Kevin Toolis: Sinn Fein is controlled by sinister shadowy figures

Shadow of the gunman returns: Despite its recent election surge in Ireland, Sinn Fein is still controlled by sinister shadowy figures from its terrorist past, writes Kevin Toolis

Sinn Fein’s historic ‘surge’ in this weekend’s election has in effect torched the entire Irish political establishment. Overnight, the politics of consensus, compromise, and accommodation with British rule in Northern Ireland that has dominated Irish politics for the last 90 years has, to all intent and purposes, been abandoned.

As a result, the very existence of the Northern Irish state is now more in peril since the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rebellion.

And terrifyingly, the result has brought the IRA’s secretive Army Council close to power in Dublin.

Make no mistake, Sinn Fein – the political party of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, of Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, of the bomb and the bullet – is still controlled by sinister shadowy figures from its recent terrorist past.

And it would be in power in Ireland today if only it had been more ambitious and fielded more election candidates.

Sinn Fein’s historic ‘surge’ in this weekend’s election has in effect torched the entire Irish political establishment, writes KEVIN TOOLIS. Pictured: Sinn Fein leaders Mary Lou McDonald (left) and Michelle O’Neill

The party’s figurehead leader, Mary Lou McDonald, might already have made the call to Downing Street to demand Irish re-unification.

Sinn Fein are now the most popular political party in Ireland, and the only party that has electoral representatives north and south of the border.

The Left-wing republican party took 24.5 per cent of the vote, compared to 22 per cent and 21 per cent respectively for the established parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. No one party will have enough seats for a majority, and before the election both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael ruled out forging a coalition with Sinn Fein, citing its IRA past and high tax policies as deterrents.

That was then – yesterday morning brought a new reality. Discussions to form a coalition will be difficult and prolonged, but whatever the exact composition of the future Irish government, this is an election that will re-shape the destiny of these islands forever.

Of course, the result is a thumping personal humiliation for former Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, leader of Fine Gael who, in his efforts to be a power player in Europe over Brexit negotiations, perhaps took his eye off the ball back home for longer than he should.

So how was the old order has been cast aside and how did a reinvigorated Sinn Fein become the engine of change for it?

Of course, the result is a thumping personal humiliation for former Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (centre), leader of Fine Gael who, in his efforts to be a power player in Europe over Brexit negotiations, perhaps took his eye off the ball back home for longer than he should, writes KEVIN TOOLIS

Ireland has the youngest population in the EU and it was younger voters who put their faith in the newly-minted promises of Sinn Fein to solve the problems that beset this age group: a housing crisis, high rents, homelessness, a failing healthcare provision, creaking tax system widely seen to favour political cronies, and inequality in one of Europe’s best performing economies.

These voters did not grow up haunted by the Troubles; for them Sinn Fein’s links to the IRA and terrorism belonged to history. They saw, instead, two powerful women – both mothers – at the helm of Sinn Fein: its president Mary Lou McDonald, 50, and her 43-year-old vice-president, Michelle O’Neill, who leads Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland.

But for two decades I reported on the bloody carnage of the Troubles, bombs, guns, and the terrible human cost. I wrote a book about the IRA and I spent thousands of hours in the company of IRA gunmen and their leaders.

Never once did I ever hear any regret or doubt about the cost in blood and pain in pursuing the IRA’s goal. Irish Republicanism is a faith, not a political philosophy.

The party’s figurehead leader, Mary Lou McDonald, might already have made the call to Downing Street to demand Irish re-unification, writes KEVIN TOOLIS

And behind the slick image of change, Sinn Fein today remains very much the party of the paramilitary past. The ‘democratic party’ of Sinn Fein is still ruled by a reconstituted IRA Army Council based in Belfast known as the Ard Chomairle, and the shadowy IRA figures who control every aspect of policy and rigorously bully and expel anyone, even in their own ranks, who dissents from the leadership line.

This IRA politburo never meets in public, holds press conferences, or even admits to its true identity as the political executive of the IRA. Democratic debate or the usual personal rivalry of a real political party remain utterly foreign to Sinn Fein’s own internal politics. Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill might be poster girls for Sinn Fein, but they were appointed by edict to their position and then slavishly endorsed in North Korean-style votes by the party membership.

In a robotic fashion, they continue to parrot a line not that far from the IRA Army Council’s view that the 3,700 murders of the Troubles, and innumerable IRA atrocities, are all the fault of the British Government and that the answer to all of Ireland’s problems is the immediate re-unification of the island.

This rigid Stalinist control from the top, and the demand for unquestioning obedience to the IRA’s version of history, had – until this weekend – always hampered Sinn Fein from ever attracting a younger generation of politically able recruits south of the border.

Now, McDonald (and behind the scenes her IRA bosses) will have a key role as either a coalition partner with Fianna Fail, or as kingmaker – and I believe that real power and the prospect of a handful ministerial posts in the next Irish Government, means Sinn Fein is certain to attract more mainstream support that will pull the very centre of Irish politics towards the republican cause.

Even outside government, such a large bloc of Sinn Fein members in the Irish Parliament will effectively deliver a political veto.

On trade, on Brexit, on the border, on the European Union, every future Dublin government will dance to the Sinn Fein tune or risk being seen to betray the will of the Irish people. Or fall from power by a no confidence vote.

And every setback, every political skirmish with Downing Street on Brexit, will be recast into a hostile nationalist agenda towards British rule.

Make no mistake, Sinn Fein – the political party of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, of Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams (bottom right), of the bomb and the bullet – is still controlled by sinister shadowy figures from its recent terrorist past, writes KEVIN TOOLIS

Nor is Dublin likely to spend so much energy placating the endless demands and insults of the DUP in the North just to keep the fragile political peace at Stormont. Why bother? Sinn Fein does not believe that Northern Ireland should exist as a state in the first place.

In reality as a political party, Sinn Fein only has one agenda – Irish re-unification. And they will now ruthlessly pursue this goal whatever the price.

The first thing on Sinn Fein’s political agenda is likely to be their demand for a border poll. As Northern Ireland’s Catholic population has grown, the gap with the Protestant majority has narrowed. There is a possibility that there is already a majority in Northern Ireland for a United Ireland.

But in Dublin government circles, until now, even the possibility of such a poll is viewed as no more than a political stunt designed to provoke violent opposition from loyalists in Northern Ireland and endanger the whole peace process.

All that has changed.

Bolstered what they see as the tide of history at their back, Sinn Fein, using their new found electoral numbers, are unlikely to be deterred whatever the cost in bringing their republican dream into being.

Ireland’s Troubles are far from over – and the shadow of a gunman is once again the most powerful force in Irish politics.

  • Kevin Toolis is the author of Rebel Hearts: Journeys Within the IRA’s Soul

 

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