Hard political truth is tough to swallow
The events of the weekend are a sure sign that the Republic's general election campaign has kicked off: the Fine Gael conference with shiny new policies, the PD's 20th anniversary jamboree and Bertie Ahern's statement about Sinn Féin in government brilliantly timed to wipe both PDs and Fine Gael off Monday's front pages. Next up is Brian Cowen's budget which will tell us by the size of its giveaways when the election is, 2006 or 2007.
We've come a long way since October 2004 when the newly-appointed minister for foreign affairs, Dermot Ahern, told RTE's Tommie Gorman at Hillsborough that it was "only a matter of time" before Sinn Féin would be in government in the Republic. He added that "as long as an armed and active IRA exists, Sinn Féin will remain in the cold".
That's no longer the case now, so what's the problem? Their economic policies it would seem, which Dermot Ahern said last October would "make all of Ireland a social and economic wasteland". Pretty much what Bertie Ahern said at the weekend.
However, Bertie told The Irish News last week that the main block to SF participation in government was the continuing existence, in any form, of the IRA because any party in government must support Bunreacht na hEireann which recognises only one army, that of the state. By the weekend he had toughened up his position because his priority was to shoot the PD's fox. Neither Fianna Fail nor Fine Gael can win an outright majority so there will have to be a coalition. Fine Gael and Labour are already committed to one. The obvious alternative, given the current state of the polls, would be FF/SF.
Bertie knew Michael McDowell was going to start chanting, 'A vote for Fianna Fail is a vote for Sinn Féin'.
Now Bertie has ruled that out saying he will not accept 'any act' from SF which would make him taoiseach, preferring to go into opposition instead.
It's shrewd. It's ruthless. It's brutal. It's effective. It's 26-county politics. It ignores the consequences for the north.
A steer has been given to the media that Bertie was excluding SF solely on their economic policies because he didn't want to give the DUP any excuse for following his line and refuse to contemplate joining SF in an administration here on the grounds that Dublin was asking the DUP to do something they wouldn't do themselves. If so, why did Bertie mention the continuing existence of the IRA as a reason last week and hand the DUP another excuse?
Two points are clear and connected. First, Bertie Ahern will do anything to win the next general election and he believes ruling out any deal with SF is an essential prerequisite for that.
Secondly, and more ominously, he has read the signs at Westminster and knows that whatever he says will not affect the prospects of resurrecting devolution in the north because it isn't going to happen until Blair goes.
As you read here in June, the DUP are going to use their nine MPs to the maximum advantage to screw as much out of the weakened Labour government as they can.
Do you think Blair isn't going to court their votes on something like ID cards?
If it comes to it on education reform or benefit reform will Blair make concessions to gain nine votes if he needs them?
Will Blair care whose nine votes they are? Will the prospect of infuriating northern nationalists outweigh the chance of pushing through major changes in the welfare state written into Labour's May election manifesto? What do you think?
The hard political truth is that the DUP would be mad to make a deal with SF before they see how bad the trouble gets for Blair in Westminster. We've been here before in 1976-79 and 1992-97. Nationalists were paying well into the 1980s for deals done about Belfast housing in 1978-79. We still don't know all the dirty deals John Major's NIO ministers did in the mid-90s to buy UUP votes in crucial divisions on EU matters. We do know they postponed the peace process by four years. How many years will it be this time?
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