The emergence of the Paul Quinn murder as an issue in the final days of the election campaign may or may not have an impact on the result but it justifies in no uncertain terms the refusal of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to consider going into government with Sinn Féin, whatever the outcome.
The evasive response of Mary Lou McDonald during the final leaders’ debate to questions about the brutal slaying of Quinn and her ambivalent attitude to the Special Criminal Court put the spotlight on the fundamental reason why Sinn Féin cannot be regarded like any other political party.
It is not simply a question of whether Sinn Féin’s economic policies will undermine the public finances or cause foreign direct investment to flee the country, important and all as those questions are. It is something deeper which goes to the heart of Irish democracy, whose basic standards of freedom and tolerance we all take for granted.
The notion of having Sinn Féin ministers responsible for the courts or policing, the two fundamental institutions with which the republican movement has been at war during the State’s entire history, is something which should give every voter pause for thought.
It is why the refusal of the two dominant Irish parties to consider coalition with Sinn Féin is entirely legitimate.
It is for similar reasons that the German Christian Democrats and Social Democrats refuse to have anything to do with the AfD, or the mainstream parties in the Netherlands and Sweden rule out certain hardline extremist parties. They fear the involvement of such parties in government will undermine their basic democratic values.
The parties excluded from power in other EU countries are prone to anti-immigrant rhetoric and commonly regarded as being on the extreme right. Sinn Féin by contrast regards itself as on the far left and does not engage in attacks on recent immigrants. However, its persistent anti-British rhetoric serves the same purpose of whipping up atavistic nationalist feelings which are every bit as dangerous to the values of this State as the anti-immigrant sentiments of right-wing European parties are to their countries.
Micheál Martin has been clearer than anybody else throughout the election campaign in saying that rejection of coalition with Sinn Féin is a moral issue first and foremost. “Sinn Féin’s justification for the IRA’s war is a continuing one. There never has really been any contrition and also to a large extent they want to shove down the throats of a new generation a narrative about the atrocities that were carried out which in my view serves to poison future generations,” he said in an Irish Times podcast.
The political parties in the Dáil are perfectly entitled to say no to coalition with those they regard as a threat to its values
For younger voters that may all be history, but there is a real danger that acceptance of Sinn Féin’s narrative about the Troubles will poison minds and make reconciliation on this island even more difficult than it already is. The party’s use of the tune from the spoof ballad Come Out Ye Black and Tans as background music to its party political broadcast sent out a clear message.
The notion that Sinn Féin has a right to be involved in government in the Republic because it is part of the powersharing Executive in the North does not stand up to scrutiny.
Northern Ireland is not a sovereign state but a part of the United Kingdom whose misgovernance for so long necessitated a political experiment in local administration designed to force all sides to work together.
The governance of this Republic, a basically well-run and wealthy sovereign State is an entirely different matter. The political parties in the Dáil are perfectly entitled to say no to coalition with those they regard as a threat to its values and its future prosperity.
Sinn Féin is clearly poised to do well, but much of the party’s gains could come at the expense of Independents and smaller parties who romped home in 2016. In that election the mood for change translated into a record number of Independents in the Dáil. This time around Sinn Féin is tapping into the mood but we will only know the extent of the gains once the counting has stopped.
Whatever the outcome, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and some of the smaller parties will be faced with the dilemma about how to put a government in place that is capable of leading the country in the years ahead.
There is an argument that the two big parties should come together in a coalition to give the country stable government for five years but an equally persuasive one that by doing so they would make Sinn Féin the leaders of an alternative government next time around.
Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael found a way of dealing with that dilemma it in 2016 and with a bit of ingenuity should be able to do so again.