Northern Ireland

John Manley: Don't be surprised by Sinn Féin protests – it's what the party does best

Leo Varadkar described Sinn Féin's plans to hold public meetings as a campaign of 'intimation and bullying'
Leo Varadkar described Sinn Féin's plans to hold public meetings as a campaign of 'intimation and bullying' Leo Varadkar described Sinn Féin's plans to hold public meetings as a campaign of 'intimation and bullying'

The continuing Mexican stand-off in politics south of the border is accompanied by a descent into a situation that lies somewhere between farce and hysteria.

The establishment parties – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – are floundering; ageing heavyweights on the ropes, their fightback limited to weak, half-hearted jabs. Like everybody else, they didn't see the Sinn Féin surge coming and therefore the response has been typically instinctive and ill thought out.

In the immediate aftermath of the February 8 election there were hints of repprochment from Micheál Martin, who said he would "listen to the people", as they had clearly called for change. Days later he was back-peddling, ruling out the prospect of getting into bed with Sinn Féin yet struggling to chart an alternative route into government.

Fine Gael was more categorical, with deputy leader Simon Coveney stressing that his party's policies and Sinn Féin's were incompatible, while Leo Varadkar signalled that he'd be much more content than his Fianna Fáil counterpart to sit out this mandate in opposition.

Weeks earlier the tánaiste was in Belfast standing alongside Julian Smith telling Stormont's parties that the way forward was through co-operation and the return of the devolved institutions.

There was no mention of 'shadowy' figures controlling Sinn Féin and instead he argued that conflicting ideologies and irreconcilable differences should be put aside for the good of the region, sentiments that don't seem to apply when it comes to the Republic.

We've become accustomed over the years to a different set of standards being applied by the Dublin establishment to what can be expected north of the border.

The 'big two' parties are happy to trade on their republican credentials when it suits yet choose to invoke the north only when it can be used to attack a political rival.

Controversies in the south focused on the IRA's past deeds and apparent continued influence tend to follow a cycle that closely matches the state's electoral contests, whether presidential or to the Dáil.

The latest bout of faux consternation centres on Sinn Féin's series of public meetings, a party strategy honed over years of agitation that seeks to tap into societal discontent.

As demonstrated with water charges and more recently with party's focus on the housing crisis, it's what Sinn Féin excels at; it's why they're pejoratively referred to as the 'protest party'.

In recent weeks, we've been told that while Mary Lou McDonald may be the leader, the party hasn't changed – so why therefore expect it to suddenly adopt a new approach?

The mass meetings, or what some term 'rallies', are not sinister but are merely an effort to ensure the momentum from the election isn't lost amid weeks of expected drift. Characterising them, as the taoiseach did, as "intimation and bullying"is likely to prove counterproductive.

As the election made clear, southern politics has undergone a minor revolution, ushering in new era where the certainties of the past have disappeared. Half by design, half by accident Sinn Féin and the other smaller parties are attuned to the public's discontent.

The establishment will need to find fresh tactics if it is to counter this surge.