If the political and media establishments were hesitant or fearful of last year’s centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, its likely that this will pale into comparison to the confusions and competing narratives ready to emerge over the hundred-year anniversaries of the events of 1917-1923. It seems that Leo Varadkar, the aspirant leader of Fine Gael, is already preparing the ground for his party to stake its claim to “own” the history of the War of Independence in the face of counter-claims by its political rivals. Yesterday, before the gathered press, the Minister for Social Protection announced his intention to restore FG’s former campaigning sobriquet of Fine Gael, the United Ireland Party. At the same time he promised that the organisation would celebrate its roots in the revolutionary period (while justifying and defending its central role in the bloody Civil War and theocratic Free State which followed).
Leo Varadkar’s statement was ridiculed by rival candidate, Simon Coveney, who argued that Fine Gael was already using that title. However, in fairness, while the UI tagline was adopted by the party with its foundation in the 1930s, it was quietly dropped in the 1970s and ’80s as it drifted even further away from its origins within a split of the revolutionary-era Sinn Féin (and closer to those of John Redmond’s quasi-unionist Irish Parliamentary Party). Interestingly the present Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government did not challenge Varadkar’s description of contemporary Sinn Féin as “…the greatest threat to our democracy and to the prosperity of this State“. Which indicates just how nasty Irish politics is going to be in the lead up to 2023 and how much of our present is shaped and influenced by our past.
Of course, if Leo Varadkar was genuinely interested in Fine Gael becoming the “United Ireland Party”, or in defending our democracy, he would be campaigning for the people of this country, north and south, to have a chance to vote for it; whether in Dublin or Belfast, Cork or Derry. That would be a true answer to Sinn Féin’s rising popularity, if that is his real concern. Not some meaningless soundbites or rebranding.