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17 April 1997 Edition

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Fine Gael attack on Sinn Féin backfires

BY MICHEAL MacDONNCHA

Ham-fisted efforts by Fine Gael to damage Sinn Féin electorally last week led to a heated row in Leinster House and embarrassed the SDLP's West Belfast candidate Joe Hendron.

Tourism and Transport Minister Enda Kenny began the Fine Gael onslaught in an interview on Radio Ireland on 7 April when he attacked Albert Reynolds for allowing himself to be photographed with Gerry Adams at the opening of the new Féile an Phobail office in Belfast on 25 March. Kenny accused Reynolds of acting ``to the electoral disadvantage of Dr Joe Hendron'' and castigated the former Fianna Fáil leader for refusing to say how nationalists should vote. He also questioned the role in relation to the North to be assigned to Reynolds by Bertie Ahern in the event of a Fianna Fáil-led government. Kenny cast doubt over Reynolds' and Fianna Fáil's attitude to violence.

Kenny's intervention resurrected a row which Hendron would rather have let rest in peace. Hendron had been invited to attend the Féile office opening but chose not to do so. He then accused Reynolds of snubbing him. Reynolds issued a stinging response and said that all those who attended ``were supporting a cultural and not a political event''.

Kenny's Radio Ireland remarks were followed on 9 April by John Bruton's attack on Sinn Féin. After a meeting at Government Buildings between himself, John Hume, Dick Spring and Proinsias de Rossa, Bruton said:

``It would be hypocrisy to pretend that a vote for Sinn Féin is anything but support for the IRA, because they're part of the same movement.''

Gerry Adams responded that ``those members of our party and family members who have died at the hands of British and loyalist forces will be extremely saddened by Mr Bruton's remarks''. The remarks were dangerous, said Adams. He challenged Bruton to stand Fine Gael candidates in the Six Counties.

The row then moved to Leinster House where Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern asked Bruton to disown Enda Kenny's ``disgraceful and unwarranted remarks''. Bruton refused to do so and said Reynolds had been ``ill-advised'' to appear in a ``photo-call'' with Gerry Adams. Fianna Fáil's Tom Kitt told Bruton:

``Your outburst yesterday regarding Sinn Féin shows that you are not the bridge-builder that you claim to be.''

Another Fianna Fáil TD Seán Power said:

``The Taoiseach involved himself in the Northern Ireland election yesterday by stating that a vote for Sinn Féin was a vote for the IRA. Will he be showing the same sort of honesty during the election here and tell the electorate that a vote for Fine Gael is a vote for Democratic Left?''

Bruton and Kenny have hindered the SDLP rather than helped them. Kenny's interview provoked a refutation from Féile an Phobail Director Caitríona Ruane which was published in the Irish News (see Mála Poist page 12). This can only have been a severe embarrassment to Joe Hendron. Nor will nationalist voters be impressed with Bruton's cross-border election heckling.

It should be remembered too that the Fine Gael leader was not solely aiming his fire at Sinn Féin candidates in the Six Counties. The prospect of Cavan/Monaghan returning Caoimhghin O Caoláin as a Sinn Féin TD, and strong votes for the party elsewhere, is obviously a worry to him with a hung Dáil a very possible outcome of the general election.
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