There have been some surreal moments on the back of the recent election results as the political and media establishment in the South tries to come to terms with Sinn Fein emerging as the largest party. Acting Taoiseach Leo Varadkar tried to portray the series of Townhall meetings that the Sinn Fein leadership has been holding as the next stage of a “campaign of intimidation and bullying”. One after another acting Fine Gael Ministers took to Twitter to tell citizens that Sinn Féin shouldn’t be holding meetings. Whoever is advising Fine Gael is doing a great job for Sinn Féin.
The accompanying extensive media coverage following Varadkar's accusation and the criticism by his Acting Ministers did more to advertise our events than anything we could have possibly done. As a result all of the meetings were standing room only. The Liberty Hall meeting was especially memorable as Pearse Doherty – in fine voice and form – stood outside on a cold February evening and delivered a riveting speech to the overflow crowd.
Micheál Martin predictably lost the run of himself in the Dáil when it met to elect the Taoiseach. Having already lost the popular vote to Sinn Féin and been pushed into second place in the vote for Taoiseach by Mary Lou, Martin’s diatribe against Sinn Féin reflected his obsession with us. It was a regurgitation of all the bile he has spouted over recent years. Eoghan Harris, who could have written the speech, extolled Martin’s verbosity in his Sunday Independent column. Martin’s speech was he said; “a magisterial speech whose historic important was missed by most of our craven media.” I was definitely listening to a different speech! Harris and the Sunday Independent are renowned for their vitriolic attacks on John Hume during our efforts to construct a peace process in the 1990’s.
Last week Micheál Martin said: “If you listen to the dishonest narrative from Sinn Fein you would imagine we have had Ministerial positions for the last nine years. Between 2011 and 2016 we had 20 seats. Hardly the establishment party of that period ... In 2016 until now we weren’t in government. These are the facts.”
But everyone knew that in partnership with Fine Gael, Micheál Martin had agreed a Programme for Government; negotiated and agreed four budgets, which punished workers and their families; elected two Fine Gael Taoisigh (Enda Kenny and then Leo Varadkar); and despite public outrage over the crisis in homelessness, housing and health Martin ensured that no-confidence motions in the Dáil against the two responsible Minister’s failed. He also opposed discussions in the Dáil to plan for Irish Unity.
In this election the electorate saw through all of this. Consequently, instead of the 50 plus seats he confidently expected Micheál Martin lost seats and returned 37 TDs.
In addition, during the course of the election Micheál Martin pledged that Fianna Fáil would not go into government with Sinn Féin or Fine Gael. He now claims he has a mandate from the electorate not to speak to Sinn Féin about government. However, last week he met Acting Taoiseach Varadkar and appears willing to ignore his equally strong mandate not to go into government with Fine Gael! Clearly, it’s not about change. It’s about holding on to power.
Micheál Martin’s attacks on Sinn Féin are not new. Since 2002 when Nicky Kehoe almost won a seat in Bertie Ahern’s - then Taoiseach – constituency in Dublin Central, Fianna Fáil leaders have been worried about the potential electoral threat posed by Sinn Fein. Their claim to be ‘The Republican Party’ doesn’t sit well because Mr. Martin fails the Coca Cola test. When faced with the choice between Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil citizens are increasingly going for the real thing.
For example, three years ago Micheál Martin announced that Fianna Fáil was going to produce a 12 point plan on Unity. Like the promise to contest seats in the North it has yet to happen. Their general election manifesto did not contain any meaningful unity proposals.
In the almost ten years I was in the Dáil Micheál Martin used every opportunity to attack Sinn Féin. Facts are irrelevant. The crisis in the North was shamefully exploited time and time again. At Arbour Hill in 2015 he claimed that Sinn Féin was not fit for government. In September of that year he called on the Irish and British governments to suspend the Good Friday institutions.
When the institutions did collapse in 2017, because of the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal and the actions of the DUP, he repeatedly claimed, despite knowing where the blame really lay, that he couldn’t “comprehend” why there was no Executive and Assembly. This from a political leader whose long tenure in various Ministerial roles saw Fianna Fáil Ministers accused and some convicted of corruption. He did nothing about this.
Instead of constructively engaging as the leader of Fianna Fáil to find solutions he has spent his time demonising Sinn Féin. His accusations around so-called ‘Shadowy Figures’, despite his relationship with some of these, is one example of this.
Nor can we separate this Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael demonization strategy against republicans from the recent threats against Mary Lou McDonald, Michelle O’Neill, and Gerry Kelly and the two attacks in Belfast.
The real reason for Micheál Martin’s hostility to Sinn Féin was given by him many years ago in an argument he had with Martin McGuinness during negotiations at Hillsborough Castle. An angry Micheál Martin said: “You won’t do to us what you did to the SDLP.”
The Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael objective is to persuade public opinion that Sinn Féin cannot be trusted in government. If they fail to agree on a coalition – a carve up of political power - and a second election is called their negative campaigning will intensify. In fact the establishment is fighting that election now.
Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar are not about change. They are not about tackling the needs of the growing numbers of homeless, or those on trollies or the increasing hospital waiting lists, or a United Ireland. They are about trying to sustain decades of power and influence. They are about defending a status quo that many want to change.
As Mary Lou expressed it in her speech in the Dáil which has now been viewed over two million times: “If you keep reaching desperately for the past, it means you are not up for the future.”
So Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are content to confront Sinn Féin about the past. Their refusal to talk about the future with us, or to acknowledge the right of our voters to be represented at such discussions, is shameful.
Now the Fianna Fáil leader is telling Unionists that it’s ok for them to be in government with Sinn Fein in the North but that Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael are too good to do that in the South.
You can fool some of the people some of the time but ...