The general election in the South is drawing to a close. Polling day is Saturday – the first time an election has taken place on a Saturday since the historic 1918 election which saw Sinn Féin win a landslide victory.
It has been a relatively short but very intense campaign. Many in the media tried to reduce it to a beauty contest between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. RTE went so far as to exclude Mary Lou McDonald from the Leader’s Debate. Then on the eve of the debate they reneged in the face of intense public outrage and Mary Lou, as she was entitled, debated with the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael leaders. As in all of the other interviews and debates Mary Lou emerged head and shoulders above the other leaders.
Meanwhile, notwithstanding my broken foot I have hobbled my way from door to door primarily in Louth where the republican effort is to re-elect Imelda Munster and elect Ruairí Ó Murchú – our Sinn Féin team in the wee county. There have been excursions into other constituencies as well. I have met hundreds of citizens. The feedback is the same everywhere.
There is a growing frustration and anger with the empty promises of the two bigger parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. Anger at their attempt to fabricate differences between themselves despite both parties having been in government together for the last four years. Anger at the willingness of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to protect the wealthy, the banking elite and the developers. Anger at successive governments for failing to hold these elites to account. Anger because they also are the elites. Anger at children made homeless and our elderly citizens and sick relatives languishing on hospital trolleys. Anger at the witholding of state pensions to workers who have earned them. Anger at insurance companies fleecing motorists and small businesses. Anger that citizens may have to work until their late 60s just to survive.
One result of this and of opinion polls that have suggested a surge in the Sinn Féin vote was a tsunami of negative campaigning against the party by elements of the media and the two larger parties. Both Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar attacked our manifesto commitments and especially our economic programme as ‘dangerous’. This, as Mary Lou retorted in one debate, was ironic given that a Fianna Fáil/Green Party government, in which Micheál Martin and Eamonn Ryan (the Green party leader) were Ministers, bankrupted the State, and a Fine Gael/Labour government imposed years of austerity with Fianna Fail support.
There is also anger at Fianna Fail Leader Micheál Martins shrill political paranoia and hysterical ranting against Sinn Féin. There is annoyance that the North usually only gets mentioned by him and the Fine Gael Leader Leo Varadkar as part of their attacks on Sinn Féin. Those voters who are United Irelanders are very disappointed that both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail leaders have ruled out support for a referendum on Irish unity or a Citizens’ Assembly as part of a process to plan for this.
So too with their insistence that Sinn Féin is not fit to be in government. That is seen correctly as a slight on Sinn Féin voters. Vintage yesterday Unionist rhetoric. Of course parties may not be able to agree a programme for government and it is difficult to see either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael supporting the type of republican programme for government proposed by Sinn Féin. That’s fair enough. But to insult a section of the electorate is unfair. Many people see that and they don’t like it.
They also don’t like Fine Gaels plans to commemorate the RIC and Micheál Martin’s support for this. Patriotic citizens, regardless of their party politics, are proud of our revolutionary history. The Irish establishment is not. Most Irish people resent and reject that slíbhín approach.
So southern electoral politics are going through a considerable process of realignment. This has been slow and hesitant at times but that’s the way change happens. You work away, arguing, advocating, debating, organising and campaigning. At times with little visible results. Sometimes with setbacks or distractions. But you keep at it strategically, energetically, patiently and intelligently. You keep sowing seeds of resistance and hope and republican values. Seeds to grow alternative democratic dispensations. Egalitarian ideas. You never give up. You focus on the future. You believe. Then all of a sudden a tipping point emerges. Or a series of tipping points. The seeds grow. They flourish. They burst into flower. This election looks like being such an event.
If this election campaign has produced one message from voters it is that people want change – real and meaningful change. And many are looking beyond the tired ideas and failed policies of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. They’ve seen it all before and now they are actively looking for a viable alternative. Sinn Féin is that alternative.
Sinn Féin is offering a genuine vision for change; to fix the housing crisis, reduce the cost of childcare, and give workers and families a break. We are for a government that works for Irish unity and for the people.
Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have had their chance. They have failed. In the last Dáil they smothered and suffocated any prospect of real change. Fianna Fails support for Fine Gael was a brake on that. Politics was more or less confined and reduced in that Do Nothing Dáil. But now the people will have their say on all that. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are standing more candidates than us. We need to contest more constituencies with them. But that also will happen. It’s a long game but this cadre of republicans are long headed and in for the long run. It’s all about bringing about positive change. Planting seeds of resistance and republican values.
This election could see the political landscape changing once again. It may not be as transforming as many of us want and as many citizens need, at this time. Fianna Fail could do better than the polls suggest. Some Fine Gael voters may swap to them to keep Sinn Fein out. And both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are each standing more than double the number of Candidates that Sinn Fein is standing. Nonetheless change is coming. If you want that change, be the change you want.
Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar do not represent change. Mary Lou and the leadership team and Sinn Féin do. So on Sunday as the votes are counted we will see if the southern electorate agree. Ádh mór to all Sinn Féin candidates and activists and their families. Àdh mór to our leadership. And a word of thanks in advance to all Sinn Féin voters.