7 June 2001 Edition

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Four years in Leinster House


Four years ago this week, on 6 June 1997, voters went to the polls in the 26 Counties and one of the most significant outcomes was the election of the first non-abstentionist Sinn Féin TD, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin. It had been a long and difficult ten-year struggle from 1987 and the first general election after the dropping of abstentionism to the poll-topping victory in the Cavan/Monaghan constituency.

I began work here in Leinster House with Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin in the autumn of 1997. Nothing could have prepared either myself or the TD for the variety and extent of work which lay ahead
The long overdue arrival of a Sinn Féin TD in Leinster House was obviously a hugely significant development for republicanism and it came at a time when the peace process was being rebuilt. The Leinster House success, plus the election the previous month of two Sinn Féin MPs - Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness - raised the political strength of republicanism to new heights. These are milestones on a long journey and between each such highlight is the hard foot-slogging which alone can bring political success.

I began work here in Leinster House with Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin in the autumn of 1997. Nothing could have prepared either myself or the TD for the variety and extent of work which lay ahead. For the first few months national politics was dominated by the restored peace process and the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement - a trying and arduous time for all republicans. As a Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrats minority coalition government took up office, our task here was to establish a strong Sinn Féin presence - albeit represented by just one voice - and to ensure effective representation for the Cavan/Monaghan electorate.

Unease at the steady growth of Sinn Féin is palpable here in Leinster House
As well as the Good Friday Agreement referendum in May 1998, there was a second referendum - disgracefully on the same day - on the Amsterdam Treaty, with Sinn Féin campaigning for a No vote. It turned out to be the highest No vote in a referendum since EU entry was recorded.

A year into the Dáil term we produced a report from the TD - Tuairisc - which went to every home in Counties Cavan and Monaghan in newspaper form. Through `98 and early `99 there was intensive preparation for postponed local government elections, which were finally held in June 1999. The elections were an outstanding success for Sinn Féin, especially in Counties Monaghan and Cavan and an endorsement of the work being done at local and Leinster House level.

Early on during the Dáil term, our TD had become a member of the Oireachtas Environment and Local Government Committee and the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, both important forums and both, particularly the former, entailing a significant extra workload. As well as producing three issues of Tuairisc, our office published: four comprehensive pre-Budget submissions; a detailed report on the appalling state of the roads of County Cavan, which played a significant part in securing increased government funding; a proposal for a major tourism project for Mid-Monaghan; and a comprehensive alternative Waste Management Plan for the North East region.

Probably the biggest constituency campaign involving the TD has been the battle over the closure of maternity services at Monaghan General Hospital. Caoimhghín has been centrally involved as main spokesperson for the all-party effort to restore these services. This is in the context of his membership of the North Eastern Health Board and of Monaghan County Council, both extremely time-consuming roles.

Add to these responsibilities the TD's national role within Sinn Féin and the increasing daily volume of individual representations from constituents and you have a picture of the massive workload involved in being the sole representative of a party in Leinster House. And I haven't even mentioned Dáil chamber contributions on Taoiseach's questions, legislation and debates.

I can personally attest to the enormous demands made on the TD and the offices in Leinster House, Monaghan and Cavan by groups and individuals. There are quite literally not enough hours in the day to attend to everything. In spite of all this the past four years have been politically rewarding as steady gains are made for Sinn Féin throughout the country and as we firmly stake our claim to increased representation in the Dáil. The establishment media has had to grudgingly recognise the substantial effect we are having on the political landscape - and so have our political opponents.

Unease at the steady growth of Sinn Féin is palpable here in Leinster House. In the past year the anti-Sinn Fein rhetoric, much of it harking back to the days of censorship and demonisation, has been cranked up. We have heard it again during the Nice Treaty debate. Labour fears losses in Dublin. Fianna Fáil is looking to vulnerable TDs under electoral threat in key constituencies. The PDs, themselves facing electoral oblivion, speak of our ``extreme left wing policies'' which will ruin the country. Undoubtedly, the forthcoming general election will see even more mud slung in our direction. But that is all to the good. It merely shows the political bankruptcy of the establishment parties.

Next week marks another significant election anniversary - ten years on from the election of H-Block prisoners Kieran Doherty and Paddy Agnew in Cavan/Monaghan and Louth. The election of the two republican TDs helped to sweep away Fianna Fáil's overall majority and they have never regained it since. Unfortunately, Sinn Féin was not ready to build on those electoral achievements at the time but the position is entirely different now. This time the foundations have been laid and the republican TDs who come to occupy the places prepared for them here are set to have a major impact on Irish politics.

An Phoblacht
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