Only Norris can stop McGuinness becoming president

 

The electorate’s Monster Raving Loony tendency is coming to the fore, writes JOHN WATERS

WHEN I was a teenager back in the 1970s, almost everyone in Ireland was “conservative”. People voted, as a matter of course, for parties with “right wing” policies. Some young people flirted with socialist or other ideas, but these were regarded as eccentric and dangerous.

The failures of recent years, however, have effected a sudden and massive change in the electorate. Now, most people are, if not outrightly left-wing, certainly increasingly disposed to radical, even anarchistic ideas. In some respects this is a backlash against the hubris and grandiosity now seen as having led us towards the abyss.

But it might be truer and simpler to observe that many Irish people have lately become politically reckless, perhaps even a little mad.

In order to cancel out any impression the world may have of Irish “conservatism”, many voters now seek to make statements that will give the contrary impression.

Up until the past three years or so, while the centre of Irish politics held more or less as it had for the previous 80 years, Martin McGuinness would have been a peripheral candidate. Now he is likely to be the front- runner. This remarkable spectacle, together with the evidence of substantial and perhaps growing support for David Norris, reflects fundamental changes in the culture governing Irish politics.

The appeal of both candidates resides in their potential to enable voters make “anti-establishment” statements. Irish political culture is coming to be dominated by an up-until-recently undetectable Monster Raving Loony factor, whereby voters driven to the point of madness are seeking some way of expressing contempt for the political process and the higher offices of State. Electing either a gay candidate or a former terrorist would achieve these objectives with knobs on.

Thus, the more his opponents emphasise his terrorist past, the more certain types of voters will flock to Martin McGuinness.

Because the people of the Republic were, for the most part, not directly affected by the Troubles, the story of that conflict always had a different meaning “down here”, mainly being regarded as an inconvenience and an embarrassment.

Twenty years ago, most people in the Republic were hostile to Sinn Féin, but in a rather lazy and ambivalent way. The Provos’ terror campaign had forced us to jettison a simplistic nationalism under the lashes of revulsion and revisionism.

Now, with the inconvenience and embarrassment removed by the peace process, all such sentiments have begun to fade into insignificance compared to the growing impression that greater and more unforgivable sins have been committed by politicians of other hues. Martin McGuinness can point to the prize of allegedly perpetual peace, whereas his opponents stand in front of empty trophy cupboards. The whiff of cordite, far from being a problem, acts as spur.

As recently as 20 years ago, Sinn Féin’s policy portfolio was a strange mixture of militarism, social conservatism and economic naivety. It wasn’t until after the ceasefires that Sinn Féin started to review its policy outlooks to the extent of becoming what it now is, a radical left-wing party under all headings, with policies that are mainly off-the-peg imports from other cultures.

This pattern tracks also something of the journey of a majority of Irish people, who now find themselves having far more in common with Sinn Féin than they ever dreamed possible.

Win or lose, Martin McGuinness’s candidacy will transform the relationship between Sinn Féin and the mainstream of Irish life. It will also conduct a kind of controlled explosion of the problematic aspects of the Provo story, neutralising the political significance of these elements for future elections.

The far greater prize is what is likely to happen afterwards. Last February’s general election amounted to a default choice whereby the electorate, in rejecting Fianna Fáil, embraced the only coherent alternative.

Now, the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition must deal with the same facts of life and in a manner largely indistinguishable from the approach of the Cowen administration.

It is unthinkable that, by the time the next general election comes around, the electorate will have become sufficiently amnesiac to re-elect Fianna Fáil and so will be looking for another direction to lurch in.

Having come through the crucible of the presidential campaign, Sinn Féin will by then have fundamentally altered its colourings and meanings and arrived at the epicentre of Irish political life – in effect, the new Fianna Fáil.

On Tuesday last, Livelineran one of its periodic text polls on the presidency. Normally, I would enter grave reservations about such exercises, but one cannot deny that Livelinepolls have been remarkably accurate as harbingers of recent political developments.

Crudely, the outcome placed McGuinness to the fore, marginally ahead of Norris, with the two front-runners having between them marginally greater support than all the other potential candidates together. This suggests that the Monster Raving Loony factor may be as high as 50 per cent.

As things stand, then, the only candidate with a chance of preventing McGuinness becoming president is David Norris. Perhaps – irony of ironies – the only way Fianna Fáil can hope to avert or delay its own obliteration is by splitting the Monster Raving Loony vote by enabling Norris to stand.

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