|Tom Newton Dunn (Photo: The Guardian)|
Speaking on the BBC’s Newsnight programme, last Friday, the Journalist Tom Newton Dunn made a startling claim. The Sun’s political editor said if there was a hard border in Ireland – arising from the ‘Brexit’ negotiations – then Fine Gael, in his words, would “lose a shed load of seats” to Sinn Fein. I don’t know what facts Mr Newton Dunn has to back up this absurd claim other than a sketchy idea of Irish politics or maybe he’s just making a guess based on a little local knowledge. But, as my mother often told me, a little knowledge can be a bad thing. No, you must be in full possession of the facts before you go on television making this kind of wild assertion. Once again we are being treated to British ignorance on Irish politics – this time from a London-based journalist! When will they ever learn?
Now to put the facts in perspective for Mr Newton Dunn and for anyone else in doubt: Sinn Fein are, as correctly stated, campaigning (as the party has done since the division of Ireland in 1922) for an end to the border. The ‘Brexit’ debacle has brought this issue back into sharp focus and is now the subject of plenty of debate among nationalists. However to assert that Gerry Adams’ party will overtake Fine Gael – or even become the second largest party in the Dail – is to miss several key points.
Firstly, Sinn Fein’s support base is mainly, if not exclusively, left wing. This places them at a disadvantage. Moreover Fine Gael and Fianna Fail get most of their votes chiefly from middle class voters. This cohort of voters isn’t suddenly going to switch their support to Sinn Fein, a party with questionable economic policies. The second reason that I believe will preclude Sinn Fein from serving in government in the Republic centres around their leadership. Mr Adams’ links – going back decades – to the IRA make his presence toxic to many in Dail Eireann. It is unlikely that either Fine Gael, or Fianna Fail, would go into coalition with Sinn Fein with the current leadership. As stated here before, once Mr Adams leaves the political stage then it is far more likely that others will want to do business with his party. Until then, I believe Sinn Fein will not be in high office in Dublin.
The third reason I think Sinn Fein TD’s will not be sitting around the cabinet table any time soon relates to the party’s obstinate refusal to co-operate. As in Northern Ireland, they are too concerned with their own political ideology to work with others for the greater good. This makes it hard to see them being capable of cutting the kind of deal necessary to form part of an administration (of whatever complexion). Put bluntly, Sinn Fein are not pragmatic enough. They do not know enough about the art of compromise to work successfully in partnership with others. This is an impediment which they will have to overcome at some point into the future. I believe they will do so eventually, but currently this is not the case.
The eminent commentator Newton Emerson, writing in the Irish Times last week, stated his view that Sinn Fein’s rise in the Republic is being ignored. In his article he correctly pointed out that the latter party attracts a large number of voters under the age of 35. But one swallow doesn’t make a summer. We cannot assume that just because Sinn Fein have advanced in previous Irish general elections that they will do so sufficiently again to reach power. At the general election of 2010 the party made a huge advance. But that was largely at the expense of Fianna Fail. Soft republican voters, who previously backed ‘the Soldiers of Destiny’ were – like many others – disgusted at the economic mess created by Brian Cowen’s government.
However it is critical to understand that in order to advance further in the South Sinn Fein need the support of middle class voters. This, I would strongly argue, will not happen for the reasons I’ve already outlined above. Of the two Newton’s , I feel that Mr Emerson has a better grip on Anglo-Irish politics. As for Mr Newton Dunn, he should stick to commenting on Westminster matters of which he is far better versed. I rest my case.