Politicians are doing a lot of pedalling these days. Australian pollies are literally pedalling their bikes from Adelaide to Geelong – for charity.
We’re also being pedalled – peddled – a lot of lines about surpluses and deficits and funding of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
Colleagues with expertise in economics assure me that every time a politician explains the nation’s finances in terms of a household mortgage, an economics fairy loses its wings.
There’s been a fair bit of political pedalling going on back in Ireland as well. April began with the Fine Gael ard fheis (party conference) and ended with a gathering of the Fianna Fáil faithful.
In between Labour squirmed, a “left-wing” party in an austerity government. While Sinn Féin confidently strutted the stage – the modern party mask slipped slightly when “Sniper at Work” badges glorifying the IRA past were found on sale at the conference.
The State’s two “Republican” parties – Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin – are both showing remarkable electoral strength and with improving polling figures comes increased scrutiny. That presents a problem, the same problem, for both parties.
Few political parties have been as tainted as Fianna Fáil.
By 2011, the party founded by De Valera had become indelibly associated with corruption. It was plagued by scandals throughout the 80s, 90s and into the noughties. Frankly, their shenanigans make the Obeids look like choirboys.
To make matters worse Fianna Fáil oversaw the mismanagement of the Celtic Tiger. And when it all went to pot in the tumultuous days of the GFC, it was a coalition of Fianna Fáil and the Greens who decided to guarantee the debt of failing Irish banks.
The party’s brand was toxic. It was unelectable – about as popular as a Labor prime minister in Western Australia, or western Sydney come to that.
Fianna Fáil had been one of the most successful political parties in the world, from its inception in 1926 until its dramatic downfall. In the 2007 general election the party won 77 Dáil seats; in 2011 they were reduced to 20.
But despite the peann luaidhe (pencil) revolution – as James Downey of the Irish Independent dubbed it – the story did not end in 2011.
Yet Fianna Fáil is enjoying the most unlikely rebirth since Lazarus. For Sinn Féin the story is more complicated.
Many voters in Ireland are post-Belfast Agreement voters. They’ve only ever known the “post-conflict” Sinn Féin. That presents a real possibility for the party to project a new identity.
The anti-austerity, pro-public sector face of Sinn Féin is re-enforced by strong Dáil performances. Parliamentary performances are so strong that many see Gerry Adams as the weakest member of the Sinn Féin Parliamentary Party (although his tweets are surreally amusing).
The problem for Sinn Féin is that for too many it remains dogged by its association with the Troubles. Surprisingly, this is less of an issue in Stormont. That is probably because the political arrangements there entrench the Northern Irish conflict in the politics of the Assembly.
But in the Republic there remains a squeamishness – a hypocritical squeamishness – about the prospect of having Sinn Féin in government. After all, if we insist on Sinn Féin’s participation in government in Belfast we have no right to baulk at their involvement in Dublin.
In reality, the “new” Sinn Féin could be a force for political change in Ireland. Most great leaps forward in Irish politics have come from “new” political forces.
In the 1940s (human rights barrister and former IRA chief of staff) Seán MacBride’s Clann na Poblachta married constitutional republicanism to a social conscience and succeeded in eradicating tuberculosis.
In the 80s, the Progressive Democrats shone a light on corruption and seemed ready to replace the decades of Civil War politics with something more ideologically grounded.
The new Sinn Féin presents a similar opportunity. But it frequently undermines its own efforts. It has a history and a core constituency it needs to appease.
Selling IRA memorabilia and even calling for a referendum on a United Ireland – at a time of heightened tension in the North and despite little evidence that such a referendum would pass – conflict with the party’s efforts to be seen as a mature political force.
In late April Red C released a poll on Irish voting intentions: Fine Gael on 28 per cent; Fianna Fáil on 25 per cent; Sinn Féin on 16 per cent; and Labour down on 11 per cent. These figures are broadly in line with other polls over the past few months. They show a resilience in Fine Gael and a collapse in Labour support.
More significantly, Red C’s Richard Colwell says that these figures show “that the opposition parties are going to have to do far more … to persuade further voters to switch to them”.
To do that both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin will need people to forgive and to forget.
Fergal Davis is a Senior Lecturer in Law at The University of New South Wales. He is active on Twitter, as @Fergal_Davis.