(Photo by Tom Brenner/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

A bit late now

Ireland’s crumbling defences against Sinn Fein

Politically speaking, it is clear that Dublin is in a situation of some shock at present. Never before has the political wing of the IRA, Sinn Fein, placed first in an Irish general election, or approached this closely to the once unthinkable event of entering government in the Republic.  Responses thus far range from sincere alarm to what looks like the studied attempt to convey an unruffled attitude of business as usual. Some in the first camp have taken to social media to discuss the possibility of police and intelligence records in the Irish state apparatus being shredded as quickly as possible before the internal enemy enters the corridor of power, or to float the introduction of new codes and tests for political advisors, to limit the number of individuals in the inner sanctums of government with known links to paramilitarism or criminality.

It is a sign of just how caught off guard the Irish political class is by this sudden turn of events that a large number of deeply consequential questions have been left not only unanswered but also, more culpably, unasked. Retrospective wisdom is always a luxury in such a situation, but it might well be asked how a country facing the prospect of a political party attached to a private army running government departments managed to get this close to the nightmare eventuality without systematically preparing for the practicalities.

The damage limitation exercise goes beyond protecting the institutions of state as best as might prove possible to protecting the good standing of those most responsible for a series of catastrophic errors over recent years. The first of these catastrophic errors was the attempt to weaponise Brexit for Ireland’s advantage and the campaign of rhetoric round that decision for several years already, up to Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s digressions around Britain becoming a ‘small country’ a few days before last week’s vote. Much more frequent than these comparatively basic dog-whistles from the top of government in Ireland were the words of the country’s most prominent media and academic voices, whose language was often a good deal more exotic.

Many of the same people responsible for repeatedly informing the Irish electorate that Brexit posed a threat to peace in Ireland and who were so often so derogatory about of the undertakings of their nearest neighbour have been quick to publish analyses arguing that an election said to be about Brexit by the head of government and called to coincide with the week after Brexit occurred, in fact had little if anything to do with Brexit at all. While much of this commentary is written very specifically to influence EU counterparts into persevering in their anti-UK alliance with Irish diplomacy, which accorded Dublin policymakers such an intoxicating illusion of power in recent years, to concede the connection between Ireland’s foolish Brexit stance and Sinn Fein’s election victory would be to concede the blindingly obvious, which is that the deliberate attempt to unleash the ancestral voices of Irish nationalism in a controlled and focused way so as to solidify the country behind an unnecessarily aggressive anti-Brexit posture has ended up potentiating the forces of toxic Irish nationalism in such a way as may now prove uncontrollable.

We simply do not know how this is going to end and it is an unpalatable but undeniable historical reality that a good number of the irruptions of political violence from within the less acknowledged strata of the Irish political psyche have arrived without much prior warning and have only been retrospectively interpreted as foreseeable after the fact. What does needs to end before any attempt at rational analysis can begin is the current campaign to deny the connection between utilising Irish nationalism for temporary advantage and empowering its most toxic proponents.

What makes this moment more dangerous for the Republic is what could be called the hollowing out of Irish political debate in recent years. This has not attracted much overseas attention in itself, but some of its surface manifestations have provided good copy to foreign journalists enthusiastic to pen long-read pieces about the Irish overthrowing their oppressive Catholic inheritance and emerging smiling into the sunlit uplands of newfound woke leftism. Several events have facilitated this genre of storytelling, including two emotionally charged and frequently embittered referendum campaigns in recent years, the first to provide for same-sex marriage, the second to provide for the legalisation of abortion.

The number of authoritative and credible anti-Sinn Fein voices in the public debate has never been lower

Whatever one might think about either matter as a policy issue, Ireland being a profoundly conformist country with deep-seated tendencies towards tribalism, both changes came about in part through a very deliberate and methodical attempt to reshape the Irish public square away from the traditional redoubts of moral authority in favour of the new voices of new identities. This is another of the marked alterations in what is and is not acceptable in Irish politics and airwaves which is flatly denied by the people whom it most benefits while being a stated of the utterly obvious to anyone else. The effect has gone beyond clearing Irish public life of many of the big voices of various strands of conservatism or the old thinking, quite a few of whom have been drummed out of the conversation one way or another, including in one case by the false accusation of holocaust denial by the state broadcaster RTE, which eventually led to a massive payout to the journalist in question, though as ever only after the damage had been done.

The upshot of these various capitulations to woke extremism, slander, the cancel culture, and so on, all of which so disastrously fits with the Irish ‘green jersey’ pastime of silencing dissenters, is that at a time when the internal threat from Sinn Fein has never been higher, the number of authoritative and credible anti-Sinn Fein voices in the public debate has never been lower. Taking on Sinn Fein is not the shortcut to a quiet life at the best of times and it is understandable if unheroic if there are only so many volunteers, to borrow the word for a moment, but the number of those who had been willing to do so but who are no longer available or who are now rarely given a platform is a particularly ominous indicator. The likely direction of travel is towards an ever greater acquiescence with the strategic rationale of the republican movement, a now foreseeable likelihood which would be a much more useful topic for ruminative meditation that the usual ‘who is up, who is down’ personality dross that characterises the bulk of Irish political commentary even still.

When Corbyn’s Labour party was defeated last December, much of the UK breathed a deep sigh of relief, partly because the unspoken question of how exactly one would practically respond if Jeremy Corbyn did enter Downing Street and Momentum did approach the most critical apparatus of state no longer needed to be asked. It is a scenario immeasurably more toxic that Irish decision-makers may very soon personally confront.

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