Political earthquake in Ireland
Our author has lived in Ireland for over 40 years. He witnessed the change in the Sinn Féin party up close – also through his father-in-law.
DUBLIN taz | My neighbor often came to me after work and asked me for a cup of coffee so that his wife wouldn't smell the alcohol. Billy McAteer was a Catholic, his wife Evelyn a Protestant. We lived on a side street off Ormeau Road in Belfast, in a Catholic neighborhood with small row houses. The rent was low, I paid £ 36 a month, but as an assistant teacher of German I only earned £ 100.
That was in 1976 when the political conflict was in a hot phase. Almost 300 people were killed that year, half of them by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). At the time, it seemed impossible that Sinn Féin, the political wing of the IRA, would participate in the government in Northern Ireland 30 years later. It was even less likely that the party would the strongest force in the Republic of Ireland by votes would. That is exactly what happened in the elections last Saturday.
The IRA only reactivated in the late 1960s to protect the Catholic quarters from attacks by the Protestant-loyalist militias. One of these groups, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), shot Billy McAteer on his doorstep because he was married to a Protestant. Billy was 40, Evelyn was two years younger and pregnant with the fifth child. The UVF did not like so-called mixed marriages. The killers stood in Ormeau Park on the other side of the Lagan River where our road ended for weeks, and howled, "We killed McAteer."
The same year, detained IRA man Kieran Nugent refused to put on the prison uniform and instead wrapped himself in a blanket. It was the beginning of the "blanket strike," which ended in a hunger strike in 1981, in which ten prisoners died.
With Sinn Féin, the political wing of the IRA, the realization gradually emerged that a political strategy alongside the armed struggle could be promising. In 1986 a party convention decided to abandon the boycott of the Dublin Parliament and take the seats. The boycott of the London House of Commons continues to this day.
At the age of eleven, errands for the IRA
During my time in Belfast, I met John Lyons, who later became my father-in-law. He had entered the IRA as a teenager; at eleven he ran errands. In 1940, he was sentenced to 35 years in prison after an ammunition robbery, but was released early after eight years and resumed IRA activities. Among other things, he participated in the liberation of an IRA chief of staff and his deputies in 1973, who escaped from a Dublin prison with a hijacked helicopter. On Fridays, John and I always went to the pub, sometimes bringing old friends with me.
"Sinn Féin and IRA have always trusted Fianna Fáil too much," John once said. This party had always betrayed its principles, it was always only about power. Fianna Fáil had split off from the IRA because she did not accept the peace treaty with England after the 1922 War of Independence that divided the island, but a few years later she was sitting in the Parliament of the Republic, which was a product of the division. From the part of the IRA that was for the contract, Fine Gael developed.
Both sides fought a civil war that divided the nation and even families. In the end, the proponents of the contract kept the upper hand. Since the Irish have a long memory, for many the voting behavior is determined by which side the grandfather fought on. An official coalition of the two parties is therefore out of the question, because most would regard this as treason – even if the parties hardly differ in their conservative orientation.
You have ruled Ireland alternately since independence. Even corruption scandals were not punished at the ballot box. Sure, there was no absolute majority for a long time, but the Greens or the Labor Party kept you in power. The junior partners were wiped off in the next elections, but the large parties were not. It was hair-raising.
At that time Ireland was firmly in the hands of the Catholic Church. It determined what was allowed and what was forbidden – up to the censorship of books and films. However, on social issues, Ireland has changed a lot over the past 30 years, not least because the church has dismantled itself through its pedocriminal activities and gambled away its claim as a moral authority. Contraceptives are widely available, homosexuality is no longer punished, divorce, same sex marriage and Abortion is legalized, There were many occasions for us to celebrate.
Only in politics, not much happened: the two established parties were still the government. There was no reason to believe that that would change in the elections last Saturday. But it did, and how. Sinn Féin won more first votes than all other parties and got 37 seats – as many as Fianna Fáil, but who also provides the parliamentary speaker, who was automatically elected. The Greens quadrupled their share to 12 seats. At last I experienced the political earthquake, which I hardly dared to hope for.
It was the young people who caused the political earthquake
It was the young people who made it happen. Issues such as homelessness, insane rents and the broken health system were more important to them than loyalties from civil war times. This gives hope for a medium-term departure from the established parties. And despite immigration, social grievances and ever widening gaps between rich and poor, there has been no upswing in Nazi parties. The Irish Freedom Party, Anti-Corruption Ireland and the National Party never got off the starting blocks, and neither of them had a mandate in sight.
The upcoming government negotiations will take weeks. And if you don't agree, there could be new elections. That would be very advantageous for Sinn Féin, because they underestimated their own potential and didn't have enough candidates. At least half a dozen seats were given away, probably even more. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael should do everything possible to prevent new elections, because with the current constellation one of the two parties is probably needed for a government.
I'm afraid that it all comes down to a Sinn Féin-Fianna Fáil coalition with the support of one of the smaller parties. The words of my father-in-law, who warned Sinn Féin of Fianna Fáil, are as current as they were then.