Politics changed utterly as uncertainty rises

Posted By: April 10, 2017

Deaglan de Breadun. Irish News. Belfast. Monday, April 10, 2017

We live in a strange time where nothing is guaranteed anymore.

Pretend you have been taken in a time-travel machine back to 1997. Imagine having the nerve and/or the insight at that stage to predict some of the things that are happening now.

Few of us would have dared forecast that in 20 years the United Kingdom would be leaving the European Union. After all, there had been a referendum back in the mid-70s where the vote was 67 to 33 percent in favor of staying in the Common Market, as it was then known.

The number of Scottish National Party MPs after the Westminster election of 1997 was six out of 72 whereas Labour had 56 seats in Scotland. In the 2015 election, the SNP won 54 seats and Labour only one, out of a total of 59. Meanwhile, the devolved administration in Edinburgh is pressing for a second referendum on independence. Talk about “Scots Wha Hae”!

In the elections to Dáil Éireann 20 years ago, Sinn Féin won a single seat. That was 11 long years after they dropped abstentionism towards Leinster House, but today the party has 23 TDs and seven senators.

In the USA in 1997, Bill Clinton had started on a second term as president and, although a colorful character in his own right, we could never have predicted the type of person who would be doing that job today. Nor would we have forecast that in 2017, a candidate on the far right would be in with a serious chance of becoming president of France.

There is a real sense nowadays that all bets are off and anything can happen. Many of those who voted for Brexit were motivated by a combination of British or English nationalism and a desire to reduce the immigrant presence in the UK, but they could end up losing Scotland in the process and perhaps even Northern Ireland in the longer term (they might not all be heartbroken over the latter).

Back in 1997, the issue of a united Ireland was hardly mentioned in political discourse. Since Brexit, it has been receiving serious and thoughtful attention in mainstream media and politics because it is no longer seen as a poetic fantasy voiced mainly in late-night singing sessions after a good intake of drink.

The predominant feeling these days in the politics of this island, north, and south, is febrile uncertainty. At Leinster House, the minority government led by Fine Gael appears more fragile than ever. The arrangement with Fianna Fáil in opposition is a marriage of convenience which could end in divorce at any moment.

In the old days, politics in the south was a fairly decorous arrangement whereby Fianna Fáil would generally take turns in government with a Fine Gael-Labour coalition. Now all is changed, changed utterly, because of the growth of Sinn Féín and the recently-renamed Solidarity-People Before Profit.

Fianna Fáil is walking a political tightrope. On the one hand, it is keeping the current minority administration in power until the opportune moment comes to pull the plug. On the other, it is seeking to contain the rise of the ‘Shinners’ in particular, as they will be serious rivals at the ballot-box when the election finally takes place.

After the next general election, there is a real possibility that neither Fianna Fáil nor Fine Gael will be able to form a government without Sinn Féin participation. That would require some wrestling with consciences on both sides, not to mention a lot of hard bargaining, but Sinn Féin might be able to achieve more as part of a southern government than it has been able to bring about in the north.

A partnership based in Leinster House would not be plain sailing but could still be more productive than the power-sharing administrations at Stormont have been. New life could be breathed into the north-south relationship and, given the right coalition deal, a fresh element of social justice injected into the southern society where there is a serious level of inequality and underprivileged.

As the talks drag on in Belfast, it is hard to imagine that any of the participants wants a return to direct rule, and an election at this early stage can’t be very attractive either. One of the problems for Sinn Féin is that any unpopular decisions taken by a new executive will be highlighted by their political opponents down south. When Gerry Adams and Co were criticiZing welfare cuts by the Dublin government, they were quickly reminded that similar measures were taking place in the north.

Meanwhile, the only certainty seems to be that Adams himself will not be retiring anytime soon but that speculation about it will continue, as it has done for the past ten years or more.