In the aftermath of the General Election in the Republic, here’s a question for you.

How come the Rev. Ian Paisley was prepared to sit in a coalition government with Sinn Fein, but today’s Fine Gael Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar refuses to do so?

As regards the late DUP leader, the answer comes in a tweet from journalist Eamonn Mallie who said: “Each time I asked Ian Paisley why he went into government with Sinn Fein, he answered, ‘Because the people elected them. That is democracy and they are not going away.’”.

There is something of an irony, then, that the establishment political class and media in the south who would consider themselves a sovereign functioning democracy while looking at the north as somehow not a normal society, refusing to countenance the type of power sharing in the Republic that they expect in Northern Ireland.

The focus, north and south, is now very much on Sinn Fein and their remarkable election success.

The words “seismic” and “historic” are often overused in political commentary after elections. But never were they more appropriate as Sinn Fein took the largest percentage share of any party. A couple of quirky facts that people posted on social media included the revelation that for the first time in history, all 32 counties of Ireland are represented by a Sinn Fein TD or MP.

And commentator Chris Donnelly added together the Westminster and Dail elections to show that on the island, SF got a combined 717,448 votes, compared to Fianna Fail 484,320, Fine Gael 455,584, DUP 244,127 and so on.

Don’t forget, too, that it’s only 34 years since Provisional Sinn Fein entered electoral politics when they voted to end 65 years of boycotting the Dail. Their former president Ruairi O’Bradaigh walked out in protest and later his colleagues warned that the party would be tainted.

Now, O’Bradiagh’s successor, today’s Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald is suggesting she could become Taoiseach in the very Dail that her predecessor despised.

Under normal circumstances then, Sinn Fein would be in a dominant position in power across the island. But…

But the election campaign, and indeed the debate since last Saturday’s vote emerged, has been framed against the background of Sinn Fein’s links to the IRA. Despite the party pointing that the IRA has gone away, the narrative in the Republic has been that they are not a normal party. There’s constant reference to “shadowy figures” controlling the party in the background, and some of the coverage has been hysterical with comparisons to Hitler and the Nazi party. I agree with those who say that once a critic starts to use such comparison they lose the argument.

It’s no coincidence that the hype over Sinn Fein’s background increased correspondingly as their percentages in the polls increased.

There was much focus, too, on the murder of Paul Quinn, savagely and brutally killed in Armagh in 2007 and Northern Ireland Minister, Conor Murphy was put on the spot for the hurt he caused to the Quinns for wrongly describing Paul at the time as a criminal. Everyone’s heart went out to the Quinns in their search for justice for their son.

While Paul’s parents live with this every day, it was no coincidence that their plight came back into the public domain in the run-up to the election, in the context of the credentials of Sinn Fein.

Whatever the issues of Sinn Fein’s past, though, the electorate in the south has decided either to ignore it or to accept that the party has moved on and has given them overwhelming support on the issues of housing and health among other social problems.

While many focus on the issue of other party and media reaction to them, the question I feel is, where does Sinn Fein go from here. As O’Bradaigh predicted, they are now part of the system. But are they fully in?

I was interested in an analysis given during RTE’s election coverage by Frank Flannery, a former Fine Gael adviser who pointed out that over the history of the State, a number of breakaway groups moved “out of the paramilitary world into the fully democratic world.”

He was, of course, referring to Ireland’s violent past, with bloodshed to achieve independence part of the country’s DNA.

Fianna Fail, whose leader today Micheal Martin looks a spent force, was formed in 1926 by Eamon de Valera who split with Sinn Fein when he wanted to take seats in the Dail. And in 1933, Fine Gael was formed to incorporate Cumann na nGaedheal. Michael Collins is often identified as the founder of the movement which lead to the formation of Fine Gael.

But whether de Valera or Collins, pro-Treaty or anti-Treaty, the use of physical force is rooted deep in the history of the (until now) main parties.

Flannery suggested that Fine Gael also brought other militant groups into democratic politics, such as Clann na Poblachta in 1948 and later the Official IRA.

“The last part of that historic process will be when Provisional Sinn Fein goes fully in, and it’s as fully in as it could possibly be,” he suggested.

The question that people will ask, is who represents the Sinn Fein of 2020. Is it the party of Eoin O’Broin, the Blackrock College-educated TD who obtained a Masters at Queen’s University, Belfast, who articulates intelligently the left’s position on the housing crisis. And Pearse O’Doherty, the Donegal TD with a burgeoning reputation. The impressive John Finucane in north Belfast, and indeed Mary Lou McDonald herself who has proven to be electable.

Or is it the party of Dessie Ellis, the former IRA prisoner who waved the tricolor and sang “Come out ye black and tans” at an election celebration; and David Cullinane who blamed the “excitement of the night” for shouting “Up the ‘Ra.” Or the thugs in Armagh who murdered Paul Quinn.

Cullinane said his emotional actions were more about the past than the future, but that has not reassured their opponents who point to past misdemeanours. Some of the flag-waving is seized on by the media and certainly don’t look good for the optics. And it has to be said that such elements are always going to let the side down.

But which direction is Sinn Fein heading? As well as social policies in the south, they were quick to push the agenda for a Border poll, albeit with the proviso from Mrs. McDonald of a proper process to discuss the whole issue properly of a united Ireland.

Unionists may well be spooked by the rise and rise of Sinn Fein, and there are concerns that they are “re-writing the past” and all sides continue to try to control the narrative of the legacy of conflict.

These are changing times across the world, in Ireland north and south as much as anywhere.

Sinn Fein has been given a massive vote by the Irish people. With it, though, comes responsibility and, as always, getting a mandate is one thing. Having the strategic calmness to use it well is another.