The latest revelations about abuse and intimidation within the republican movement have highlighted the dark shadow Sinn Féin is casting over Irish democracy.
The voters, and indeed the entire political system, may have been slow to appreciate the implications of Sinn Féin’s continued rise but the courage of Paudie McGahon and Maíria Cahill have shown people the naked face of the republican movement.
An organisation that presides over its own kangaroo courts and offers abuse victims the choice of having bullets put through the heads of alleged perpetrators is a very different type of political animal to any other party offering itself to the Irish electorate.
The implications for the democratic institutions of the State if Sinn Féin achieves power should be obvious to all. It appears, though, that many, including some of the party’s political opponents, would prefer to wallow in wilful ignorance.
What is so shocking about the behaviour disclosed by Paudie McGahon is that it took place so recently, long after the peace process was supposed to have put an end to the activities of the IRA.
Many people appear to have succumbed to amnesia over the appalling events of the Troubles and the role played by some in the current leadership of Sinn Féin during that terrible time but it is not so easy to ignore more recent events.
Deeply troubling mindset
The fine investigative journalism of the BBC Spotlight programme and the courage shown by McGahon in coming forward to tell his story has shone a light into the more recent activities the republican movement and revealed a mindset in the leadership that is deeply troubling.
Gerry Adams’s denial that he was ever in the IRA has almost become a joke in the political world but if he can get away with finessing the truth on such a serious matter what else is he not telling the full story about?
Richard Haass, president of the United States Council on Foreign Relations, who has had intimate involvement in Northern peace process in a recent interview with the New Yorker magazine said of Adams: "I don't know what the Irish word for Teflon is, but he has it."
Almost as striking as the ability of Adams to defy reality is the manner in which the so-called new generation of Sinn Féin such as Mary Lou McDonald and Pearse Doherty have no problem backing their leader through every twist and turn, including the abuse scandals.
In the Dáil on Thursday, Minister for Education Jan O'Sullivan, one of the most courteous TDs in the House, issued a devastating response to McDonald, who had the brass neck to ask if the Labour Party supported Sinn Féin's demand for an official North/South inquiry into abuse.
“It is about time the deputy and her own party took their responsibility in this matter rather than putting it on people who were abused and providing a smokescreen in regard to a North-South intervention . . . It is about time the deputy told us what people around her know,” said the Minister, who suggested there could be up to 100 cases of republican abuse at issue.
While the abuse story was unfolding the latest crisis row over budget cuts at Stormont erupted and this time it appears to have the potential to bring the power- sharing executive crashing down.
Again Sinn Féin is at the centre of the row, refusing to accept the implications of the welfare reforms agreed before Christmas. This is a more mundane squabble but it raises serious questions about the party’s ability to participate in normal political discourse.
All of the questions about the implications of Sinn Féin achieving power in this State need far more careful consideration by the voters and the media than they have got to date, but they also demand a more mature response from the other political parties than has been apparent as the election draws close.
In particular, some in Fine Gael have started a dangerous game of trying to turn the next election into a binary choice of themselves or Sinn Féin with the narrow political objective of marginalising Fianna Fáil. This arrogant ploy has the capacity to backfire in the most spectacular fashion. What Fine Gael strategists need to realise is that there are many voters out there who will not support their party in any circumstances and may well be driven into the arms of Sinn Féin if they are presented with such a crude choice.
Opportunity to take office
With Sinn Féin featuring as either the biggest or close to the biggest party in a succession of opinion polls there is at least a possibility that the outcome of the election could provide an opportunity for the party to take office with the support of the Trotskyist factions and a raggle-taggle group of Independents.
Fine Gael strategists need to cut out the smart-alec tactics and focus on the real danger that could emerge from the election not just to the Irish economic recovery but to the fundamentals of Irish democracy.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has shown considerable courage in standing up to Sinn Féin over the abuse scandals and refusing to buy into the party’s attempt to build a nationalist consensus for wrecking the Northern institutions once again.
He has avoided the temptation followed by all his predecessors as Fianna Fáil leader in simply denouncing the government of the day regardless of the issues involved and for that he deserves a lot of credit. At the next election the voters will have far more than a choice of Fine Gael and Sinn Féin and so much the better for that.