There are those – most of my acquaintance in Ireland, frankly – who can think of nothing worse than Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald as leader of the next Irish government. She’s embracing the prospect; in a walkabout in Dublin’s fruit and veg market in Moore Street, she said, as you’d expect, ‘I may well be the next Taoiseach, yes’. And yep, it would be a disaster for Britain when it comes to the Brexit negotiations. But I think that, actually, it might be the best outcome from this election which has resulted in Sinn Fein effectively level pegging with Fianna Fail in terms of seats (one FF representative is Speaker, and so out of active duty). It would have done even better if it had run candidates in every seat.
Because it is only if the electorate is obliged to come to terms with the reality of Sinn Fein that the party can be seen off in the long term. Sinn Fein is a funny amalgam of fantasy economics and old fashioned republicanism allied to really irritating contemporary wokery. It is, in British terms, Corbynist economics, Momentum youthfulness, and the communications skills of Nicola Sturgeon.
Though none of those comparisons quite does justice to the additional element that Sinn Fein brings to the party, which is the blood on its hands from the Troubles. It is that which makes Micheal Martin, the Fianna Fail leader, swallow hard at the prospect of doing any kind of deal with them. During the campaign, though not after the election, Martin spoke of the moral problem that Sinn Fein presented, namely, the unfinished business of its association with Republican violence. It’s the main reason why the present premier, Leo Varadker, wouldn’t touch it with a flagpole. (One of its new TD’s was recorded saying ‘Up the RA [IRA]’ in a pub; he has since gone in for some very convoluted explanations about where he stands in relation to the IRA.)
But the truth is, for the young people who voted for Sinn Fein, the Troubles aren’t just a distant memory; they’re not a memory at all. The youngest won’t even have much recollection of the financial crisis of 2008 and the humiliation of the EU bailout. And they are the group that voted disproportionately for the party, as well as for the Greens. The 18-24 year age group voted in small numbers – 15 and 14 per cent – for Fine Gael and Fianna Fail (the same as for the Greens); but nearly a third (32 per cent) of under-35s voted for Sinn Fein. It was the oldies, the over 65s, who kept the old two parties on the road, the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of Irish politics, with 30 per cent for each of them. The Shinners are also overwhelmingly urban; mostly Dublin-centred.
So the answer to the young people whose idea of change is Mary Lou is to give her the reins of government. Let her form her coalition with the smaller left-wing parties like People Before Profit and whatever independents she can cobble together. Let her implement her manifesto and her swingeing spending plans, and see where it gets her. The Sinn Fein plans for housing, health and childcare are a veritable wishlist from the Momentum playbook.
They’ve committed to building 100,000 new homes and cutting rents by way of tax relief and a rent freeze. Their five year programme for childcare, including state funding for creches, would cost £72 million in the first year; by the end, it says it would cut childcare costs by two thirds. And how would it pay for all this, and for increases in health spending? In the party’s draft manifesto last year, that would be by whacking the banks, and the rich. There’d be a one per cent tax on anyone holding wealth of over £844,000, and an extra five per cent high-income levy on anyone earning over £118,000 a year – tax credits would be abolished for this group too. That would, in Ireland, include quite a few professionals such as hospital consultants whom you really don’t want to drive abroad.
A Sinn Fein government would, I think, be a disaster, but it would be a democratically mandated disaster. So give Mary Lou her head. Let her do her worst and see what happens to the economy. Because it is only when Sinn Fein’s populism (it’s not just a right-wing thing) is translated into hard policies and hard economics that it can be seen for the delusional fantasy that it is. Unfortunately, bringing Ireland’s woke youth into contact with reality will be exceptionally painful for everyone else.