Ben Lowry: Like it or not, power at Stormont has helped sanitise Sinn Fein in Republic

Unless all the polls for yesterday's Republic of Ireland election have been badly wrong, results today will begin to show that Sinn Fein has by a distance won its best-ever Dail vote.
Sinn Fein's Mary Lou McDonald TD , Martin McGuinness MLA,Michelle ONeill MLA and Gerry Adams TD at Stormont in 2015. Pic PacemakerSinn Fein's Mary Lou McDonald TD , Martin McGuinness MLA,Michelle ONeill MLA and Gerry Adams TD at Stormont in 2015. Pic Pacemaker
Sinn Fein's Mary Lou McDonald TD , Martin McGuinness MLA,Michelle ONeill MLA and Gerry Adams TD at Stormont in 2015. Pic Pacemaker

It might hold the balance of power.

Sinn Fein’s rise in the Republic since it began standing for office in the 1980s has been gradual but relentless.

If you look at the panel (beneath this article) for all types of southern election you can see how its numbers have grown as peace in Northern Ireland has become embedded.

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It is an unpalatable truth for unionists that Sinn Fein’s profile at Stormont has benefited them south of the border, and helped to make them less toxic politically.

Their support in the Republic is heavily skewed towards young voters who have no memory of the Troubles.

When Provisional IRA violence was ongoing, Sinn Fein was treated with contempt by southern voters. In its first Dail election (1987) it won 1.9% of the vote.

It stayed around that risible level until the 1994 ceasefire. In June 1997, just before the second ceasefire, it moved up to 2.5% and won its first TD since the 1950s, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin in Cavan–Monaghan.

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By May 2002, when the ceasefire was embedded (but Stormont was still unstable, leading to its suspension that autumn for almost five years), Sinn Fein’s vote rose sharply to 6.5% and Dail representation jumped to five.

The party expected a breakthrough in May 2007 but only edged up to 6.9%, losing a seat (in Dublin). Resumption of Stormont just before that election (in the unreal form of power sharing with Ian Paisley) had been expected to boost them.

But this was only a pause in the ever upward march of Sinn Fein. Polls had suggested it would win 10% of the vote in 2007, which is what it did (9.9%) at the last general election, February 2011.

It was the force it had always wanted to be in the Dail, with 14 seats. The president of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, elected in Louth, became leader of this bloc.

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My view is that he made a strategic mistake in relinquishing his West Belfast Assembly seat prior to this (and perhaps Westminster – as an abstentionist, he would hardly have been over-committed by retaining it). How better to illustrate the all-island model than to be a simultaneous member of Stormont and the Dail? (There are good reasons why some constitutional commentators in London would want that to be impossible).

Later in 2011, Martin McGuinness polled a respectable 13.7% vote in Ireland’s presidential election, although he ran into the embarrassing questions from IRA victims that Gerry Adams has had to face.

Parallel with these general elections, Sinn Fein usually polled best in its Euro elections, probably because those elections tend to attract a protest vote in the UK and Ireland. It topped 11% in 2004 and 2009 and soared to 19.5% in 2014, its best vote in any Republic election. Progress in council elections has been similarly steady, from a feeble 3.3% in 1985 to a hefty 15.2% two years ago.

In all these elections (bar 2004 Euros), it only reached double digit support well after the 2006 St Andrews deal. The (final?) high-profile IRA crimes – 2002 Stormont spying, 2002 Castlereagh break-in, 2004 Northern Bank heist, the 2005 Robert McCartney and 2007 Paul Quinn murders – were receding into the past. The closer those events were, the harder it was to overlook them.

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Sinn Fein’s 2007 disappointment must have been partly related to the Michael McDowell jibe at Mr Adams during a TV debate, when the Sinn Fein president said he earned an industrial wage. The Progressive Democrat justice minister said few people on such a wage could afford a Donegal holiday home. When Mr Adams played it down and said the home was owned by the bank, Mr McDowell shot back: “Which one? The Northern?”

This time surveys show that Sinn Fein could double its 2011 vote to 20%. Even if it falls well short of that, and polls 15%, it will still be 50% up on the last Dail election.

Does the rise of Sinn Fein matter to unionists?

For me there is a simple reason why it does – and it is not the party’s economic policy of spend, spend, spend alongside low corporation tax. That policy pretends a rich elite can shoulder the burden but even if the entire wealth of the Republic’s top 1% was confiscated, communist-style, it would not come close to funding SF plans. In power the party would either backtrack (as Syriza did in Greece) or run the southern economy into the rocks, losing office next time.

The problem from a unionist position is the rewriting of history to justify the IRA, which is being inadvertently supported even by people who rejected the Provos.

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The election stats below show how citizens of the Republic repudiated SF during the Troubles (when everyone could see the IRA’s essence). Now even some soft unionists buy the theory that Britain conducted a dirty war (“... we don’t know the half of it ...”etc). I have written before about this so I will not rehearse why I think it rubbish.

If the Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan is right about timescales for legacy inquests (assuming funding is found) we face five years of findings. These will be used by republicans to depict the UK as murderous.

We already have had a memorial to murdered RUC officers moved in Strand Road PSNI, Londonderry. Once the smearing of the security forces is embedded, imagine how unacceptable such a montage to RUC victims will be 50 years from now?

Almost a third of Republic voters aged under 35 vote SF. No wonder. Insofar as they hear about the Troubles, they hear about collusion.

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But only 10% of southern voters aged 65+ back SF, even now. They were adults all through the Troubles, and do not buy the story of republican freedom fighters.


Vote share in Dail elections:

1987 1.9%

1989 1.2%

1992 1.6%

1997 2.5%

2002 6.5%

2007 6.9%

2011 9.9%

Euro elections:

1989 4.9%

1989 2.2%

1994 3.0%

1999 6.3%

2004 11.1%

2009 11.2%

2014 19.5%

Council elections:

1985 3.3%

1991 2.1%

1999 3.5%

2004 8.0%

2009 7.4%

2014 15.2%

Presidential election:

2011 13.7%

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor