One of the great arts of spin is to ensure the dominant question of the day is that which you alone have the perfect answer to. Sinn Fein’s artful capacities in this regard have been to the fore since the election verdict.
The party has correctly claimed that this verdict was a desire for change after four years of the anti-politics of confidence and supply where the government wasn’t in government and the opposition wasn’t in opposition. This had brought politics into a state of disrepute and, rather more seriously, collapsed the confidence of the public in the capacity of ‘old’ politics to deal with the key issues of housing and health.
The happy ending in all this for Sinn Fein is that if the central question posed by election 2020 is who will bring ‘change’ then the answer quite obviously is Mary Lou. She is after all different to the old dispensation of Micheal Martin and Leo. So, she must be ‘change’.
In the narrative as framed by Sinn Fein this, of course, is a one answer question. Once it has been decided that the answer is ‘change’ and the solution is Mary Lou there is to be no more discourse on the matter. Especially, we are to engage in nothing so reductive as asking what this ‘change’ might be. That is to coarsen the thing irreducibly. We are to instead leave ‘change’ as a sort of fluffy toy which like the Princess in the fairy tale is to be left intacta.
And, most important of all we are not to question the status of Mary Lou and Sinn Fein as the torchbearers for ‘change’. For if you do that then you are questioning ‘change’. And if you are doing this you are an enemy of ‘change’.
Oddly enough the Sinn Fein version of change appears to be quite familiar. The strange air of barely supressed mass hysteria, the declaration that facts are non-facts if they challenge the perfect status of Mary Lou and the evolution of antisemitism into a minor yellow-card offence carries echoes from a difficult dreadful time.
Hopefully the Sinn Fein version of change will evolve into the equivalent of Enda Kenny’s ‘democratic revolution’ where the revolution was confined to FG taking all of FF’s seats and jobs. But, as the taint of an old rough beast from the thirties enters the political ether, whatever the change may be, Sinn Fein are now steering the political agenda. They are in that rare glorious space a political party finds itself where the wind is fully in their sails. In that place every move is the right move and every button they press in the lottery of Irish politics unveils a golden key.
It is a happy run of luck which is enhanced by the astonishingly willingness of their opponents to afford Sinn Fein the bounce of every ball. This is epitomized by the casual ease with which both FF and FG contemplate a reprise of the 2016 seventy-day interregnum involving twelve meetings of the Dail.
The old way of doing things might consist of a leisurely three month long post-election prandial process, with a week off to celebrate St Patricks, where politicians do that which they love most namely talking to each-other and talking to the media. The electorate though are not of an inclination to tolerate that. They may have set the political parties an almost impossible task. But the voters do not see it that way. They have in their eyes done their job and it is up to the politicians to sort it out now.
The problem is that no-one has been that up for the danse macabre of Coalition formation. In the ballroom of non-romance already Fine Gael, the Social Democrats and Labour have taken their ball away. Sinn Fein by contrast have been hiding in full view, pretending to want to set up a government and praying that the whole ramshackle post-election result collapses.
Should that occur there is nobody better than Sinn Fein to play the post Coalition crying game. The voters will be told Sinn Fein’s exclusion is a plot to stymie ‘change’ and that the only way to secure change is to vote Sinn Fein. And if we do see a collapse, a second election and Sinn Fein filling their saddlebags with the seats left behind in election 2020 we really will have an interesting political landscape.
The Goldilocks codicil
One of the most classic examples of spin is the new Sinn Fein Goldilocks theory of Coalition formation. Sadly, the story is struggling to hang together, not least because Mary Lou is more of a Violet Elizabeth Bott from Just William, who in times of trouble would threaten to: ‘thcream and thcream ’till I’m thick’.
Mary Lou’s plans to sit on the Taoiseach’s chair, which to her eye appeared to be ‘just right’, has fallen apart on several other fronts too. Whatever about the Fianna Fail and Fine Gael Papa and Mama bears, the Independent, Socialist, Labour, Green, Social Democrat bear was unconvincing except when it came to the art of crying.
Ultimately the biggest problem with the comparison is that in yet another example of spin the first Goldilocks, far from being a beautiful child, was actually an impudent, bad, foul-mouthed vagrant who eats all the porridge, breaks some of the furniture and falls asleep before she jumps out the window and is never seen again when the vengeful bears return.
Sadly, whatever about the rest the jumping out the window bit, this is a codicil we are unlikely to experience with Mary Lou or Sinn Fein. This Goldilocks, alas, is for staying.