In years to come, 2011 may well be remembered as the most significant year in post-Good Friday Agreement Irish politics.
The bail-out which decimated the once dominant Fianna Fail party has not only transformed the party political composition of Leinster House, but it has also provided the opening for Sinn Fein to make their inevitable entrance into the mainstream platform of southern Irish politics, a move effectively sealed by the performance of Martin McGuinness in the Presidential election race.
McGuinness’ candidature has been more than justified by his electoral outing, which will have further cemented his status as the pre-eminent political figure on the northern political stage and, crucially, has further bolstered the party’s status as contender for the leading opposition party within the Dail in the time ahead.
It is hard to think that, just twelve months ago, the most common narrative being spun regarding Sinn Fein’s southern project was that it remained on the ropes, without direction or hope following the desultory electoral performance of the 2007 Dail election and the loss of Mary Lou McDonald’s Dublin seat in the Euro elections which followed.
Pearse Doherty’s by-election triumph will be remembered as the springboard, but the successful election of a number of impressive political voices to the Dail in the February General Election has ensured that Sinn Fein’s stature in the Dail chamber has risen considerably, with party spokespersons regularly making effective contributions on a range of issues which does not receive much coverage in the northern-oriented domain of Sluggerotoole, but to which those with an eye to the Dublin media have picked up on over the past eight months.
It has been interesting to note the spin being placed upon McGuinness’ performance by traditional critics of the party. The Irish Independent, which editorialised against the Sinn Fein figure, has declared today that Sinn Fein will be “severely disappointed” with his performance, whilst Diana Rusk in an Irish News op piece has suggested something similar.
Yet the facts overwhelmingly indicate that the election candidacy of Martin McGuinness has been a successful one for republicans:
- McGuinness’ vote percentage represents an almost 40% increase on the Sinn Fein vote which had already reached its highest level in the February Dail election.
- The even spread of McGuinness’ vote indicates that, right across the State, he tapped into a vote which republicans must now view as theirs to lose in key constituencies which can represent strategic gains in the next Dail Election.
- In an election in which the ruling Fine Gael party candidate has suffered the humiliation of losing his claim to expenses, the Sinn Fein figure came well above Mitchell and three other candidates.
- McGuinness’ candidacy has once again highlighted the issue of northerners voting in subsequent Irish Presidential elections, something which will continue to form a key plank of Sinn Fein’s political platform and to which other parties keen on curtailing their growth (namely Fianna Fail and the SDLP) may now be forced to become more active on.
- The McGuinness candidacy has been a spectacular success north of the border, further cementing the party’s status as the pre-eminent voice of northern nationalism. It is worth noting that, whilst Mary McAleese was hounded into declaring that she had never voted for Sinn Fein in the debates and tv discussions preceding the 1997 Presidential election, there was an impressive range of high profile voices declaring their support for McGuinness in this election, something which illustrates how far perceptions of the party have altered across the country, north and south.
- The enduring image of this election campaign will be the moment in which McGuinness exposed Sean Gallagher’s Fianna Fail connections, effectively slaying the dragon and proving to be Higgins’ kingmaker. Whilst spurious arguments have been raised in order to suggest that Gallagher was an innocent victim of the engagement, the facts clearly indicate that Hugh Morgan’s account severely challenges the credibility of Gallagher’s subsequent denials, which were made in interviews in which the independent Fianna Fail candidate cleverly raised and rejected a legion of straw man arguments which put a lie to the suggestion that he was too honest to respond like a politician to the questions he faced (btw anyone who caught the magnificent Gift Grub sketch in which Sean Gallagher was revealed to be Bertie Ahern in disguise can appreciate the power of ridicule!)
McGuinness will now return to his northern post as Deputy First Minister with a heightened profile and platform which Sinn Fein will put to good use politically and electorally in the years to come across the island.
Little wonder Gerry and Martin had the look of a contended couple yesterday….