-“A few drops of fear always come in handy for consolidating democracies” -El Roto
Over the last decade and a half, the matter of Sinn Féin’s past, and its association with the IRA, has been a feature of every election held south of the border in Ireland. Each election also coincides with some apparently critical moment for the party, presented in terms of its appeal to the southern public. These critical moments -grounded in some controversy or other- bring with them a particular narrative, contained within a particular way of viewing the elections. Both the narrative and the viewpoint are the product of Ireland’s media establishment.
I’m not referring here to the lurid stories and wild speculation that would barely raise an eyebrow among most of Sinn Féin’s potential constituency north of the border, but rather with the standpoint of neutrality affected by correspondents and analysts in the organs of respectable opinion.
From this standpoint, the writer or speaker does not voice any particular animosity towards Sinn Féin, but simply claims to be weighing up how this critical moment might affect Sinn Féin’s vote, in light of what the voting public is likely to think. What is unerringly missing from such analyses, however, is precisely the fact that this critical moment is a mediated spectacle, and that the writer or speaker is playing a part in it at the very moment he or she delivers the dispassionate verdict. I should say that this does not happen simply with Sinn Féin at election time. It is an established practice for relating and reconciling broader public concerns with party political fortunes.
The interesting thing here is not so much the sublimated hostility toward Sinn Féin but the way in which the public is imagined and represented.
We are told that people are going to think certain things about Sinn Féin, and that shapes our own impression of them. People are going to be put off by the most recent events concerning Adams and the Jean McConville case, for example, and so perhaps we should be put off too.
The kind of people who are not put off, it is suggested, are people beyond the bounds of rational political evaluation. Their sense of grievance blinds them to the heightened moral considerations of those who are sickened, and leaves them susceptible to the populist appeal of Sinn Féin.
In the question of who is going to vote for Sinn Féin in the south -who votes for them in the North is of no concern from this perspective, and it never was- we are confronted with a spilt between the rational and the irrational, the sensitive and the hardened, the moral and the immoral, the peaceable and the violent, law and order and lawlessness and chaos, justice and impunity, the civilised South and the barbaric North, dispassionate detachment and passionate intensity.
This split is purely imaginary: this rational, sensitive, moral, peaceable, lawful, civilised, and dispassionately detached public, is otherwise expected to support social and economic policies that deepen inequality and its own impoverishment; to disregard the use of Shannon airport for the purposes of imperial war and domination; to submit to the imperatives of the market; to pursue one’s own interests at the expense of others; to support a legal order that treats tax avoidance as a virtue and labour rights as a vice; to forget about the crimes of the British State and their victims so that the Crown might be honoured; to assume universal healthcare and free public education with free textbooks and such are a waste of resources; and to swoon and gush with excitement at diplomatic niceties from a head of state or at a pat on the head from some billionaire CEO.
It is this public, in its eternal wisdom, that is then called upon to choose, come election time, between established parties whose policies differ only in terms of how far they are willing to submit to what neoliberal orthodoxy demands, and the difference is a cigarette paper thick. In so choosing, this public will opt for the bright future over the dark past, for good sense over self-destruction, and for truth over lies. Such are the choices provided by the official version of democracy in Ireland.