Arrest of Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams put other parties’ problems in perspective
Opinion: Leadership wrangles in Labour and Fianna Fáil were overshadowed
‘All of these problems affecting the different parties were put into the halfpenny place by the arrest of Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams as part of the Jean McConville murder inquiry. Photograph: Alan Betson
The truism that unexpected always happens in politics was illustrated again during the first real week of campaigning in the European and local elections. The week began with Eamon Gilmore facing questions on his leadership of the Labour party and ended with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams being questioned by police in a murder investigation. In between doubts were expressed about the effectiveness of Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin while Taoiseach Enda Kenny didn’t exactly cover himself in glory by attempting to politicise the banking inquiry before it even starts.
The first unexpected twist in the campaign came when Labour candidate for Ireland South, Phil Prendergast, called for her leader’s resignation. This followed an early opinion poll which showed her on just 4 per cent. While Prendergast’s decision to shoot herself in the foot was clearly motivated by her lowly status in the polls it threatened to do wider damage to all the party’s candidates in both election contests. The last thing Labour needed at the start of the election campaign was an internal wrangle over the leadership. There will be plenty of time for that after the event if the result is really bad and enough members of the party come to the conclusion that a change of leader will improve things. Raising the leadership issue as the election campaign got into full swing threatened to make a bad situation worse, but fortunately for Labour events moved quickly as the week wore on.
Mutterings on the fringes of Fianna Fáil about Martin’s leadership proved to be one distraction, although such talk in advance of the elections is premature and potentially damaging. The Government finally managed to put its stamp on the political agenda with the announcement of the long-awaited banking inquiry. This was a handy diversion from the ongoing wrangling between the Coalition parties over water charges which has only served to focus public attention on a negative issue for both of them.
However, all of these problems affecting the different parties were put into the halfpenny place by the arrest of Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams as part of the Jean McConville murder inquiry. While it was on the cards that Mr Adams would speak to the detectives from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), as part of their investigation into the murder of the widowed mother-of-10 in 1972, it came as a complete shock to the political system that Adams was formally placed under arrest. The precise impact of the Adams arrest on the elections in the Republic is impossible to gauge at this stage, but it will hardly be a help to Sinn Féin.
The party has had a good run over the past few months attacking the Government on all fronts, often managing to outshine Fianna Fáil from the Opposition side of the Dáil. Party deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald has made a name for herself in the Dáil and the Public Accounts Committee with her ruthless pursuit of opponents. However, the aggressive qualities that brought her the plaudits in offence may not have been so effective when deployed in defence of Adams. Her intemperate attack on the integrity of the PSNI prompted a justified rebuke from Fianna Fáil justice spokesman Niall Collins, who said that politicians from any quarter should not interfere with or undermine the working of the team investigating the murder of Jean McConville. There was also something incongruous, as Fine Gael party chairman Charlie Flanagan pointed out, about McDonald’s claims of political motivation on the part of the PSNI, given that both she and Adams have been pointing to the force as an example of good policing practice which should be followed by the Garda Síochána. McDonald has been widely portrayed by the media as the shiny new face of Sinn Féin untainted by the violent activities of the past, but her performance over the past few days might lead people to question that image, particularly as the murder of Jean McConville was one of the most shocking and heart-rending atrocities of the Troubles. People who have voted Sinn Féin in the past will probably be untroubled by the turn of events, but the party’s growing appeal to a new audience may be dented by such a dramatic reminder of the past.
Opinion polls over the past year or more have shown Sinn Féin expanding its appeal beyond its traditional stronghold in the DE social category and have also shown that it is managing to attract women voters in almost equal numbers to men. In the past its support was usually skewed with a two to one dominance of male voters. Overcoming the resistance of women voters was an important feature of the party’s growth and this is where the impact of the McConville murder inquiry could be most damaging.
One way or another all of the parties are facing problems as well as opportunities as they campaign over the next three weeks. The wily and vastly experienced Michael Noonan summed it up at the launch of the Fine Gael local election manifesto during the week when he remarked, “In politics there is always a problem – it is just that the problems change.” How they deal with the problems that present themselves over the course of the campaign will be every bit as important to the performance of all of the parties as the nature of the problems themselves.