The opinion polls during the Irish election seem to be all over the place at the moment: some very good for Sinn Fein, some very bad.
But to be honest it doesn’t matter if Sinn Fein ends up in coalition with Enda Kenny or Micheál Martin (and, believe me, neither man will allow their personal view of Gerry Adams to stand in the way of leading the next government), because it isn’t going to move Sinn Fein one inch closer to delivering Irish unity.
So what if Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams are at the centre of coalitions in Dublin and Belfast? Ireland will remain divided and they’ll be in two separate governments. And there isn’t one convincing scrap of evidence to suggest that a border poll in Northern Ireland would produce a majority for leaving the United Kingdom anytime soon.
The IRA accepted a very long time ago – within two years of the Provisionals forming – that they weren’t going to unite Ireland by violence. That’s why they opened ‘formal’ channels of communication in 1972.
A decade later, in 1981, they opted for the ‘armalite/ballot box’ strategy. By the early 1990s they knew the game was up in terms of the ‘armed struggle’ and cooperated with the British, Irish and American governments to extract themselves from the hole they had first dug 30 years earlier.
But that meant redefining their purpose and perception. Let’s face it the Provisionals (in their IRA and SF manifestations) didn’t lift the torch just to end up in Stormont, with the DUP, jointly governing a Northern Ireland which remained firmly rooted within the United Kingdom. So they had to find a narrative to explain not only how they ended up in that position, but also why it actually makes sense for them to be there.
In this narrative Sinn Fein has been trying to reinvent itself as the civil rights campaign and an early version of the SDLP. They pretend that they were the champions of the electoral/institutional/social/political changes that took place throughout the 1970s. They pretend that the IRA were ‘defenders’ rather than protagonists: almost as if there never was a terror campaign involving them. They peddle the line that while they may have made ‘mistakes’ (“for which we are sorry, don’t you know, blah blah blah”) it was actually the British and their ‘police and army machines’ who were the real, cold-blooded killing machines. And while Gerry Adams was never in the IRA, it was British agents in the IRA who were doing bad things and blaming the IRA!
Running alongside this absurd mythology Sinn Fein is also pushing another story; one that argues that being in government in Northern Ireland is something they’ve never had any problem with (“sure, we’ve always wanted peace and cooperation with our unionist fellow citizens”) and that it’s part of a long-term, thought-through strategy leading to eventual unification.
As works of fiction go it’s not bad and all that’s missing is Dan Brown’s Professor Robert Langdon to make sense of the obscure language and convoluted logic. For good measure they blame the SDLP, unionism, dissident republicans, the Brits and the Irish establishment for standing in the way of reconciliation and reunification.
The reality, of course, is that the IRA got nothing. Sinn Fein got nothing. They were rolled over and sucked in by a state which is a past master at that sort of thing. Since the mid-1990s they thought they were playing hardball with successive governments, whereas all they were doing was everything demanded of them. And for what? The fantasy – and that’s all it is – that unity is around the corner and that they are worthy of standing shoulder to shoulder with Michael Collins, Parnell et al.
None of this mythology, reinvention and rewriting is intended for a Northern audience. That vote is close to maxing out because most people here have seen through the guff and know the real story.
No, this is to do with their Southern strategy and is a cynical, clinical attempt to bamboozle people who, not having seen the IRA at their worst or followed events closely since the mid-1960s, might be willing to believe Sinn Fein’s version of events. People, in other words, who think that Gerry Adams is a statesman rather than a flim-flamming opportunist.
Which is why media attacks seem to make so little difference to Sinn Fein’s poll appeal down there. Everything that can be thrown at Adams has been thrown at him and he’s still standing, still smiling, still pumping out his deodorising tweets and still preparing for a victory speech at the end of the month.
Yet, as I said earlier, it doesn’t really matter in terms of the overall Sinn Fein project. Adams won’t be uniting Ireland and he won’t be carried through the streets of Dublin as the man who did what no-one else in the past 800 years has been able to do.
Adams will be added to a list: that list of people – some democrats, some terrorists – who have tried to reunite Ireland as a sovereign state. Like all the others, he has failed. The IRA has failed. Sinn Fein has failed. All they have left is the pretence that they are on the road to success.
Ironically, a foothold in two governments in a still partitioned Ireland would demonstrate the sheer scale and absurdity of their failure – probably stuck between Arlene Foster and Enda Kenny.