A row over the nature of Sinn Féin’s top management has dominated the second week of the 26 County general election campaign.
After a successful opening week for Sinn Féin, whose poll numbers have been soaring, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have again refused to entertain the possibility that either could end up in coalition with Sinn Féin over what they say are the party’s “shadowy” backroom figures. They have also pointed to a series of complaints against Sinn Féin in recent years by party activists, members and elected representatives over its internal administration.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar insisted Sinn Féin is “not a normal political party” and repeated a vow that Fine Gael will not go into coalition with it after the general election. He blamed the party’s Ard Chomhairle [high council], apparently confusing the acquiescent body with the party’s much more powerful Officer Board.
“Their decision making process involves consulting with an Ard Chomhairle and we have seen that in Northern Ireland where key decisions are not necessarily made by elected politicians.”
Much was made by Fianna Fáil of the fact that Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has signed a pledge, along with all of her party’s candidates, to be guided by instructions from its Ard Chomhairle, but it is a pledge not unlike made by its own TDs.
Micheal Martin also criticised the involvement of unelected figues in Sinn Féin decision-making, who the party has said are merely political advisors.
Sinn Féin made light of the criticism, and sought to use the controversy to boost the visibility of low-profile young candidates who are members of the Ard Chomhairle. Candidates such as Darren O’Rourke in Meath East and Ruairí Ó Murchú in Louth featured in a series of online videos with Gerry Adams introducing the “shadowy figures” to the public.
Sinn Féin did not respond to the criticism directly, but a Sinn Féin spokesperson did say the body is “no different to the governing body of any other political party, trade union or sporting organisation”.
However Aontú party leader Peadar Tóibín, who had been a front-bench Sinn Féin TD before he left the party in a dispute over his views on abortion, backed the accusations of a controlling party leadership. He said key policy decisions are made by a “very tight circle” of six or seven people and are then “handed down” to TDs.
“Sometimes you’d be in meetings and you’d feel like everyone was talking from textbooks and those who spoke outside of the textbook were frowned upon,” he said.
Mr Tóibín said he was told who to vote for in an election to an Officer Board position at the 2018 Ard Fheis. He said paid organisers in SF have too much power over the organisation and warned that they regularly seek to influence the outcome of internal elections.
Meanwhile, Richard Boyd Barrett has appealed to parties that take a left-wing stance to put up a “united front”. His comments come with a week remaining in the general election campaign, and are a rebuff to the two main parties, whose dominance of Irish politics he believes is coming to an end.
Deputy Boyd Barrett told Newstalk radio’s Pat Kenny Show that he wanted a “grand coalition” of the left to ensure Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil are not returned to power.
He said: “I think we have a historic opportunity to move beyond them for the first time in Irish political history. I think that’s an exciting prospect.
“They have had their 100 years running the State... in recent years they’ve left us with a mess in the most basic things: housing, health, the cost of living, the climate and many other things.
“The polls are showing - and I think the trend is showing - that more than 50% of people are looking for something different. I think we should grab that opportunity with both hands, and move Ireland in a more progressive direction.
Appealing for unity on the left, he added: “When we do come together - as we have done on a number of campaigns... we have been very, very effective.
“I would appeal to all of the left - including some of the radical left - to build a united front that offers people a genuine alternative to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, who I think most people can’t tell the difference between the two of them.”
Sinn Féin has not responded to the appeal, but has said it will consider all options with a view to being in government following the election.