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Newton Emerson: Under what conditions would FF or FG share power with SF?

The Republic has perhaps one more electoral cycle to normalise Mary Lou McDonald’s party

Before parties could take part in the talks leading to the Belfast Agreement they had to sign up to the Mitchell Principles, named after talks chair Senator George Mitchell. These included commitments to peace and democracy, the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons and an end to so-called punishment beatings and murders. The principles formed the basis of the Stormont Executive's pledge of office and ministers can be removed for breaching them. The agreement also set up phased, timetabled processes for decommissioning and recognition of policing, alongside the release of terrorist prisoners.

Sinn Féin suffered a minor split over signing the Mitchell Principles and it abstained from the show of hands that voted through the Belfast Agreement.

Nevertheless, there was a clear understanding the party had to make commitments to enter government and honour them to stay there. The same applied to the loyalist parties, who were considered credible challengers to the DUP at the time.

If parties in the Republic do not try to set the terms for Sinn Féin's participation in government, Sinn Féin will do it for them

Looked at from Northern Ireland, it is strange for the Republic to be arguing over Sinn Féin's fitness for office without anyone trying to pin down their own principles, let alone set standards in general.


Moral objection

In the run-up to this month's election, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil raised a moral objection to coalition with Sinn Féin, citing IRA links, refusal to condemn violence and the control of "shadowy figures".

Since the election, both parties have said they cannot work with Sinn Féin due to its economic policies, although neither objects to the equally left-wing Labour and Greens. So their concerns, moral and economic, now look like mere positioning.

Why are Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil not setting out the conditions by which they would join Sinn Féin in power?

If they believe they can shove Mary Lou McDonald’s party back to the margins over the next four or five years, by excluding it from the next government or exposing it to the responsibilities of government, they have not been paying attention to its long-term rise in Northern Ireland.

If they think the North is safely sealed off from the Republic and they have nothing to learn from it, the election should have disabused them of that notion. Dublin might not need a rerun of the peace process but it clearly needs a statement of the Martin or Varadkar principles.

Of course, Sinn Féin demonstrated bad faith towards its Belfast Agreement commitments. Decommissioning was dragged out to cause maximum damage, acceptance of policing required a further 12 years of talks and the IRA has never gone away. Trying to make it go away turned Sinn Féin and its needs into the story, distorting politics and the rule of law. It would be understandable for parties in the Republic to want to avoid this but they no longer have a choice. If they do not try to set the terms for Sinn Féin’s participation in government, Sinn Féin will do it for them.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael sold the peace process as essentially complete, which complicates reopening it in the Republic. They may regard its unfinished business as too slippery to pin down, in particular the continued role of the IRA, given how much fudging and finessing has gone on in the North.

Yet even at Stormont, standards can be defended. In 2013, unionists and Alliance passed a Bill, with SDLP abstentions, banning people with serious criminal convictions from being ministerial special advisers.

This followed the discovery a Sinn Féin special adviser had been involved in the IRA murder of a judge’s daughter.

Shadowy forces

The impact of this legislation rumbles on: Sinn Féin considered its back-office operation so important it decided to ignore the law, operating a shadow special adviser system, until this was revealed at the renewable-heat incentive inquiry. Last month’s restoration of devolution hinged to a remarkable degree on reform or non-reform of special-adviser appointments. Stormont parties are still processing Sinn Féin’s shadowy forces. Should Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil not make a start? At the very least, Sinn Féin could be pressed for Mitchell-type commitments to stop lauding Troubles violence.

Some matters cannot be addressed by political parties. Only the police and courts can pursue unsolved crimes and current criminality. Other agencies are required to track down the IRA’s money and front businesses. There is no evidence that Sinn Féin receives funding from these sources, so what is the huge war-chest for?

The Republic has perhaps one more electoral cycle to normalise Sinn Féin and good use should be made of that time. It would be a mistake to believe the peace process followed a natural arc of progress. The IRA never intended to decommission and can still produce guns on the streets. In 2006, Washington had to talk London out of letting republicans run a paramilitary police force in Catholic-majority areas.

The natural direction for Sinn Féin is to legitimise the Provisional IRA. If the Republic has better principles, it must uphold them.