By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)
A remarkable year in politics north and south - remarkable not least because for once there was more ‘Sturm und Drang’ south of the border than north of it.
What happened in the south was nothing less than an electoral revolution, the long-term consequences of which are still not clear. The Republic’s voters kicked out the most successful political party in Europe, Fianna Fail, and reduced its numbers in the Dail from 77 to a rump of 20.
Simply stating the figures does not convey the magnitude of what happened to Irish political life. Accustomed to ruling the roost since the 1930s with few interruptions, Fianna Fail had been the biggest party in the state since 1932, its competitors usually managing to get into government only through coalitions.
All the largesse and patronage that went with Fianna Fail’s dominant position have gone. It has no jobs for the boys any more. The boys haven’t even got jobs for themselves.
Pundits in the south began to ask whether Fianna Fail could ever get back to its former position and if not, who would fill that role?The obvious candidate is Sinn Fein. The past year saw the Lazarus-like resurrection of the party’s ‘project’ in the south with the number of its TDs almost trebling from five to 14 and with that increased number it acquired all sorts of privileges it had never before enjoyed in the Dail as well as a large injection of public money.
By coincidence the party leader, Gerry never-a-member-of-the-IRA Adams, had forsaken the obscurity of the Stormont assembly and was elected to lead the new clutch of TDs.
What is clear is that the political establishment in the Republic is horrified at the prospect of Sinn Fein becoming a major player in politics there. That much was apparent in the ferocious media assault mounted against Martin McGuinness’s run for president.
Ultimately it was counter-productive. The media got a number of questions about the past 40 years off their chests and will not be able to repeat them.
McGuinness returned injury-free to his post of deputy first minister and by the end of the year Sinn Fein in the south was second in opinion polls having jumped seven percentage points after the budget to stand at 2 per cent to Fianna Fail’s 20 per cent while the Labour Party slumped to 1 per cent.
Gerry Adams was the most popular party leader with a satisfaction rating of 48 per cent, four points ahead of Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
Can it last?Yes,probably as longas the eurozone crisis and the Republic’s debt crisis last and neither shows any sign of being resolved.
Perhaps the biggest opportunity Sinn Fein has is to exploit the growing cracks in the Labour Party as its TDs rebel against the austerity measures the party’s ministers are pushing through. Two resignations already.
All of which permits the Sinn Fein leadership some satisfaction for the party’s fortunes in the north have been reinforced by McGuinness’s effortless superiority over his hapless opponents in the SDLP who have had a dreadful year: a lousy election campaign leading to losses in the assembly poll followed by a leadership contest at the end of which the new leader fell flat on his face on live TV.
Compared with the ructions in the south politics in the north was a sea of calm as the DUP and Sinn Fein confirmed their respective positions as the main parties in unionism and nationalism. Even more telling, May’s election settled those positions until 2016 thereby consigning the UUP and SDLP to inexorable decline over the next five years.
Already serious voices within the UUP are asking whether the party has a viable future especially if it exists only to split the unionist vote.
Faced with such challenging questions neither the leader of the UUP nor the SDLP has been able to say what their parties are for. If they can’t, then the next five years will provide the answer.
While all the sound and fury happened in the Republic’s politics it may be that looking back in five years time the real significance will be that 2011 was a watershed in the north’s politics when the UUP and SDLP began their final slide to oblivion.