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Fintan O’Toole: It is time for Sinn Féin to come in from the cold

A real democratic alternative has to include the biggest party of radical change

There can be no progressive government in Ireland without Sinn Féin. That is not a value judgment. It is merely a fact that anyone who wants to see radical change on the four great issues of housing, healthcare, climate change and child poverty has to face. If the polls are even vaguely right, Sinn Féin will be the overwhelmingly dominant force on the Irish left. To treat it as a political pariah is, in effect, to deny any serious possibility of breaking the duopoly that has created the status quo. This is an uncomfortable reality for many of us. But it is undeniable: to keep Sinn Féin out in the cold is to keep Irish politics frozen in its all-too-familiar postures.

In a sense, the decision on whether to bring Sinn Féin in from the margins of politics in the Republic has already been made. It was made in 2011 and it was made by the Labour Party. Labour’s decision to take office and implement an austerity programme that, for example, doubled child poverty, had an entirely predictable (and predicted) result: Sinn Féin would occupy the space where a traditional social democratic party should be. I think that was a terrible decision but so what? It happened, it had consequences and those consequences are now with us.

Nothing speaks so powerfully of the legitimacy of the State as the acceptance of its authority by those who used to deny it

This is not an invitation to amnesia. All the victims of violence during the Troubles have a right to justice. All the perpetrators must be held to account. The blood on Sinn Féin’s hands cannot be washed away without a much more honest and less hypocritical acceptance of responsibility for its part in a moral and political disaster. There is a still a strain of crude, triumphalist nationalism in the party: the idiocy of using Dominic Behan’s Come Out Ye Black and Tans on its election broadcast last week without realising that it is a satire on bellowing belligerence speaks for itself. And the demand for an immediate Border poll is, as Mary Lou McDonald acknowledged in August 2018 before being instructed to get back in line, irresponsible.


That public U-turn raises the wider question of who controls the party. We know from the “cash for ash” scandal in Northern Ireland (brilliantly recounted in Sam McBride’s Burned) that Stormont’s finance minister, Sinn Féin’s Mairtín Ó Muilleoir, was seeking instructions from very senior IRA figures Padraic Wilson and Martin Lynch. As McBride puts it, the minister was “in constant contact with unseen – and therefore publicly unaccountable – senior republican figures”. This is intolerable in a democracy. If Sinn Féin were to take office in Dublin, a precondition would have to be a strengthening of the official code of conduct for ministers to explicitly ban such unaccountable influence.


But there is also an equal and opposite threat to democracy. If about 20 per cent of voters choose Sinn Féin, there is a real problem in telling them that their votes cannot count in the formation of a government. The Irish political system has evolved into one in which the election merely determines who has a seat at the bargaining table. Excluding Sinn Féin didn’t really matter when the party was effectively excluding itself in advance – its voters knew what they were getting. But this has now changed – people vote for Sinn Féin in the expectation that their vote counts as much as everyone else’s. To tell them otherwise is not just disrespectful – it is dangerous.

There is for the first time the possibility of a government that has social democratic and ecologically responsible policies at its core

The strength of Irish democracy, moreover, lies precisely in its ability to absorb those who once challenged it: Fianna Fáil in the 1930s; Democratic Left in the 1990s. Nothing speaks so powerfully of the legitimacy of the State as the acceptance of its authority by those who used to deny it. Everybody knows that this will happen with Sinn Féin. The only question is when. What is the political statute of limitations on atrocities? For those of us whose memories are still scarred by La Mon and Claudy, by Birmingham and Enniskillen, there is none. But younger people are already giving their answer: it has expired.

Grotesquely misrepresented

There is a hunger for real progressive change. The public mood is grotesquely misrepresented by the framing of the election as a "choice" between Leo Varadkar and Michéal Martin – a choice that excludes half the electorate. But choice also becomes meaningless if the biggest radical party is automatically discounted. Would housing policy be profoundly changed if Eoghan Murphy were replaced as the relevant minister by Fianna Fáil's Darragh O'Brien? Probably not. Would it be profoundly different if Sinn Féin's Eoin Ó Broin were the minister? Yes it would. That surely matters.

Unless the polls are way out, the parties of change – Sinn Féin, the Greens, Labour, the Social Democrats and People Before Profit – will end up with something close to 40 per cent of the vote. That’s a huge and potentially historic shift towards a democratic system that offers a genuine alternative to the centre-right. There is for the first time the possibility of a government that has social democratic and ecologically responsible policies at its core. Realising that possibility does not mean voting for Sinn Féin. But it does mean recognising the democratic legitimacy of those who do.