Can Sinn Féin make a breakthrough in Ireland? | Michael White

The recession has hardened Irish hearts and no one knows how the Republic's voters will come to see Gerry Adams and Sinn Féin

Putting together the latest instalment of WikiLeaks (it's Ireland's turn this morning) with the financial crisis that has engulfed the Celtic Tiger economy, I may soon have to rewrite my favourite car bumper sticker to mark the coming Irish election.

According to the analysis by former Belfast correspondents Nicholas Watt and Owen Bowcott of the WikiLeaks Irish file, MI5 may be gearing up to hand over its files on the 1989 murder of the Republican lawyer, Pat Finucane.

That's just for starters. Renewed reports today suggest that Gerry Adams may be poised to make the long promised, never delivered breakthrough for Sinn Féin in Ireland when Brian Cowen is forced to explain his financial ruin to the voters in 2011. An election isn't legally due until June 2012, but he won't last and may stand down early as Fianna Fáil leader.

We'll come back to that one. And in the spirit of Christmas we'll even ignore fresh Wiki-evidence of papal rascality in the matter of paedophile Irish priests, blaming the hapless Irish bishops in a spot of time-honoured buck-passing. Shame on you, Benny. No wonder our man at the Vatican was alarmed that your UK visit might trigger tuition fees-style violence last month.

Pat Finucane's is not a name that resonates much in mainland Britain, but the suspicion that British military intelligence had some hand in the loyalist paramilitary shooting of the Catholic lawyer – in front of the man's kids – has lingered. Collusion was confirmed by successive reviews by Lord Stevens, ex-head of the Metropolitan police, no less. So it matters to mainstream nationalists as well as to hardliners and gunmen.

I know what you may be thinking. IRA hoods and their allies killed a lot more innocent folk than even the loyalist thugs. Members of Finucane's family was heavily involved with the IRA and he was "unduly sympathetic", according to a Tory minister at the time. The family insist he kept well clear, as a lawyer should.

But emotion is a funny thing. The state is not supposed to turn a blind eye to murder (indeed it seems to have saved Adams and other senior republican politicians from murder during the Troubles), so the thought of collusion or unwarranted violence upsets people. We saw the same process at work over Bloody Sunday and again yesterday in distant Afghanistan. A Taliban bomb blew up at the wrong time and killed 15 civilians. How much did we read about it? Not much.

So MI5's move may lead to an inquiry, but not a £200m Saville II inquiry lasting 10 years – they changed the law to stop the lawyers buying quite so many yachts in future.

Back to the politics of the Republic, where the SF president's decision to quit Westminster – itself a major contribution to public expenditure savings by the absentee MP – made little splash at the time. He's planning to move south and stand for the Dáil in a safe Sinn Féin border seat.

The last time SF tried to get a grip on the Irish parliament – 12 seats were its target in 2007 – it actually lost ground, as the tireless Mick Fealty (aka Slugger O'Toole) reminded Guardian readers here – down from five seats to four, nearly to three.

But that was in the boom years and the recession has hardened Irish hearts – just as today's social attitudes survey suggests that Britain is now "more Thatcherite" than it was 20 years ago, though it's actually more complicated if you dig deeper.

This weekend Slugger was gloomier, if I can put it that way on his behalf. Kevin Toolis, author of Rebel Hearts, a very good IRA book, is similarly exercised behind the Times paywall today. All bets are off: Sinn Féin could get more than a dozen seats; look how SF's Pearse Doherty won that byelection in Donegal South West only the other week and is already scoring goals as his party's financial spokesman.

Well, we'll see. Fianna Fáil currently has 77 MPs in alliance with the Greens (six), against 51 for its old rival Fine Gael (up 20 last time) and 20 for the Labour party. It doesn't take many seats to get a lever on power.

There is grand talk of a "fourth block" of left-leaning independents emerging, people with whom Sinn Féin could do business – if you see SF as "left-leaning", which I never have. It comes from reading ex-IRA man Brendan Behan's mocking comedies about his old comrades, written prophetically years before the Provos were invented.

Remember, Ireland runs a PR voting system, the multi-member single transferable vote (STV), though byelections deploy AV, the model that Nick Clegg hopes to persuade British voters to endorse in next May's referendum. Right now I'm not sure voters would endorse Clegg if he proposed free drinking from April to October. But let's wait and see.

Likewise the Irish elections. No one knows how the economy, let alone the wider eurozone economy for which Ireland has made such gallant sacrifices, will look like by the spring. Nor does anyone know how the Republic's voters will come to see Gerry Adams whose accent, CV and generally dour demeanour strike some of them as "foreign" – so I read.

There's more, of course. WikiLeaks has usually been fleshing out what we already knew, sometimes in enjoyable detail. Today's instalment reports the US ambassador in Dublin telling Washington that Bertie Ahern, Cowen's canny predecessor as taioseach, believed "everyone knows" the Brits were mixed up in the Pat Finucane murder.

That seems to be so, from what we already knew. But Ahern also states as a fact that the Sinn Féin leadership, Adams and the twinkle-eyed Martin McGuinness, also knew that the IRA was planning the famous £26.5m Northern Bank robbery of 2004 – while negotiating a glitch in the peace process – because they were both members of "the IRA's military command" ie the Army Council.

The pair routinely deny it, though I have rarely met any other knowledgeable person who endorses that denial.

It's a bit like Andy Coulson and that high-price News of the World phone-hacking that was going on – or not – behind his back as editor. It's just that some Fleet Street folk don't believe it, though may be too polite to say. Mr Coulson himself is a very polite man.

Historically, Fianna Fáil, the "Soldiers of Destiny", has been Ireland's Republican party, the party of Eamon de Valera, leader from 1926 to 1959, the party that fought Ireland's bloody civil war after partition had removed the Brits from Dublin, though not Belfast.

Seen as being to the left of Fine Gael but the right of Labour it has been decidedly un-keen on SF's burgeoning political activism in the Republic – and has started organising as a party in Northern Ireland.

Populist, often enjoying decades in power – second only to the Swedish social democrats – FF has routinely been embroiled in corruption charges, now blended with the crony capitalism of the financial crisis. I linked to Kevin Myers' savage assault on the system here a few weeks ago. But these things happen. WikiLeaks today reminds us that post-imperial Uzbekistan and its neighbours are less than spotless.

Charlie Haughey, perhaps FF's most famous leader since Dev himself, was mixed up in all of it – corrupt money, sex, and – in the early days – IRA gun-running, all in the pre-Celtic Tiger days. But in 2006 the charming old rogue still got a state funeral. A party like that does not give up without a fight.

Where does this leave Sinn Féin? Who can sensibly say? Gerry Adams could emerge as the Republic's Nick Clegg.

Adams doesn't do economics, though, as Bertie Ahern noted in 2004, he knows people who do banking after their fashion.

So when SF rails against crooked bankers and squalid politicians the mainstream parties may resort to a version of my favourite bumper sticker.

Which is? Back in the 80s when a rogue called Eddie Edwards was seeking yet another term as governor of Louisiana – despite the gambling debts, the money and the girls – he was lucky enough to face a Republican challenger called David Duke, who had not only been in the Klu Klux Klan but been filmed wearing his white sheet.

"Vote for the Crook and Not the Nazi" was the bumper sticker of the season. And Louisiana did just that. This time, how about: "Vote for the amateur bank robbers, not the professionals"?


Michael White

The GuardianTramp

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