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We are back to Connolly and Mellows, and it is just as well

Declan Kearney

Sinn Féin National Chairperson

Nothing stays the same.

Time doesn’t stand still.

Politics and society are constantly in flux.

But sometimes change is shaped and driven by significant watersheds.

In modern Irish history the 1916 Easter Rising, The Tan War, the civil rights campaign in the north, and the 1980/’81 Hunger Strikes each stand out as epoch making periods.

More recently the onset of Brexit has been hugely influential on the Irish political landscape.

Nearly one hundred years ago, a counter revolution eclipsed the popular struggle for national independence and social change in Ireland, sparked by the 1916 Rising, and culminating in the partition of Ireland.

Two political parties emerged from that cauldron and went on to politically dominate what became a deeply conservative southern state, in the interests of a new Irish ruling class elite.

Those two parties came to be known as Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

No government in the south of Ireland has existed since 1923 without the dominant influence of either Fine Gael, (and its immediate predecessor Cumann na nGaedheal), or Fianna Fáil.

Both parties in power facilitated a regressive theocratic influence by the Catholic Church hierarchy over society and government.

These parties also presided over economic and social policies which caused mass emigration, economic inequality and poverty, and the marginalisation and neglect of rural Ireland.

They approved of, and used summary execution, internment without trial, censorship, and also oppressive laws to repress political dissent, and against republican activists in particular.

The actions of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, from the foundation of the State atrophied the aspiration and vision of an egalitarian, national Republic set out by the 1916 Proclamation, and the subsequent Democratic Programme of the First Dáil in 1919.

More recently, disastrous fiscal mismanagement by successive Fianna Fáil administrations resulted in the crash of the southern economy in 2008, and the imposition of an IMF bail out programme, from which the south of Ireland is still recovering.

Since then two Fine Gael-led coalition governments have created deep, systemic health and housing/homeless crises, which are now at a cliff edge.

During the mandate of the last Dáil (Irish Parliament), Fianna Fáil propped up a hapless Fine Gael government with a 'confidence and supply' agreement.

This political arrangement demonstrated the indistinguishable character of these two parties in terms of political orientation and policy.

Tweedledum and Tweedledee!

All of those realities overshadowed the southern general election last weekend.

The almost one-hundred-year legacy of right-wing dominance by these parties was a central focus of the election.

The demand for change defined the explicit popular narrative throughout the campaign.

Sinn Féin became the political lightning rod of this state-wide momentum.

From the earliest moments of the campaign it was clear something profound was happening within southern society.

I have never seen anything like it before, perhaps with the exception of the popular mood which surrounded the H Block Hunger Strikes in 1980/1981.

In places like Donegal I canvassed homes with traditional allegiances to Fine Gael, and discovered that younger, and even older voters were switching to vote Sinn Féin.

Elsewhere in large working-class estates I visited in Galway, such as Ballybane, Mervue and Merlin, it was obvious there was a motivated surge of good will and support towards Sinn Féin’s programme for economic, social and political change.

Motorists stopped their vehicles, and ordinary citizens walked across the street to discuss the election, and tell us why they were so angry with the establishment parties.

Time after time, door after door, we were told across the south that this election had to be about change: That Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael had their chance and squandered it: And, that now it was time for Sinn Féin to get a chance at delivering real change in citizens’ lives - by investing in good public services, and guaranteeing people’s rights to proper health care, and access to affordable homes.

People agreed with Sinn Féin that it was time to give workers and their families a break.

And, they also wanted to talk about Irish unity!

Many who I canvassed were genuinely pleased that a government minister from the north was at their doors asking for their support to make change.

They had never seen a Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael minister in their neighbourhood before, far less on their door steps.

People liked the idea of Sinn Féin being in government in the north, and the prospect of our party also delivering government in the south.

So on 8th February the electorate went to the polls.

There was an electoral earthquake.

And, yes, it was seismic.

Some lazy commentators have tried since to dismiss what happened as populism.

The fact is that the popular refrain for change during this campaign translated into a decision by voters to use the ballot box as an act of rebellion against the status quo: To rebel against the dominance of the two conservative parties and their symbiotic relationships with the banking cartels, property developers and big landlords.

What happened is without historic precedence.

Sinn Féin emerged with the biggest share of the popular vote - 24.5% - one in every four voters; and a total of 37 seats (an increase of 15).

Fine Gael had its second worst election in history.

Fianna Fáil took 22.2% of the vote, finishing up with 38 seats - one of which was uncontested, because it returned the previous incumbent Speaker from the last Dáil.

Sinn Féin sought and received a mandate for government to deliver change, and this week we began a process of exploring the potential of government formation with other parties, on the basis of ending the health and homeless crises; delivering sustainable public services; building 100,000 homes; reducing the retirement age to 65 years; and, advancing Irish unity.

The Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle authorised a negotiation mandate to explore formation of a government for change with other parties.

Sinn Féin wants to be in government to make the progressive change which people clearly desire.

We are committed to cooperating with others to bring that about.

It is a very fundamental, democratic position, and yet almost immediately the Fine Gael leadership arrogantly announced that it would not speak with Sinn Féin about government formation.

Then just days later a similar position was taken by the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party.

Of course the Fianna Fáil leadership and parliamentary party attempts to exclude Sinn Féin from government stems from the fact that they do not want, at this time, to build the houses, reduce the pension age, freeze rents, and cut the ministerial and TD salaries.

The stances adopted by both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are neither sustainable or credible. In fact they are intrinsically anti-democratic.

It's worth recalling Ian Paisley's reply when asked to explain his decision to enter government in the north with Sinn Féin in 2007: He said: "Because the people elected them. That is democracy and they are not going away."

During the period from January 2017 when power sharing was suspended in the north, both leaders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil cynically demanded that Sinn Féin should go back into coalition government with parties which had totally undermined the very basis of power sharing, without resolving the reasons for the political crisis.

Through the sustained efforts of Sinn Féin and others, power-sharing government has again been restored.

Our party currently sits in a regional government with four other political parties with totally diverging ideological and political perspectives on social and economic policy and on constitutional change in Ireland.

The effect of the apparently entrenched and unchanging positions of the two conservative parties poses two scenarios: Either Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael coalesce, or there is another election.

Fianna Fáil has already said it will not go into government with Fine Gael, despite their previous 'confidence and supply' agreement in the last mandate.

But cynical double standards provides only a partial explanation for their shared refusal to talk with Sinn Féin about future government formation.

The reality is that the Irish establishment, and its vested economic, financial, and class interests has been rocked to its very core by the electoral revolution of last weekend.

The significance of the electoral and political set backs for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are huge.

Their rotational dominance in government, which secured the Irish establishment's interests for decades, has been ended.

The general election confirmed Sinn Féin as the largest party in the southern state, representing the community and class interests of working people, with a massive mandate of over half a million votes.

Make no mistake, this general election is another watershed.

The joint refusal of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to talk with Sinn Féin is an absolute defiance of democratic norms.

Nearly one hundred years on, a modern day counter revolution is being mounted against the democratic will of the people.

The Irish establishment parties have effectively launched 'a very Irish coup' in an attempt to subvert the popular demand for change, and to stop Sinn Féin from getting into government.

The socialist republican leader Liam Mellows warned in 1922, before his execution by a Cumann na nGaedheal government:

"The time will inevitably come, if this Free State comes into existence, when you will have a permanent government in the country, and permanent governments in any country have a dislike to being turned out."

Those words have a powerful relevance for today.

Three weeks ago the British state left the European Union. One of the unintended consequences of Brexit has been to put a debate about constitutional change and Irish unity centre stage.

The Irish establishment fears this debate: And the British do not want it to take place.

But that genie is out of the bottle.

Sinn Féin is in government in the north of Ireland. It is only a matter of time until we are also in government in the south.

Politics has started to realign in Ireland.

The results of the last election are new evidence of that.

Momentum is fuelling the political and civic discourse on constitutional change and reunification.

International support for Irish unity is growing. Brexit has made the partition of Ireland a European issue.

'We are back to Connolly and Mellows, and it is just as well.’ For republicans, progressives and democrats who seek maximum political and social change, the ideas of Connolly and Mellows have never been more relevant.

This still incomplete national liberation phase in Ireland is fast approaching its tipping point.

Over 700,000 citizens have voted for Sinn Féin both north and south since last December.

They all voted, and endorsed the need for change.

Now the change is unstoppable.

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