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Retired Colonel Dorcha Lee: Is a Sinn Féin Minister for Defence really that unthinkable?

Lee says he feels conflicted about the possibility of a Sinn Féin government but admits the party now has a mandate that deserves recognition.

WITH THE NEW troika government continually slipping on its own banana skins, Sinn Féin should remember Napoleon’s advice to his generals, “Never intervene when your enemy is making mistakes”.

Sinn Féin is now the leading party of opposition. Given the new volatility in Irish politics,  it is only a matter of time before they arrive in the corridors of power.

I have always viewed SF like an alien spaceship from a distant galaxy, as a possible, but remote threat to our way of life, to be viewed with the utmost caution. Now that they have landed, I am shocked to see a close resemblance to ourselves.

However, while the whiff of gunpowder may have dissipated over the past twenty-five years, their public utterances remain as populist as ever. Nevertheless, they have arrived, and life cannot really go on as before.

A changing landscape

To the average voter, the glaring and unexplained mystery is why were Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil so doggedly opposed to SF participation in Government down South, while pulling out all the stops to ensure SF’s return to power in the North?

Yes, there are unspoken security concerns and substantial policy differences. However, as an experienced international election observer, I have seen the most unlikely political parties form successful coalitions. 

In the past few years, since the leadership changes in SF, I have begun to think seriously about SF’s possible participation in Government. As a democrat, I respect their mandate, even if I profoundly disagree with many of their policies.

As an ex-member of the Defence Forces, I am seriously conflicted. Apart from the obvious policy issues, how would the SF/ DF (Defence Forces) relationship pan out?

A SF Minister for Defence; is it really that unthinkable? I will not be thanked by some of my former comrades for airing such heretical thoughts.

But then again, to paraphrase that great science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke; “If an eminent scientist tells you something is possible, believe him. If he tells you something is impossible, don’t believe him!”

The new middle ground

SF’s preparations for government are well advanced. Party President, Mary Lou McDonald, has already begun to lead her people on the relatively short journey across the Rubicon, to the centre-ground of Irish politics.

Their quickest way to government is to go into coalition with either FF or FG. However, even with a powerful mandate from the people, the onus is really still on SF to close the policy gap between them and the two main traditional parties of power.

What should SF do to be accepted as a coalition partner to either FG or FF? 

The first major step for SF should be to distance itself from the toxic legacy of the Provisional IRA. Not easy to do so, if they are to hold on to their core support.

A start would be to put on record how the SF and Provos relationship has changed over the decades. Ultimately, when they are confident enough, the spectre of Provisionalism needs to fade away into history. 

This first step should also involve SF, fully, and finally, accepting the Defence Forces (Óglaigh na hÉireann) as the one, true, legitimate armed force of this State. To their credit, they have consistently demanded improved pay and conditions for DF personnel, which is badly needed. 

Of course, it might be even more convincing if Sinn Féin also called for the DF to be properly equipped for their primary role of national defence. But then again, if they were to call for the DF to have tanks, jet fighters and frigates, to properly defend our neutrality, they might leave themselves open to charges of having a different agenda. 

The second step is to review some of their socialist policies. SF has become more pragmatic and largely accepts the mixed capitalist/socialist nature of our economy. Like other left-leaning groupings in the Dáil, SF is not really socialist. 

Indeed, over the years, there have been faint signals intercepted from the Starship Sinn Féin, that, in government, they may not be too quick to demand economic portfolios.

The third step is to rethink its position on the EU. In particular, SF ‘s opposition to the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy should soften, as the Post Brexit move towards EU unity intensifies.

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In this regard, it should support the Defence Forces’ involvement in UN-mandated EU peacekeeping missions. It can do so, while still maintaining SF’s commitment to its policy of positive neutrality. 

At present, it looks like they may have time to review their policies before the next general election, but who knows?

Finally, as regards the Defence Forces and Sinn Féin in Government, there should never be a problem. The real Óglaigh na hÉireann will, as it says in the Oath of Allegiance, always remain faithful to Ireland and loyal to the Constitution.

Colonel Dorcha Lee (retd) is a former Defence Forces Provost Marshal and Director of Military Police.

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