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28 October 2004 Edition

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What's the story? Sinn Féin as usual

BY ART MacEOIN

Despite the lack of tangible progress on a deal to re-establish the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Féin has been the political story of the past two weeks.

Acres of newsprint and hours of political discussion on news and current affairs programmes were sparked by comments of the new Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern, to the effect that it was merely a matter of time before Sinn Féin would be in government in the 26 Counties.

It was just the latest development in a series of events that has seen Sinn Féin at the very centre of political discourse in Ireland for several years now. That situation is likely to continue into the foreseeable future for a number of reasons. Firstly, despite the fact that it irks the party's political competitors in the 26 Counties as much as it does elements of the SDLP, not to mention the unionists, Sinn Féin has been the catalyst for the transformation of the political landscape in the North over the past decade. Secondly, the party is now the undisputed political voice of northern nationalism. And thirdly, it has been brought increasingly into focus, especially during the local and EU elections in June, that Sinn Féin represents the real alternative to the centre-right politics that has governed the 26-County state for the past decade.

Dermot Ahern's logical and commonsense remarks resulted in a media and political backlash from predictable quarters. The same cosy consensus that dominated and suffocated political, ideological, academic and cultural life in the Southern state for 30 years, and who have never embraced the spirit of the peace process but claim to support the Good Friday Agreement, reacted instinctively and with such ferocity that they forced more rational elements onto the defensive.

Establishment politicians have since been queuing up to say that they will not enter a coalition government with Sinn Féin. They have been encouraged to adopt this stance by the usual unrepresentative but vociferous anti-republican elements in the 26-County media. The latter have presented the idea of keeping Sinn Féin out of an Irish government as a solemn national duty.

To the average citizen, none of this handwringing holds any credibility. We have seen all of this before in the North over the past two-and-a-half decades, when unionists made a virtue out of the fact that they would never deal with Sinn Féin. That policy did not work for unionists and it will not work for political parties in the 26 Counties either. All of the available indicators show that Sinn Féin's electoral growth is impervious to the efforts of the establishment to subject it to political exclusion.

Establishment politicians cannot ignore Sinn Féin, despite their worst intentions because of the inexorable rise in the party's vote across the state. Plainly speaking, it is the simple mathematics in relation to future Dáil configurations that will most quickly induce a dose of reality for these politicians.

Parties of every political hue work with Sinn Féin and share local power with Sinn Féin representatives on councils across the 26 Counties every day. That same simple political logic will also apply in the Dáil in relation to future coalition options.

What has been particularly hypocritical to listen to in recent weeks is the pontificating of self-proclaimed champions of Irish democracy, who have gone out of their way to offer offence to the hundreds of thousands of Sinn Féin voters across the 26 Counties. They have made it abundantly clear that, like the most sectarian unionists in the north, they believe in two-tier citizenship. The unbounded arrogance that says Sinn Féin voters do not have the same right to political representation in this state as the voters of any other party is deeply and instinctively undemocratic. The time is long due that these hysterical and hopelessly out of date commentators and 'opinion makers' took a crash course in democracy. They could do worse than look at the abject failure of the tactic of political exclusion as experienced north of the border.

The fact that Sinn Féin has been the focus of such political speculation as far as future coalitions are concerned must surely have caused Pat Rabbitte to despair.

Poor Pat. The Labour Party leader's renowned smugness had reached newly nauseating levels with the recent construction of the 'Coalition of the Confused'. Rabbitte saw his putative alliance with Fine Gael and the Greens as not only a chance to posit his party and himself at the centre of, and possibly in the leadership of, an alternative government but also a chance to dent Sinn Féin's profile as the real political alternative in the 26 Counties. But to Rabbitte's and indeed Enda Kenny's certain displeasure, their attempts to profile the new alliance has been completely overshadowed for the past fortnight by the prospect of Sinn Féin in a future government. "What's the story?" they must be asking themselves. Well, it's Sinn Féin, as usual.

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