As regular readers of this column will know I have been known to ‘tweet’ – occasionally. It’s an enjoyable and relaxing process made all the more pleasurable because I can escape the Sinn Féin thought police – those esteemed colleagues who want to scrutinise every word, mull over every nuance and ensure that anything written falls within party policy.
I understand and appreciate their concerns. My tweets have been the subject of hilarious and occasionally bizarre reflection by newspaper and broadcasting columnists, commentators and serious political analysts. Some believe my tweets are the work of a special committee; others are less kind.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs in Dublin was on the receiving end of this type of scrutiny on New Year’s Day when he seemed to suggest that he favoured the use of the ‘c’ word in describing Sinn Féin politics. He felt it necessary to issue a public apology and to express regret if he had caused offence. As someone who recently apologised for the inappropriate use of language in criticising bigots I can empathise with Charlie.
However, the episode was much more revealing and significant than the implied use of a swear word. The Minister was consciously attempting to use his twitter remarks as part of the government’s strategy of demonising Sinn Féin. Along with other conservative elements of southern society – most especially the Sindo and Indo and their coterie of columnists and hacks - Sinn Féin has been regularly accused of being a ‘cult,’ not a democratic party.
Hence the deliberate use of the word in the Minister’s tweet – “2015 offers Ireland the choice of Constitutional politics or Cult politics.”
My very observant and quick thinking colleague Donegal TD Pádraig MacLochlainn responded with; “Hopefully cult politics doesn’t make a comeback.” And he attached a 1930s photograph of the Blueshirts – a Fine Gael dominated organisation - giving a fascist salute.
One twitter commented that; “think that was a spelling mistake”.
To which the Minister replied with; “yep left out the ‘n’”.
Minister Flanagan’s implied use of the 4 letter ‘c’ word sparked controversy and he issued his apology.
But in the short lived furore around his use of language no one should lose sight of the bigger picture.
The opinion polls suggest that the next general election to the Oireachtas could be the most significant in generations. With Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fail trailing Sinn Féin and the Independents in most of the polls there is a very real concern among conservative elements that the two and a half party system that has dominated Irish politics could be about to radically change.
Sinn Féin in particular has become the bête noire of the conservative class. They believe the independents are too fractured to pose a real concern to the governmental ambitions of Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil, but Sinn Féin is a radical, growing, visionary political party with cogent alternative policies. Sinn Féin is the real threat to the cozy consensus of the established parties. Consequently there is a concerted effort underway to demonise the party, blunt our potential to grow, and force us to spend valuable time responding to a negative agenda set by our opponents rather than promoting our own sensible alternative policies.
Political scientists have written volumes on the use of negative politics in election campaigns. It is a fixture of U.S. Presidential elections and a regular feature of the Irish electoral cycle. Labour used it effectively against Fine Gael in the 2011 campaign with their now infamous Tesco ad which warned of cuts to essential services and benefits if Fine Gael was elected. (It got them a place in a coalition government implementing the very policies they were warning of). Michael McDowell used it in 2002 to scare voters into backing the Progressive Democrats when he raised the possibility of a majority Fianna Fáil government.
As Sinn Féin’s poll numbers stay high the established parties and their conservative allies will increasingly use negative politics to attack the party, our policies and to scare their own voters – many of whom are politically apathetic at this time – back to the fold.
At the end of November Enda Kenny asserted that the choice at the next election would be between a government led by Fine Gael or one led by Sinn Féin. His Minister for Finance jumped in on the same day and told RTE that the choice facing the electorate was either a Sinn Féin-led left-wing government or the present coalition.
Afraid of being left out of the debate Micheál Martin joined in just before Christmas with his absurd claim that the IRA still runs Sinn Féin. As a senior government Minister in past Fianna Fáil governments he knows this to be untrue. He was also part of the government which accepted reports from the Independent Monitoring Commission and the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning that the IRA had effectively left the stage after its momentous and courageous decision in July 2005 to end the armed struggle.
Now, as he tries to rebuild his shattered party and improve its consistently poor poll results he sets aside the needs of the peace process and indulges in negative politics against republicans.
The Labour leadership whether under Eamonn Gilmore or Joan Burton has also made increasingly hysterical criticisms of Sinn Féin as the polls predict a meltdown in that party’s support.
We can expect more of the same vitriol in the year ahead. As the tenor and tempo of the political discourse increases so too will the snide, offensive, malicious and provocative attacks on Sinn Féin.
I have no idea when the general election to the Oireachtas will be held. Charlie Flanagan obviously thinks it will be this year. Some political pundits speculate that Enda will go to the polls after a give-away budget in October. Maybe – maybe not.
We do know there will be a British general election in May. It is shaping up to be particularly significant given unionist efforts to agree unity candidates and try to take seats currently held by Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance parties.
All of this means for republicans that there is an imperative on us to organise and strategise and prepare as never before. We have to think long term. We have to work locally while thinking nationally.
The next 18 months will be a defining point in politics on this island. As well as celebrating the centenary of the 1916 Rising there will be two general elections and an Assembly election. The potential to advance Sinn Féin politics, to defend the interests of working people, to achieve a realignment of Irish politics, and to win new supporters to Irish republicanism has never been greater.
There is a hunger, a desire for real change among citizens across the island. They don’t want the tired, old, recycled politics of the conservative parties north and south. The rhetoric of change but the delivery of the same-old, same-old.
Citizens want a new start, a fresh start; a positive and a real alternative to the negative and corrupt politics of the conservative parties.
Our goal as Irish republicans is to achieve maximum change; to advance Irish unity, to build a fair economy, and a just and equitable society in which equality and citizen’s rights are the foundation stones. The next year and a half are crucial to building the republic that those who wrote the 1916 Proclamation dreamed of. A republic in which there is no place for partition, or sectarianism or elitism or inequality, or poverty. It’s a big ask but one I am confident 2015 will see Sinn Féin make significant strides toward creating.
PS Thanks to Hugh O Connell from Journal whose recollection of election campaigns is excellent.