Sinn Féin’s audience is deaf to official Ireland

Published by the Sunday Business Post 30 August 2015

Does it matter if the Provisional IRA hasn’t really gone away?

It matters to Michael McDowell, Micheál Martin, Frances Fitzgerald, newspaper editors and the Marian Finucane radio panel. But the deeply uncomfortable truth is that Official Ireland does not penetrate Teflon Sinn Féin.

Members of the Provisional IRA have been implicated in the rape of children and the murder of innocents. But none of the allegations of cover-ups, obfuscations and denials by Sinn Féin has damaged its electoral support.

This is nowhere more obvious than in Limerick. An electoral legacy of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe’s death was that working-class Limerick once preferred to elect a notorious gang leader than a Sinn Féin representative.

I canvassed for Fine Gael in Moyross, Southill, Thomondgate and King’s Island during the 1999 local elections. Although not known as Fine Gael strongholds, to put it mildly, Sinn Féin was simply not on the radar. Instead, Michael Kelly, a man with 38 convictions, whose surname provoked fear throughout the city, topped the poll in Ward Three. Kelly’s violent reputation was preferable to a party associated with McCabe’s death.

That was then, this is now. Sinn Féin has travelled from 504 first preferences in the 1999 Limerick city and county local elections to 9,298 votes at the 2014 local elections. The past no longer matters to parts of the electorate.

Maurice Quinlivan was elected a Limerick city and county councillor for Sinn Féin last year. His brother, Nessan Quinlivan, is a former Provisional IRA member who escaped from Brixton Prison in 1991 while awaiting trial on a variety of charges including explosives and conspiracy to murder. Nessan made his escape from Brixton with his cellmate Pearse McAuley, later found guilty of the manslaughter of Jerry McCabe.

Ann McCabe will visit Mount St Oliver Cemetery on June 7 next year to put flowers on her husband’s grave, marking the 20th anniversary of his killing. It will probably be the year Limerick elects its first-ever Sinn Féin TD. That is how much Limerick has changed. People will vote for Quinlivan because of his work on the ground. Sinn Féin’s association with the Provisional IRA does not impact on his vote.

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” LP Hartley once wrote. People who were born the year the Good Friday Agreement was signed will be voting for the first time in 2016. Eighteen years is a generation from the memories of taxi men being murdered, pubs being blown up and indiscriminate car bombs.

I was 18 years old when I canvassed with John Hume on Belfast’s Victoria Square for the Good Friday Referendum. My six younger siblings have no real memory of a Northern Ireland consumed by violence. The demographics of memory have fundamentally changed. This is a generation that for the most part do not buy newspapers or listen to the great and good on radio panels.

Gerry Adams, Mary Lou McDonald and Pearse Doherty have more followers on Twitter than the entire cabinet. A 40 second Facebook video of McDonald drinking tea in her kitchen appealing for people to turn out to a water protest has almost 130,000 views. Many of her Facebook videos have gathered more views than the entire readership of a daily newspaper.

Sinn Féin’s method of communicating directly to its supporters is deliberate. It feeds into the anti-establishment brand they have built. For instance, McDonald’s Facebook wall has a picture of Gerry Adams emblazoned with the words “The IRA is gone and is not coming back.” Her accompanying message declares: “There are of course still elements of the media who are hostile to Sinn Féin’s political advance.”

Over 3,500 people have directly engaged with McDonald’s post, with tens of thousands more having read it. One reader’s response on McDonald’s Facebook post is typical of the anti-everything, disaffected mindset. Philip writes: “I bet this is some ploy by FG, FF and Labour, just so Sinn Féin doesn’t get the votes,” apparently reckoning that the murders of Kevin McGuigan and Jock Davidson are an elaborate government strategy.

Sinn Féin is riding on the same anti-establishment wave as Jeremy Corbyn’s bid for leadership of the Labour party and Donald Trump’s campaign for the US presidency. An electoral phenomenon known as the disaffecteds. People who buy into a brand which is against the official consensus.

Sinn Féin supporters associate the party with anti-austerity policies, not with a past which implicitly condoned Jerry McCabe’s death by campaigning for the early release of his killers.

The party is at 18 per cent according to the July Sunday Business Post/Red C Poll, almost double its 2011 general election vote share. Sinn Féin councillors will preside as mayors over the 1916 centenary commemorations in all of Ireland’s biggest cities – Dublin, Belfast, Cork and Derry. Dublin now has its first ever Sinn Féin Lord Mayor in the history of the state, Cork its first in 90 years.

Why would the alleged return of the Provisional IRA hurt Sinn Féin when the rape of Maria Cahill did not? Nor have the post-Peace Agreement murders of Eamon Collins (1999), Robert McCartney (2005), Joseph Rafferty (2005) and Paul Quinn (2007) damaged Sinn Féin. Nor has the 2005 Northern Bank robbery.

This is a party whose leader was arrested and held overnight for questioning last year in relation to the 1972 abduction and murder of Jean McConville, a 37-year-old widow and mother of ten children.

Official Ireland is speaking a different language to an Ireland blind to the past, and focused instead on the consequences of austerity. An ugly truth, but the truth.

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