Efforts by the establishment in Dublin to demonise Sinn Féin have reached unprecedented levels in the aftermath of their performance in the 26 County general election, with politicians going so far as to compare a series of Sinn Féin public meetings to the Nuremburg rallies of Nazi Germany.
Meetings to update Sinn Féin supporters about the party’s efforts to form a government have been taking across the country. They have already taken place in Cork, Dublin, and Newry. Others are set to the place Galway and Cavan over the next fortnight.
While focused on the party’s calls to be included to deliver a new ‘government for change’, Sinn Féin’s political opponents fear the events could be helping to build its momentum ahead of a possible second election.
Former Fine Gael TD Alan Shatter and a current Fine Gael minister both made a comparison with Nazi Germany in the 1930s, as did independent councillor Paul Gogarty, a defeated candidate in the Dublin Mid-West constituency.
“There is a touch of the Nuremberg rallies surrounding all this; it is on the edge of being sinister,” the Fine Gael minister was reported as saying. From another direction, Fianna Fáil TD Darragh O’Brien claimed the meetings were “right out of the Trump playbook”.
Outgoing Taoiseach Leo Mr Varadkar declared the events were “not normal” and that Sinn Féin “is not a normal party”. He described it as “the next phase in Sinn Féin’s campaign of intimidation and bullying”, adding: “I wouldn’t be surprised if their next step is to take to the streets.”
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald described the comments as “a hysterical overreaction”. Speaking before the first meeting in Cork, which was attended by up to 1,000 people, Ms McDonald said: “Mr Varadkar’s comments were over the top and were a demonstration by him and by a political establishment who are desperately reaching for something to stop an unstoppable change in Irish politics.
“It is obvious that the political establishment are struggling with the result of the election. I think for any reasonable or sensible person, the suggestion that holding public meetings is somehow an affront to democracy is just ridiculous.”
With the two main parties short of a majority in Leinster House between them, the election results have left no obvious basis for the next coalition government. Fears are mounting among members of Ireland’s political elite that their control over the levers of power are coming to an end.
Sinn Féin’s finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty described the ongoing reaction as “hysterics”. He said they were holding public meetings which involved elected representatives going out to meet people who voted for them.
He welcomed that Mr Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin had given “huge publicity” to their meetings. “The hysterics from Leo and Micheál are just that, nothing but hysterics”, he said, adding that they feared change.
Such was the level of interest in Dublin, hundreds of people who could not get inside the venue at Liberty Hall gathered outside the main entrance, where Mr Doherty delivered an impromptu address.
Inside, Ms McDonald received a standing ovation before addressing the crowd of several hundred. She said: “Sinn Féin wants real change and I know all of you here want real change.
“For the first time ever, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael did not win a majority of votes … that represents a seismic change. They are trying everything to keep Sinn Féin and everyone who voted for them out of power. That is a very deliberate tactic.”
She added that she had a message for Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin. She said: “I say this: we respect your mandate and now it is time that you respect ours.
“I think it is very clear that we will talk to everybody because that is what adults do. I say to them, listen to the voices of the electorate and understand this – the vote for change was a vote to get Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael out of government and not to put them back in.
“This is not a one-off event – the conversation will continue. I hope Leo Varadkar and the lads get over their fear of public meetings. I read somewhere that it was said that Sinn Féin are the barbarians at the gate. Well newsflash, the barbarians are through the gate.”
The surge in support for Sinn Féin was confirmed by a high turnout for events in the other locations.
Speaking at the meeting in Newry, Ms McDonald promised northerners that they would no longer be forgotten. She attacked Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael for a “shameful” tendency to use the past conflict in the North as political ammunition in the South.
The South needs to accept and understand the experience of people in the North during the conflict, said Ms McDonald.
“Accept what communities went through,” she said. “To recognise the hurt across the board. I’m not being selective here.”
She said the changes taking place in the North were being echoed in the South. “Just as the unionist majority is gone, the duopoly of the so-called big two is now gone,” Mary Lou McDonald said.
“In all of our discussions with the other parties, the demand and the desire for unity is a priority,” she added.
What would Fianna Fáil giants like Eamon De Valera, Frank Aiken or Dan Breen say, McDonald said, to their current party leader not pushing for Irish unity.
Turning to government formation, McDonald told the crowd that a Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil government was “increasingly a possibility”.
“There is a possibility that might happen. That would be an enormous disappointment to the electorate,” she said. “For the Green Party to prop up a FF and FG government would amount to no change at all,” she added.
She told the large crowds that “the people have voted for something new. They have voted for change. People are now looking to us to deliver and lead.”
Mr Doherty, who is leading Sinn Féin’s negotiating team, told the crowd that the party wants to avoid a second general election. “That would be a major failure in relation to politics and it would not be of our doing,” he said.
The Dublin parliament failed to elect a Taoiseach last week after Ms McDonald won 45 votes, Micheal Martin 41, Leo Varadkar 36 and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan 12.
The next attempt to elect a Taoiseach is unlikely to take place until the end of March following a decision that there will be no vote on the position when the Dáil reconvenes, on March 5. That decision by the Dáil business committee was criticised by Mr Doherty, who said it was disappointing.
“Failure to have that to me will withdraw momentum from this process and allows people to sit back,” he said. “We can’t sit back. There are big issues that need to be dealt with.”