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