Spending the day with Gerry Adams

Patrick Belton spends the day with Sinn Fein's president and reflects on the possible deals that wil

In a Dublin where no stretch of horizon lacks a crane, Gerry Adams and I pass the day before elections in working-class Northside neighbourhoods whose inhabitants have not all tasted the Celtic Tiger.

He permits me to accompany him on the hustings and we speak in the sluggish moments; we go to city centre where Sinn Féin’s national chairperson Mary Lou McDonald hopes for a seat in Dublin Central, and later to Finglas, where IRA bombmaker turned councillor Dessie Ellis seeks his in Dublin North-West.

This is Sinn Féin’s moment. In all, the party will add five to seven seats to its current set of five; it is projected to poll 10 per cent in today’s count of votes, against 7 in 2002 and 3 in 1997. With the governing Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats coalition locked in close war with the alternative Fine Gael-Labour-Green alliance and neither tipped to command a majority, Sinn Féin could end in government both north and south. Should the Dáil be hung, Sinn Féin is set to be its kingmaker.

Adams its president is respectful, unhurried, generous with his time, listening carefully to what his interlocutors have to say. He wears a fáinne and a breast cancer ribbon, for his assistant Siobhán O’Hanlon who died last April; under his blazer his shirt is open at the neck, and not tucked in.

Unlike the GPO - the building that was HQ to Pearse and Connolly's republican organisations during the 1916 Easter Rising - today’s Sinn Féin is eager to cover up its bullet holes. But why are so many otherwise sane people, in a peaceful nation enjoying the strongest economic growth of the EU-15, disposed to vote now for a party headed by a former member of the IRA's Army Council and a socialist?

The answer lies partly in cultural dislocations caused by a Celtic Tiger economy (where low taxes fuelled an average annual GDP growth of seven per cent over the last decade), in part concern for how this wealth is being spent and not least the support of those feeling left behind.

With its message of social levelling, Sinn Féin’s gains are strongest amongst members of the working classes unmoved by the Tiger. Other parties are in economic policy understandably prescribing more of the same; SF’s manifesto alone calls for redistribution through higher taxes. Amongst the more wealthy, Republicanism finds an elegiac centre for a society which has spawned the new Irishman—represented by Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary and Paddy Power’s Popebetting, cheeky and likely to have made a bundle in property in the 90’s but not necessarily up on his Yeats or his Irish.

There also is the benefit of SF’s ambiguity, a political Rorschach spot riding what Adams acknowledges is an electoral bubble of favourable publicity following formation of a coalition government in the North with Ian Paisley’s loyalist DUP.

There’s little in their manifesto they’ve not pulled back from when pushed; and to the extent Republicanism stands for nothing (apart from 32 counties), everyone can be a Republican. A touch of inscrutability has its privileges, as a taoiseach’s personal financial foibles and misstewardship of the health service weigh him with negatives on the one hand, and the opposition leader’s repute as a policy lightweight does like work on the other.

With Adams by some polls having the highest favourable ratings of any Irish politician, many voters from across the political continuum flirted with Gerry. One is actress Máire Greaney, who with her Maureen O’Hara looks, auburn hair and fluent Irish, is Hollywood’s fantasy of the West of Ireland. The Galway resident is a lifelong Labour voter but like many, she confides, in this election 'I started to ask myself, am I a Republican?'

Yet 90% of Irish voters are not republicans, not of Gerry Adams’s sort anyway. (The Irish system of PR with multiple member districts and a single transferable vote, which in coalition parleys will magnify their influence, dryly dates to the closing days of British Southern Ireland, and a desire to confine the sway of Sinn Féin of a century ago by nurturing smaller parties.) They have at least two decent reasons not to be. First, how long must Bono sing this song. The Good Friday Accords were signed in 1998; the Colombia Three were arrested in 2001, for offering bomb making and urban warfare expertise to the narcotrafficking FARC in return for €25 million. Each of them had Sinn Féin as well as IRA connections.

Niall Connolly was the Latin American representative for the party and had been arranging Gerry Adam’s visit to Havana; Martin McCauley was an election worker in the Upper Bann constituency in 1998, and James Monaghan was voted to the party’s Ard Chomhairle in 1989. A bit rich, then, the party’s manifesto promises a crackdown on drugs.

And whatever allowances can be made for such technology in the confused environment of communal reprisal in the North in 1975-76 and 1987-95, there can be no excuse made for their export outside Northern Ireland, to drug lords in Colombia. This is the lesser reason. More importantly, they’ve not taken the socialism out of (their) Irish politics. The history of nationalism combined with socialism is not a uniformly happy one. Their manifesto likes high corporate and individual taxes, the opposite of the growth recipe Fianna Fáil have been pursuing for the last decade. This is the strongest reason not to put an IRA gun to the Celtic Tiger's head.

I ask Adams whether he is concerned the party’s call for more spending on social services would kill the tiger. He counters that no one with whom he’d spoken on the hustings had shared that concern, that they instead were pressed down on every day by overly dear housing and inadequately managed hospitals if they fell ill.

He also points to the €5.6 billion budget surplus, evidence taxes needn’t be raised and an inculpation against the government for not spending it on the poor. Yet Stormont, financially dependent upon Westminster’s largesse, is meagre as a training pitch for financial prudence. And the solution of the manifesto, repeated over and over, is greater levies against the public purse. (A reading from the book of republican economics manifestoes includes a ‘Combating Low Pay’ portion on page 40 that opens with ‘immediately increase the minimum wage ... and abolish age and experience differentials.’ ‘Raising Household Incomes’, on page 44, counsels the state to ‘double the living alone allowance’ and ‘increase the Family Income Supplement by €68 per week and make it an automatic payment. Ensure all those eligible take it up...’ It continues for 74 pages.)

I ask what Republicanism means today, and whether 32 counties takes precedence over the economics. Adams refuses to subordinate one to the other, and says its presence at local council and national levels means Sinn Féin can move simultaneously towards Irish unity and a more equal, just society. When I note his calls to move water and health to an all-Ireland basis and ask him whether his tests whether to move a service to 32 would include that it could be furnished more cheaply at all-Ireland level, he ducks slightly and remarks the business community has come to view Ireland in island-wide terms, and it facilitates investment accordingly to harmonise jurisdictions, laws and regulations.

I ask him his criteria for joining Fianna Fáil’s coalition, or offering it support from outside in the Dáil as a minority government, if their current junior partner PDs face their expected political annihilation. He says Sinn Féin will not be easily lured, and there would need to be agreed joint steps both towards United Ireland and expanded social protection; he lingers over housing.

Two observations going forward. One is coalition arithmetic. If the Dáil is hung, protracted negotiations lasting in the weeks could precede forming a government; Ahern faces hard sums. Though he and opposition leader Enda Kenny of Fine Gael have both forsworn Sinn Féin as a coalition partner, in political circles the vow is roundly considered false.

Ahern has already cracked a window by stating he couldn’t stop SF deputies from voting to prop up the government if they so chose, though of course there could be no quid pro quo. With its smaller vote harvest, Sinn Féin would require fewer portfolios if insde than would Labour. Yet there are alternatives for Ahern if the costs charged to the Tiger’s economic policies prove too high.

The Greens may be in play. Labour’s Pat Rabbitte has slammed the door to cooperation with Ahern, but his party includes many veterans from the last Labour-FF government, and clientelist rural Irish politics being what it is, Labour’s rural TDs have as close ties to Fianna Fáil as to the international labour movement.

There have been suggestions Ahern would even ponder allowing an FF-Labour government to be led by someone other than himself, in which case De Valera would remain Ireland’s unique threepeating taoiseach a bit longer. How much sway would Sinn Féin exert as a junior partner? If the influence of the PDs is instructive, the junior party’s influence will focus around one issue.

The PDs selected the finance portfolio when they first did business with Bertie; given the party’s free-market line, the presence of a substantial PD closet within Fianna Fáil and the PD’s own origins as an FF breakaway party, focusing their energies on the economy let them boast a success they did not enjoy subsequently, when seeking to widen their appeal they moved into justice and health, a fatal tactical mistake.

Patrick Belton is a London-based journalist, completing a doctorate at Oxford

Patrick Belton is a London-based journalist, and is currently completing a doctorate at Oxford.
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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hopep to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.