In response to my earlier blog post on the Ideological collapse in Irish politics, Philip Ferguson has supplied the following guest blog post elaborating on my previous point about how the campaigns of the various parties in the southern Irish elections lack issues of substance.
In the final week of the Irish election campaign, one thing has united most of the players: create a panic about the dangers of Sinn Féin getting into government and scare people into voting for your party. While the Labour Party (historically the third party in the south of Ireland) has an actual electoral alliance with Fine Gael (historically, the second main party), Labour leader Pat Rabbitte is now intimating that his party could go into coalition with Fianna Fail in order to save Fianna Fail from coalition with Sinn Féin. [Read more below]
The Progressive Democrats, the Irish equivalent of NZ's ACT party, and Fianna Fail's current government partners are also scare-mongering over Sinn Féin. The PDs were formed by people who split from Fianna Fail in the 1980s and bitterly hate that party. However, like their NZ counterpart, the PDs are facing electoral annihilation. Scare-mongering about Sinn Féin is a mark of their desperation. They hope the panic will scare people into voting for them as a safe coalition partner for FF, keeping out the dreaded Sinners.
The leader of Fine Gael, Enda Kenny, is trying to win support by the panic-claim that a vote for Fianna Fail is a vote for Sinn Féin because, according to him, the FFers are already in secret talks with the Sinners about the formation of a government.
Like most moral panics, the panic over Sinn Féin is entirely unjustified, not to mention hypocritical. There are three reasons for this:
First, SF now is thoroughly innocuous politically. Not only is its socialism gone, so is its republicanism. The Sinners have been helping administer the partition of Ireland and capitalism north of the border ever since power-sharing began in 1999. At each crucial point of the peace process and power-sharing, they have abandoned every single "bottom line" they used to have. And, in government in the south, it would shift even further right.
Second, the other main parties - Fianna Fail and Fine Gael all have very violent pasts. FG was formed by the merger of the original Free State government - a regime which murdered hundreds of people, including 77 prisoners in the 1922-23 civil war - and the fascist Blueshirt movement of the early 1930s. The first leader of FG was a Blueshirt.
Fianna Fail was set up in 1926 as a split-off from Sinn Féin. All its great leaders were military figures from the war of independence and the civil war. Even when it got into government in the 1930s it described itself as an only 'slightly constitutional' party. It still formally calls itself Fianna Fail - the republican party, although its republicanism was traded for political power in the south in the 1930s.
Pat Rabbitte, the head of the LP, is a former member of either the Official IRA or their political wing. Several other Labour TDs (Liz McManus, Eamonn Gilmore) are ex-Sticks (the Officials were called The Sticks by the Provos and the Trotskyist left). Most of the Officials formed a new party in the 1990s called 'Democratic Left', shifting belatedly - after the collapse of the East European and Soviet regimes - from Moscow-line Stalinism to Eurocommunism and then DL fused with the Labour Party at the end of the 1990s. Rabbitte, McManus and Gilmore were all TDs for the Sticks, as was Eric Byrne (Labour candidate in Dublin south-central). The Sticks in the LP, along the (ACT-like) neo-liberal PDs, would be the most virulent, visceral and irrational haters of SF.
Third, all these parties actually support power-sharing in the north - ie they all favour Sinn Féin being part of the government with Paisley in the north. So it's pretty hypocritical for them to scare-monger and froth at the mouth about SF being junior partner in government in the south.
Sinn Féin seems set to be a winner in this election, possibly even doubling its representation in the southern parliament. In fact, in the last election in 2002 Sinn Féin's proportion of the vote was far higher than its proportion of TDs (MPs). Ireland has a Single Transferable Vote (STV) electoral system, with multi-seat constituencies; the problem for the Sinners was that they could get an overall substantial first-preference vote but not many transfers. Thus with 120,000 first-preference votes they only ended up with five seats, while the PDs with just over 70,000 first-preference votes ended up with 8 seats.
The other disadvantage facing Sinn Féin is that some of the constituencies are only three-seaters. In the 1980s there was a move away from three-seaters (most constituencies were four- and five-seaters). However, Sinn Féin's rise in the south there seems to parallel a political decision to redraw boundaries to create new three-seaters. Several five-seat constituencies (Dublin Central, Meath and the former Sligo-Leitrim seat), where Sinn Féin had a chance of winning a seat per constituency, are now three-seaters, for instance.
The current panic about Sinn Féin is reminiscent of the panic about Fianna Fail in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Fianna Fail were denounced by the Catholic hierarchy as proto-communists, atheists and dangerous republicans. However their advent to power in the south in 1932 saved the southern state from the challenge of left-wing republicanism. Fianna Fail have been in power for the vast majority of the 75 years since, happily administering capitalism and enriching themselves in the process.
Sinn Féin - or, perhaps more accurately, New Sinn Féin - are today's equivalent of Fianna Fail, although Gerry Adams is certainly a lot more socially liberal than Eamonn De Valera, the dominant figure in Fianna Fail history.
By Friday evening Irish time the counts should be completed and the horse-trading for government underway. Whatever government finally emerges will not be a worker-friendly one, nor will it be one that has the slightest interest in challenging continuing British rule over the north.
Philip Ferguson teaches history at Canterbury University. On Friday 25 May, he is delivering a seminar on "Ireland: new century, new politics?" at the university's National Centre for Research on Europe.