Rallies prove that Sinn Féin are playing the game better than anyone else right now
Sinn Féin’s rallies should scare Leo Varadkar, but not for the reason he thinks.
In the wake of the most fractured general election in Irish history, all parties struggle now to emerge from the debris. In perhaps the boldest attempt to do so, Sinn Fein are currently holding a series of “public rallies” (their choice of words, by the way).
Once the word 'rally' came into the mix, it was inevitable that this latest development would inform the next talking point of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil's tandem "not a normal party" narrative.
And so it did. Leo Varadkar complained that the rallies are "designed to be the next phase in Sinn Féin's campaign of intimidation and bullying." Former Minister for Justice and Fine Gael TD Alan Shatter was similarly outspoken on the matter, saying that the rallies have "no valid role in our democracy." Independent councillor Paul Gogarty, formerly of the Greens, explicitly said that "this stunt reminds me of early Nuremberg."
Now, before we address those concerns, let's acknowledge that the word 'rally' can have some pretty unpleasant associations. The most famous political rallies were those held by the Nazis at Nuremberg, and in this modern age they conjure images of Trump performing for his MAGA hat-wearing, mouth-breathing devotees.
But as I sat there in Liberty Hall, waiting for Fine Gael's worst fears to materialise, for 'Come Out Ye Black and Tans' to blare over the PA or for someone to harass me into voting Sinn Féin, it quickly became clear that no such frenzy was on the cards.
The crowd was enthusiastic, sure. Excited, even. When the Sinn Féin team hit the stage, they were applauded and cheered and wooed for a solid minute. This was less like the Donald Trump Variety Hour and more like a guest lecture by the university professor who seems cool because she rides a motorcycle, wrote a bestseller and there are rumours she’s been to jail.
The main hall was standing room only. The overflow room overflowed. Pearse Doherty had to go and address a crowd of over 100 people outside, who arrived after the venue had filled up.
The night began with a short speech from McDonald, who called once again for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to work with her party, saying: "We respect your mandate, now it's time that you respect ours." She called on the other party leaders to talk to everyone "because that's what adults do".
I was thinking that once McDonald was finished then that's when the uniformed heavies would come out to lead us in a round of chanting and marching, but instead a Q&A session began, and the normality continued unabated.
When a People Before Profit voter stood to ask the panel if they'd support a street demonstration next month, because public meetings weren't enough, McDonald demurred.
"You don't need our permission to organise any form of protest, but the focus of our work is on negotiation, and the reality is that the numbers will either stand or fall within the Dáil. Our efforts will be on conversations with other parties, and we wish you well in your efforts." That's what politicians sound like when they're saying "No, thank you."
A stark reminder that this is why those on the left think Sinn Féin are too ready to go into government with FF and FG. Too normal, you might say.
One immigrant named Patrick, asked about Sinn Féin's stance on immigration, and whether immigrants would be "thrown out" under an SF government.
McDonald answered: "I want to say this very directly to you: Everyone who lives here with us is part of our community, part of our story, and has so much to contribute to our future. I'm saying that to you as a person who will live her life according to those values."
She also categorised Ireland's current system of Direct Provision as "wrong" and "beneath" us. Never heard that one at the Trump rallies.
Rather, the conversation covered retention and recruitment of healthcare workers, quality of housing, the carbon tax, money messages, autism empowerment, the rights of those who have been adopted, and one question on a border poll.
Because here's the thing. A public gathering to demand literally anything of any nature (bar hatred and violence) is exactly the purpose of democracy. It's what democracy is expressly designed to facilitate. If there are suspicions to be raised about Sinn Féin, those suspicions do not apply to a rally like tonight's.
Let me put it this way: if you are not interested in politics, you would not have been scared by Tuesday night’s Sinn Féin rally. You would have been bored.
Sinn Féin have done exactly what a normal party, functioning like a normal party, would do. They've capitalised on voter enthusiasm. They've seized their unprecedented surge by the scruff and now they're shearing it for all the wool its worth.
They've gone out and met the public where they live. No "Lock Leo up" chants or green "Up the 'Ra'" hats for sale, just Eoin O Broin's books on a stand. Just plain old engagement with civil society.
They look engaged. They look energetic. They look dynamic, interacting with the public, even if the public present are all Sinn Féin voters anyway. Most worrying for their rivals, they are doing it in a way that is transparent, public, and worst of all, normal.
McDonald ended her speech by saying: "This is how we do business. Let me just say that I hope Leo and the lads get over their allergy to public meetings."
Based on the success of Sinn Féin's rallies so far, the lads would be wise to take her advice.