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Time to stop demonising Sinn Féin

(Jim Gibney, Irish News)

Sinn Féin's result in the Meath by-election is nothing short of spectacular. Joe Reilly managed not only to hold onto the 6000 first preference votes he got in the Republic's last general election, he also increased his percentage share of the vote.

In the general election two years ago, Joe polled nine per cent of the vote, in the by-election he polled over 12%. This remarkable performance has to be assessed in terms of a 40% turn out by the electorate last Friday compared to a 65% turn out in the general election.

Even though the boundaries in Meath are set to change, Joe Reilly, on last week's performance, has a good chance of being elected to the Dail after the next general election, joining an ever increasing number of Sinn Féin TDs.

I don't think I am exaggerating when I describe the result for Sinn Féin as spectacular.

The electorate of Meath have been on the receiving end of a daily onslaught from the Irish government and the anti-republican media over the last three months.

Bertie Ahern and Michael McDowell tried to blame Sinn Féin for the events in the north.

They knew they were peddling a lie but they carried on nonetheless, feeding off each other and feeding the sycophantic media, who reported on, without question, their every anti-republican word.

Mr McDowell vilified Sinn Féin and the IRA, implying they were involved in criminal conspiracy and used language often used to describe a mafia-type organisation.

To scare people he brazenly claimed without a scintilla of proof, that "the IRA are a threat to the democratic institutions of the southern state".

The truth of the matter of course is well known to both men. Bertie Ahern has been working with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness daily since he became Taoiseach. He knows that Sinn Féin and the IRA are not a criminal conspiracy.

He knows that the IRA does not pose a threat to southern democracy and that Sinn Féin uses peaceful political persuasion only to achieve its objectives.

But that doesn't matter and hasn't mattered for quite some time. In Irish government circles the motto, "don't let the truth get in the way of a good story" is the order of the day.

And the underlying motivation is simple: Sinn Féin's united Ireland and progressive agenda, which puts unity and independence centre stage, is a threat to the political establishment in the south and the way they conduct their business.

In the best possible world Sinn Féin could, courtesy of the electorate, be simultaneously in coalition government in the south and in the northern executive – a scenario some very powerful people on this island and our neighbouring island are doing their worst to prevent.

There are many lessons for the southern parties out of the Meath and Kildare by-elections but I'm concerned to highlight only one of them: stop demonising Sinn Féin and get back to rebuilding the nationalist consensus which delivered so much progress in the early days of the peace process.

Those who voted for Sinn Féin in Meath, like the 342,000 others across Ireland who vote for the party, see through the smear campaign.

The result in Meath has rendered the vilification campaign next to useless.

Of course those behind this campaign will argue without it Sinn Féin's result could have been better. However, this speculative and marginal advantage to them has to be weighed against the considerable damage they are doing to the peace process.

The peace process urgently needs an injection of enthusiasm similar to that generated by Albert Reynolds, John Hume and Gerry Adams when they worked together.

Party politics is one thing and difference is essential between parties to ensure we have a healthy democracy but the peace process has to be above the interests of individual parties.

There is too much at stake – losing votes is one thing; putting the peace process in jeopardy is an entirely different matter.

March 18, 2005

This article appeared first in the March 17, 2005 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News