–county political parties is shown by the first preference vote in the local elections, compared with the 1999 election: Fianna Fáil 32 per cent (down 7 per cent); Fine Gael 27 per cent (down 1 per cent); Labour 11 per cent (up 1 per cent); Progressive Democrats 4 per cent (up 1 per cent); Green Party 4 per cent (up 1 per cent); Sinn Féin 8 per cent (up 5 per cent); Others 14 per cent (up 1 per cent).

Sinn Féin made inroads into Fianna Fáil’s traditional working class vote in many areas, especially in Dublin. Its famously hard–working activists and efficient local organisation brought out many people who had not bothered to vote in years.

Thus in taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s own constituency of Dublin North Central, Fianna Fáil took 27 per cent of the first preference vote, while Sinn Féin took 21 per cent and Labour 12 per cent. The taoiseach’s brother, Maurice Ahern, barely held on to his council seat.

Sinn Féin now has 10 of the 52 seats on Dublin City Council. Where Dublin leads the country follows, as the saying goes. There seems nothing to stop the further advance of Sinn Féin in the next general election north and south, apart from a return to political violence, which is improbable, or making opportunist political deals with parties to its right.

The latter is the greater danger for a republican movement that has gone political, although it is more likely to arise two Irish general election down the line rather than the next one.

Sinn Féin now has 2 MEPs, 232 Councillors throughout Ireland, 24 MLAs — members of the Northern Local Assembly — 5 TDs and 4MPs in the London House of Commons. As its paper, An Phoblacht, puts it: "We have 267 elected representatives, seats in four parliaments, and are one united party." It is a remarkable development in a decade.

One regrettable outcome of the Euro–election was the loss of Green Party Patricia McKenna’s seat in Dublin. She it was who took the famous McKenna case to the Supreme Court in 1995, which established the principle that it is unconstitutional for Irish governments to spend public money to push their own views in constitutional referendums. That was a permanent gain for Irish democracy, but most people fáiled to remember it.

McKenna has been a game fighter for Irish democracy, neutrality and the environment in her ten years in the European parliament. She was probably the most hardworking Irish MEP, but most people do not know about and care less about the goings–on in the Euro–parliament. They see it as not a real parliament, for it cannot initiate any law and can only block or amend laws made by others in the EU’s real legislature, which is the 25–person Council of Ministers.

MEPs need to spend their time campaigning at home, not in Brussels, if they want to be re–elected. Ian Paisley was the exemplar of that. Paisley rarely attended in Brussels or Strasbourg, but used whatever money or information he got there to campaign at home. He always topped the six county poll as a result. Patricia McKenna paid the penalty for not doing likewise. The two new Sinn Féin MEPs should take note.

One–time Eurovision song contest winner Dana Rosemary Scallon lost her Euro–seat in Connacht. Dana had always been a strong anti–abortion and family values campaigner. She paid the penalty for her core supporters dividing over the 2002 abortion referendum, in which the mainstream anti–abortion movement urged a Yes vote, while Dana, who was more hardline, urged a No.

A new Independent MEP for Munster is disability rights campaigner Kathy Sinnott. She took the Euro–seat of former Fianna Fáil Foreign Minister Gerry Collins. She opposes moves to a more powerful, more centralised EU.

Sinnott, along with Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald and Bairbre de Brun, are likely to be the three opponents of the proposed EU Constitution out of Ireland’s total of 16 MEPs, three from the north and 13 from the south.

It is clear by now that the main aim of current Irish Labour Party Leader Pat Rabbitte, former ‘stickie’ and member of The Workers Party, is to lead Labour into another coalition with Fine Gael, with the Greens in a suporting role, if the numbers permit it after the next general election.

If he succeeds, it will continue the disastrous pattern of 26–county Labour for the past 60 years, where they periodically rescue Fine Gael from terminal decline by putting it into government with Labour support. Hence the description of Irish Labour as the mudguard of Fine Gael rather than the vanguard of Ireland’s workers.

Labour’s love affair with Fine Gael leaves most working class and trade union voters with Fianna Fáil, for they recognise Fine Gael for the reactionary party that it is. After such coalition governments Labour is decimated, but a few Labour ministers come out of it with pensions. As Sean O’Casey said of the first such coalition in 1948: "Their posteriors were aching for the plush seats of office, and they could not wait"

It is this policy of Labour that has perpetuated the Fianna Fáil–Fine Gael dominance of 26–county politics decade after decade. For a decent Irish Labour Party to grow it would have to do so at Fianna Fáil’s expense.

This it could do by linking with Sinn Féin, the Green Party and the radical Independents to build a Labour–republican alternative to the two ‘civil war’parties of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. It cannot do that by being more antagonistic to Fianna Fáil than Fine Gael, which is Labour leader Pat Rabbitte’s current stand.

Sinn Féin is now moving into the position Labour could have occupied, by eating into Fianna Fáil’s working class and trade union vote, which is being antagonised these days by Fianna Fáil’s coalition with the right–wing PDs. Sinn Féin appeals also to high numbers of politically disillusioned people who previously did not vote at all.

If Sinn Féin advances enough in the next Irish general election and wins enough new TDs, it may prevent the numbers stacking up for a Fine Gael–Labour coalition, with Enda Kenny as taoiseach and Pat Rabbitte as his tanaiste.

The most disastrous scenario would be for Sinn Féin then to ride to the rescue of Fianna Fáil by going into government with it, while Labour stood poised to rescue Fine Gael by putting it into government.

The progressive development of Sinn Féin linking with Labour and the more principled elements among the Greens may still be possible then, but it will not happen of itself. It needs all sensible republicans, Labour people and radicals in the 26 counties to work towards it over the coming years.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2004-08-04 10:32:58.
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