The Dublin government has abandoned the appearance of objectivity and is now openly campaigning against Sinn Féin in the North’s elections on May 5.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern and Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, have controversially spoken at rallies for the SDLP.
While drawing criticism from Sinn Féin, the involvement of Michael McDowell in particular seems unlikely to damage the party’s campaign in South Belfast, where he canvassed support for the SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell.
The extreme right-wing McDowell is widely disliked in the left-leaning constituency, and his appearance was marked by vehement protests against his harsh policies on deportation.
Carrying placards and shouting abuse, around 10 protesters from the Anti-Racism Network tried to drown out Mr McDowell’s interviews with the media and there was a brief spell of pushing and heaving.
The protestors said they were angry at the deportation of asylum seekers in the south and at Mr McDonnell for refusing to withdraw the invitation for Mr McDowell to visit Belfast.
Barbara Muldoon, spokeswoman for the Anti-Racism Network, said Mr McDowell’s presence was “unacceptable”.
“The protest was at the presence of Minister McDowell in both Northern Ireland and in south Belfast, which is one of main places scarred by racist attacks,” she said.
Mr McDonnell later criticised the protesters, who he claimed had been “sent by the IRA”.
“Everyone has the right to protest peacefully but a group of protestors behaved in a threatening and intimidating way,” he said.
“They frightened many of those attending. This is unacceptable behaviour against freedom of speech.”
County Donegal bar owner Frank McBrearty, whose allegations of Garda harassment led to the establishment of the Morris Tribunal, also criticised Mr McDowell for a refusal to meet him in Belfast.
South Belfast Sinn Féin Assembly member Alex Maskey said that the decision by Alasdair McDonnell to invite Michael McDowell into the constituency on Monday while Pat Rabbitte travelled to Derry with Mark Durkan was further evidence of growing divisions within the SDLP leadership over policy and direction.
“None of this is about policy, it is all a desperate bid to stop the continuing rise in Irish republicanism and the journey towards Irish unity and independence.
“By this action and previous actions including joining with unionists in City Hall to become Deputy Mayor in defiance of John Hume, McDonnell clearly finds himself at home as the leading unionist within the SDLP ranks.”
In a parallel move, Dermot Ahern, the foreign affairs minister, visited the SDLP’s sitting South Down MP Eddie McGrady in his constituency last week.
Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams also accused Mr Ahern of interfering in the north’s Westminster election campaign.
“It’s obviously intervention, and not just by Fianna Fail but by the government,” Mr Adams said. He said the intervention proved that allegations of criminality directed against Sinn Féin in recent months were motivated by political concerns.
Fianna Fail is under threat from growing support for republicanism across the 26 counties. Its smaller coalition partners, the Progressive Democrats, are also threatened by the possibility that Sinn Féin could soon hold the balance of power in the Dublin parliament.
Mr Adams said it was no surprise that at every single election, Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, the PDs and the Labour Party have all come and campaigned on behalf of the SDLP.
“They’ve been in most of the constituencies. So that’s par for the course. What is new is that a minister would come in, as Dermot Ahern did, and I think he made a mistake and that he overstepped his responsibility.”
Countering accusations from Dublin that he was being “partitionist”, Mr Adams said he had lobbied for Ministers to be involved in all aspects of life in the six counties.
“It is good to remind them that the nation does not stop at the border. For example, Minister Ahern could usefully spend an afternoon in the militarised zone of South Armagh. And when Ardoyne, Short Strand and Garvaghy Rd were under siege the presence of Ministers would have been very welcome.
“I merely raise the fact that until now while all the southern parties have electioneered against Sinn Féin, government Ministers avoided such blatant interference. Perhaps I touched a soft spot.”
Mr Adams, however, added later that McDowell’s visit would do the party “no harm”.
The 26-County Prime Minister, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern rejected the accusations, claiming his Ministers’ visits were even-handed.