Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald talks to the media as she meets with members of the public in Dublin on February 10.
Unlike Greece, Ireland had its civil war immediately after the war of independence in 1922. The cause was the peace treaty between Britain and Ireland which agreed on the partition of the island, with six counties (Ulster) remaining in the UK and 26 becoming, eventually, the Republic of Ireland. The civil war was between those who accepted this partition as the only practical way forward, and those who resolutely held out for a united Ireland. A century later, the long arm of civil war again disturbs the equilibrium, with the cataclysmic success of Sinn Fein, a hardline republican and nationalist party, in the recent general election.
The two sides of the civil war emerged in peacetime as Fianna Fail (the more republican-oriented party) which dominated the political scene for decades, and Fine Gael (the more diplomatic party) which has held office most recently since 2011.
From 1937, the republic’s constitution enshrined the irredentist “Megali Idea” of a united Ireland, with a reference to “the reintegration of the national territory.” This remained the republic’s official policy until diplomatic relations between the UK and Ireland dictated that, in order to establish power-sharing in Northern Ireland between predominantly Catholic republicans on one side and Protestants who adhered to Britain on the other, the relevant aspiration was deleted.
To Catholic nationalists, Ulster represents occupied territory, not unlike the British occupation of Cyprus, and, later, the invasion by Turkey. Ever since partition, the self-styled Irish Republican Army (IRA) has conducted a military and terroristic campaign on both sides of the border against the British presence (not unlike EOKA in Cyprus in the 1950s). Sinn Fein has been its political profile.
Despite decommissioning of the arms held by the IRA and their Protestant equivalents, hardline extremists on both sides continue to defy the peace process, with the IRA pursuing the ultimate goal of a united Ireland. Anyone seeking a brutal description of the psychological and emotional havoc in Northern Ireland that persists to the present day should read Anna Burns’ unforgiving “Milkman,” the 2018 Man Booker prize winner recently translated into Greek by Maria Angelidou as “O Galatas” and published by Gutenberg-Dardanos.
In the meantime, Sinn Fein, the voice of the IRA (exonerating the killings it inflicted on both military and civilians), was itself sanitized of its connections with terrorism, becoming ostensibly a conventional political party as distinct from an apologist for sectarian terror. With a change of leadership of the party, from hardline republicanism to what appears to be a conciliatory and constructive approach to the electorate, Sinn Fein has gained considerable political momentum. Its katabasis into politics south of the border has been unsettling, yet no one was prepared for the result of the general election on February 8.
The overnight earthquake of February 8-9 has changed the political landscape of Ireland and has taken everyone, including Sinn Fein themselves, completely by surprise. Like the advent of SYRIZA, this was a political force driving an electoral wedge between the two established parties. Despite growing support for Sinn Fein, it was inconceivable that its candidates would top the ballot in almost every constituency where they were in contest.
The outcome – with Sinn Fein and the two old-established parties neck-and-neck, each with 25 percent of the seats, and the remainder held by independents (12 percent) and the Green Party (8 percent) – is unprecedented.
Two factors contributed to this phenomenal success: the tolerance of younger voters who have little or no memory of the murder squads in the internecine war of the north; and dissatisfaction by voters generally with the performance of the two major parties.
But leaving aside the ethical dimension, Sinn Fein in government would, like SYRIZA, lack all prior experience in administration or the implementation of policy. This, alone, limits its ability to enter government.
The election was fought on the predictable basis of the economy, the health service and the housing crisis (houses are out of the financial reach of lower incomes). This result pushes those considerations at least temporarily to the sidelines, while Sinn Fein continues to put the unification of Ireland at the top of its political priorities.
While a coalition has not yet been formed, it is abundantly clear that distrust of the ethical and moral standing of Sinn Fein is the major deterrent to its claim to enter government.
There has already been a warning sign: Immediately after the election, it was suggested that, contrary to superficial appearances, Sinn Fein remains under the control of the invisible “army council” which directs IRA operations. A political party with 75 seats in the Vouli, with the public profile of “Revolutionary Struggle” or Rouvikonas, would evoke the same level of apprehension as Sinn Fein’s electoral success.
What worries the general public, along with politicians of all persuasions, is that Sinn Fein’s unrepentant attitude to the IRA’s terrorism remains a central feature of its operating culture. The party’s appearance in the political tapestry of the republic has made it a suspicious parliamentary bedfellow.
Ireland has been an essentially conservative electorate, both in urban and rural areas. The middle-of-the-road policies of the two major parties have increasingly diluted their former “civil war” antagonisms. Suddenly, the entire reason for their historical emergence in 1922 has been brought to the fore, with a Venizelist-type irredentism catapulting unification back into the political spotlight.
Richard Pine is director of the Durrell Library of Corfu, which will host “Borders and Borderlands” on May 20-24.