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Memo to Sinn Féin: Not ‘Southern State’ or ‘Free State’, the name is Ireland

Kathy Sheridan: Sinn Féin must grow accustomed to a vastly higher degree of accountability

David Cullinane of Sinn Féin: as long as their own representatives bring up the murky past, it is the media’s job to report it. This is not bias. It was not a mainstream journalist who dredged it up by shouting “Up the Ra” as recently as election night or suggesting that they “broke the Free State”. Photograph: Patrick Browne

A diverting feature of recent days is the widespread certainty that Sinn Féin has a divine right to run this country. Mary Lou should reign alone, unhindered by Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil or FFG, as detractors like to call them.

This is exemplified by Patrick, a Formula 1 fan flanked by Irish flags on his Twitter handle: “Leo Varadkar got elected on the fifth count. Michael [sic] Martin on the eighth count. What give them the right to be taoiseach when they are ignoring someone that was elected on the first count with double the quota”.

Meanwhile, a petition was launched on the Change.org website : “We want Mary Lou McDonald as taoiseach. We will not tolerate Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael”.

Its presentation on Twitter suggested it had been instigated by Sinn Féin TD Seán Crowe. Any sceptics must click into the Change.Org site to check, where in small print, you will find that one “Karen Leddy started this petition to Seán Crowe”. By yesterday more than 7,500 names appeared to have signed up. Supporters include Michelle Gildernew, Sinn Féin MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone and Conor Heaney, a special adviser to four Sinn Féin ministers in the North and currently working with Martina Anderson.

His simplistic statement that Sinn Féin is the largest party in the Southern State” is precisely what has the likes of Patrick and ill-informed mates in terminal confusion over Sinn Féin’s place in the democratic hierarchy

For the record, I favour the idea of Sinn Féin in government. Parties in long-term opposition often benefit from the halo of angry righteousness when the crowd roars for a game-changer and Sinn Féin remains unsullied by power, responsibility or compromise in this jurisdiction.

Fringe political party

As a fringe political party up until only a couple of weeks ago, many of its candidates have received minimal exposure to the irritant of sustained scrutiny. Its performance on bread-and-butter issues as a powersharing partner in the Northern Ireland Assembly has been subjected to little examination by the electorate here.

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Its opponents will hiss that it’s all a bit late for all that; its supporters will claim (as they do in their hordes) that the “biased” mainstream media has tried and failed to stamp on their dreams.

Some of us in the mainstream media are getting snippets of outrage from both sides. The cliched response is that since we are pleasing neither side, we must be getting it right. But what it actually means is that there are so many known unknowns and unknown unknowns, all anyone can do is take a punt.

Either way, Sinn Féin must grow accustomed to a vastly higher degree of accountability. But as long as their own representatives bring up the murky past, it is the media’s job to report it. This is not bias. It was not a mainstream journalist who dredged it up by shouting “Up the Ra” as recently as election night or suggesting that they “broke the Free State”.

Likewise, in a lengthy blog in this week’s An Phoblacht, when Sinn Féin’s national chairman, Declan Kearney MLA, could have confined himself to celebrating a watershed for the party, he decided instead to take readers all the way back to “the 1916 Easter rising, the Tan war, the Civil Rights campaign in the North, and the 1980/81 hunger strikes”, naming them as stand-out “epoch-making periods”.

This is followed by a run-through of the gross misdeeds of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil over 100 years, including the accusation – without timeline or context – that they “approved of, and used summary execution, internment without trial, censorship and also oppressive laws to repress political dissent, and against republican activists in particular”.

In all this he manages to omit the real standout epoch-making event of the modern era: the referendums held simultaneously in the North and the Republic in 1998 in which 71 per cent and 94 per cent of voters respectively supported the Belfast Agreement.

The encouraging news is that Kearney himself believes the election result reflected “a rebellion against the status quo” – as opposed to a rebellion against partition presumably. But his simplistic statement that Sinn Féin is the “largest party in the Southern State” is precisely what has the likes of Patrick and ill-informed mates in terminal confusion over Sinn Féin’s place in the democratic hierarchy.

More seats

Yes it got the largest share of the vote but Fianna Fáil got more seats, which makes it the largest party. The fact that over half of Sinn Féin’s first-preference voters want radical change (according to the exit poll) puts an onus on Sinn Féin, not on the system. While the other parties would be catastrophically foolish to ignore the trend, it is not a universal mandate for change. First-preference totals are irrelevant now.

What matters to any party at this particular stage is not even the number of seats gained or lost (the party with the largest number of seats has often ended up in opposition in the Dáil), but the number it can cobble together by negotiation and compromise, with the objective of forming a government and implementing policies. It will almost certainly be a carve-up between three or more parties with compromise at the heart.

Influential adults have a duty to explain this plainly to those with unrealistic expectations and to point out that in a democracy where the people have spoken, “we will not tolerate” is not a good starting point.

If the objective really is change. an easy place for Sinn Féin to start would be with language. We do not refer to our Republic as “the Southern State” or “the Free State”. The name is Ireland.

Opinion

Memo to Sinn Féin: Not ‘Southern State’ or ‘Free State’, the name is Ireland

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