Sinn Féin will be fighting two major elections on the island this year. An assembly election in the north, and a general election in the south.
Elections are funny things. Not funny ha ha. But funny peculiar and in some ways predictable. Of course, the outcome isn’t always predictable – that’s in the gift of the electorate - but the language and actions of some of the participants can be.
Enda Kenny is still holding off on setting a date for the general election. The reasons are many. It is thought by some he is waiting until after the party conferences are concluded. The Fine Gael party conference is this weekend. The Labour Party conference is the week after.
The last few months have been full of government announcements proclaiming to all and sundry what a great job the coalition parties are doing. And there have been the usual glut of election promises. Last week the Taoiseach and some of his ministers did a presser at which they claimed to have delivered on 93 per cent of their election promises from the last time. The reality of course has been much different.
The government’s electoral spin juxtaposes the stability they claim is offered by Fine Gael and Labour to the chaos of a government made up of anyone else. One Labour Minister, Brendan Howlin went so far as to arrogantly suggest that all of the other parties could save ourselves the effort of even bothering to produce a manifesto.
But for many citizens the reality is very different from that experienced by government Ministers and their spin doctors.
Where is the stability in the 29 emergency departments across the southern state where every day hundreds of patients, many of them elderly, lie on hospital trolleys? Or the half a million citizens who have been forced to emigrate in search of work? Or the hundreds of families impacted by the recent floods and the government’s cutbacks to flood defenses?
Where is the stability for homeless families and the tens of thousands on growing housing waiting lists? There are now 5100 citizens in homeless accommodation, including 1638 children. Since last January homelessness has risen by 93%.
Predictably Fine Gael and Labour are already engaging in the worst kind of auction politics and negative campaigning. Last week Labour promised to reduce childcare costs to two euro an hour if they are returned to government. No costings just a promise.
In 2011 Labour produced its now infamous Tesco ad. It outlined a series of measures the Labour Party claimed Fine Gael planned to bring in if they won the election. The message was simple. If you want to stop child benefit from being cut – vote Labour. If you want to stop water charges – vote Labour.
Labour then went into coalition with Fine Gael and introduced every measure they had promised to oppose.
As Mary Lou reminded the Labour leader last week in the Dáil: “In your 2011 election manifesto your party promised ‘to develop a comprehensive national pre-school service’. Tánaiste you broke that promise. Just like you broke your promise to protect child benefit, just like you broke your promise not to cut one-parent family payment until you introduced a Scandinavian style childcare system.’”
Two weeks ago it was revealed that as part of its negative campaigning Labour planned to produce an add showing the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and mise as a gay couple getting married outside the Dáil. The slogan to accompany the ad was: “This is one marriage we should vote NO to this year.”
The ad was slated on social media, and Labour, which had supported the marriage equality vote last year, squirmed as it was heavily criticised.
Fine Gael and Labour believe that election promises only last as long as the campaign.
And Fianna Fáil is no better. Elements of that party were responsible for systemic corruption and economic chaos. In government Fianna Fáil was responsible for the worst banking collapse in Irish history, which almost bankrupted the 26 counties, set new record levels of unemployment and emigration, and drove hundreds of thousands of households in negative equity.
As it tries to reinvent its image Fianna Fáil has directed part of its negative campaigning at Sinn Féin. Like Thatcher in her day Micheál Martin has resorted to the language of criminalization accusing the party of being like a ‘mafia’ and of failing to expose criminals.
The reality is that Martin’s increasingly strident rants against Sinn Féin, and his vindictive revisionism of recent history does not serve the cause of Irish republicanism or indeed the stated objectives of Fianna Fáil. His attacks on those of us who supported the IRA during the conflict is an attack also on more principled elements within Fianna Fáil who sheltered IRA Volunteers, republican escapees and others at that time.
When Micheál Martin attacks Sinn Féin he is attacking that generation, which is not unique to Fianna Fáil and includes some Fine Gael supporters, who kept faith with the people of the north.
From the 1950s border campaign, to the civil rights in the 1960s, to providing safe houses for IRA volunteers and supporting the hunger strikers, many good and decent Fianna Fáil people supported the demand for freedom and were also among the strongest supporters of the peace process. There is undoubtedly concern among many Fianna Fáil people at Micheál Martin’s anti-Sinn Féin crusade. In this centenary year he sounds a lot like Thatcher or former Fine Gael leader John Bruton who believes the Rising was wrong.
So the phoney election war is almost over. Sinn Féin has 50 candidates standing in 40 constituencies and all of the election launches I have spoken at – in Bray, Dublin, Kells, Cork and Wexford have been excellent. The activists are highly motivated and ready to seize the opportunities of 2016.