Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Sinn Fein and European Values

Brussels shuns Poland’s and Hungary’s governments – but will happily break bread with Sinn Fein.

Sinn Fein’s long journey with the armalite and the ballot box has resulted in affirmation through the ballot box. Talking about homelessness and the cost of housing has worked, where decades of justifying the creation of widows and orphans failed.

Weeks of horse-trading will determine whether Sinn Fein enters government in the Republic, either leading a rainbow alliance of minor parties or as Fianna Fáil’s partner in power. It can be excluded only if a grand coalition of the establishment involving both Fianne Fáil and Fine Gael can be loosely fastened together. Fine Gael’s leader, Leo Varadkar, will not make a deal with Sinn Fein – a party over which the IRA Army Council has always taken a fraternal interest.

If it does form part of Ireland’s government, then Sinn Fein ought also to be of interest to the European Union. When, in 2000, Austria’s right wing Freedom Party joined Wolfgang Schüssel’s coalition, the EU responded by placing the country in diplomatic quarantine. There was much that was abhorrent about the Freedom Party. Its leader, Jorg Haider, was a virulent nationalist (isn’t Sinn Fein?) but – unlike Sinn Fein – his Freedom Party did not have recent links to organised terror.

Jorg Haider, was a virulent nationalist (isn’t Sinn Fein?) but – unlike Sinn Fein – his Freedom Party did not have recent links to organised terror.

Disgusted by the sort of people with whom it would now have to associate, the EU ascended the moral high ground. Louis Michel, the then Belgian foreign minister (later a European Commissioner), exemplified the distaste in Brussels for a member state that could elect nationalists as its representatives. “Europe can very well do without Austria,” he proclaimed, “We don’t need it.”

The European Parliament passed a resolution by 406 to 53 calling for the Austrian Government’s behaviour to be monitored and to have its EU membership suspended if it failed to exemplify the EU’s values. After eight-months of non-cooperation and petty diplomatic snubs, the EU sanctions were lifted – Haider having stood down in the meantime.

More recently the EU has turned its attention to both Hungary’s and Poland’s internal affairs. In 2018 the European Parliament voted to bring disciplinary proceedings against Hungary because of what it maintained was the affront to European values represented by Viktor Orban’s government. But Budapest had friends in Warsaw, the Polish government duly helping to stymie sanctions being imposed. Hungary has however been left in no doubt that Brussels and Strasbourg thinks its government stinks.

Poland had its own reasons for sticking-up for Hungary. In 2017, the European Commission launched the first of several sanctions procedures under Article 7 of the EU Treaty against the Polish Government, arguing that its ruling Law and Justice Party’s judicial reforms put EU rules and values at risk.

The offending reforms included the content of judges’ rulings being admissible for disciplinary investigations and lowering their retirement age. These reforms may indeed be questioned, but in terms of attacks on the judiciary they seem mild compared to the summary justice that Sinn Fein’s armed wing used to carry out upon judges in Northern Ireland: five of whom they murdered. Sinn Fein has yet to issue an unequivocal statement of regret about these assaults on the rule of law in a democracy (although mindful of not creating a “distraction” it has found the time to ask its elected representatives to stop shouting IRA slogans in public places whilst the party is busy negotiating its way into power).

Whether such behaviour unnerves anyone in Ireland, it is unlikely to upset the keepers of European values in Brussels and Strasbourg who can be flexible when circumstances require.

Sinn Fein denials of current links with the IRA Army Council will be taken at face value because it is expedient to do so. Certainly, the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s judgement that the links are ongoing is inconvenient. But never mind.

Secondly, in 2016, Sinn Fein executed a back-flip worthy of Nadia Comăneci. Overnight, the party that had always argued for Ireland to leave the EU suddenly became pro-membership. Why? Doing the opposite to Britain is Sinn Fein’s reflex, so when the Brits voted “Out,” clearly Ireland should be for “In.” Better still, the 56 to 44 percent vote in Northern Ireland in favour of Remain provided Sinn Fein with an opportunity to jump on that division as a route to Irish unity. As the eternally unabashed Gerry Adams put it, “you have to make the best out of a crisis.”

in 2016, Sinn Fein executed a back-flip worthy of Nadia Comăneci.

There is a better reason, though, for why Ireland will not find itself jostling with Hungary and Poland on the EU’s naughty step. The argument is a logical one. If Sinn Fein is to be welcomed back into power-sharing in the devolved government of Northern Ireland, what is the principled objection to it enjoying its fair share of the government of the Republic of Ireland?

The peace process has had many uplifting consequences for Ulster, not least the perhaps hundreds of people still alive who might otherwise not be. But among the consequences has been the political legitimisation of Sinn Fein. Did everybody imagine that this validation of a pan-Irish party would stop at the border?

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