Real hazard for our Republic is that Sinn Féin fail in government

If the party fails to deliver, its supporters may end up in thrall to far-right populists

The Irish establishment is horrified at the prospect of former terrorists taking power. They talk up the threat to democracy but the electorate has other ideas, so the erstwhile gunmen get into government. When a real threat emerges, it comes not from within the new administration, but from a right-wing populist buffoon.

This is not some prediction of events in the near future. It is a description of what happened when Fianna Fáil secured power in 1932, less than 10 years after many members of the incoming government had fought a war against the Irish State. While any comparison between Fianna Fáil then and Sinn Féin now is flawed, the past does provide one vision of the future. Some people regard it as the stuff of nightmares. Indeed, we have all heard a lot of scaremongering about the party’s links to the IRA. Shinner-bashing is a middle-class parlour game. But has our attention been directed to the right bogeymen?

Reactionary forces are bound to resist the rise of Sinn Féin. However, the truth is that Ireland needs the party to succeed in government. Those commentators who predict the worst are scaremongering about the wrong thing. They are so short-sighted as to miss the real danger to democracy. Because the real danger is not that Sinn Féin might succeed in government.

The real danger is that they might fail.

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Imagine if Sinn Féin is swept into power at the next election. What happens next? Fixing systemic problems is harder than writing good slogans. The leader of Sinn Féin, Mary Lou McDonald, must know that housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin’s radical plans to overhaul the provision of housing may not survive contact with reality and that some civil servants will revolt in silence, due in no small part to the aforementioned spin.

At the same time, the electorate will be impatient, and the “world’s most open economy” is particularly vulnerable to a global recession. This is to say nothing of climate change — which has had relatively little impact on Ireland to date — and the probability of an attendant refugee crisis. Did someone mention a war?

In this vision of the near future, a far-right populist emerges, promising the sun, the moon and a return to monoculturalism. This is quite plausible, for here is a fashion in world affairs. The appeal of easy answers to complex questions has not been so great since the inter-war years when many European countries succumbed to fascism. This brings us back to that buffoon.

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In the 1930s, Eoin O’Duffy presented himself as an easy answer to communism. Impressed by the rhetoric of fascism, O’Duffy dressed like Benito Mussolini and looked like Homer Simpson. The founder of the Blueshirts was a bigot and hypocrite. Anxious to embody the tight-ass moralism of Catholic Ireland, this outspoken critic of smoking, drinking and effeminacy in young Irish men was a chain-smoking, alcoholic homosexual. He found bogeymen lurking in every shadow, and was prone to hysterical flights of fancy. To the credit of the fledgling Free State, this pantomime villain was soon ushered off the stage.

In O’Duffy’s time, there was no social media for sharing lies and promoting outrage. And some voters are still not immune to the seductive power of hokum. Consider the citizenship referendum of 2004 which limited the constitutional right to Irish citizenship of individuals born on the island of Ireland to the children of Irish citizens. “The passing of this referendum is an amazing step for Ireland and the Irish people,” said David Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Duke thanked the then-minister for justice “for defending the heritage of our mothers and fathers”.

On the subject of heritage, it is worth recalling what happened in 2018 when a presidential candidate, Peter Casey, said that Travellers were simply people camping on someone else’s land and that recognising them as members of an ethnic minority was “a load of nonsense”. Dismissing allegations that he had played the race card to gain votes, Casey shot up from 2 per cent in the opinion polls and was runner-up in the election, with 23 per cent of the votes.

Scaremongering is not always foolish. It is useful to articulate fears that are grounded in previous experience

Imagine, now, what will happen when many Sinn Féin voters turn against the new government, as polities do when “real change” proves elusive. Imagine some genius who decides to demonise a vulnerable minority. From which political gene pool is this self-styled saviour most likely to emerge?

To its credit, Sinn Féin is loudly opposed to racism. This is not to suggest that the party is incapable of fostering division: some Irish Times readers may well feel uncomfortable in Mary Lou’s Ireland. (Personally, I wouldn’t vote for anyone with an incoherent policy on climate change.) But the Sinn Féin of 2022 is a more conventional centre-left party than many of its opponents claim. If a xenophobic movement gains traction, it is more likely to emerge from the dregs of what is now called the political mainstream.

Scaremongering is not always foolish. It is useful to articulate fears that are grounded in previous experience. History also teaches us that democracy is vulnerable to buffoons with easy answers, and the difference between a dictator and a pantomime villain is slight, so there is no shame in being vigilant. Worrying about freedom may even be part of what it means to be a democrat. But in their rush to demonise Sinn Féin, many people who should know better ignore the greater threat to our democracy.

The political wing of the republican movement may yet come to seem rather virtuous compared to the forces of racism and hatred that are likely to emerge in the coming years.

  • Trevor White is an author and founder of the Little Museum of Dublin