Hail Mary, David Gordon & a Transitioning Sinn Fein

A fortnight ago, I was in Dublin to watch the opening game of the first Saturday of the American college football season between the universities of Boston College and Georgia Tech.

It was an exciting encounter between two well matched teams, the latest in a series of Dublin-based fixtures that has brought tens of thousands of additional American tourists to Ireland in the past five years. The Belfast equivalent has seen a US college ice hockey tournament held in November 2015 and scheduled again for this year, bringing an albeit significantly smaller number of sporting tourists over from the States. Little acorns…..

Boston College (BC) brought a large contingent of fans, but their team could not see the game through to the end, losing to the Yellow Jackets in a thrilling final minute’s action.

Boston College is one of only two Catholic universities playing football at the highest level (FBS), the other being the university of Notre Dame (the Fighting Irish). BC’s successes on the football field are threadbare when compared with those of the Fighting Irish. Fans of the National Football League will recognize the name of Matt Ryan, the Atlanta Falcons’ quarterback, and it was during Ryan’s time as BC’s quarterback in 2007 that the Massachusettes’ university last sat at the top table in the college football rankings- and then only for a fleeting period of time.

Prior to then, Boston College’s finest moment occurred in November 1984, when their star quarterback and soon to be Heisman Trophy winner, Doug Flutie, successfully completed a Hail Mary pass into the end zone against Miami (Fla), thereby ensuring that he would forever be remembered as a legend at Chestnut Hill, even being carved in stone outside the stadium.

The Hail Mary pass is so called because it represents a last throw of the dice. Here’s one online definition:

A Hail Mary pass is a very long forward pass in American football, made in desperation with only a small chance of success. In the Hail Mary pass all receivers run straight toward the endzone and the quarterback will make a long pass that is often “up for grabs.”

As a term, it somewhat fittingly describes many political moves deployed by politicians and parties.

In one sense, the Border Poll pitch by republicans at this time represents a Hail Mary pass. There is no one, republican or otherwise, who credibly believes that a poll held in the short term future will lead to a majority voting for Irish unity. Pitching for unity in the face of all compelling evidence pointing to a defeat would appear, at face value, to be a Flutie-like toss into an end zone in the hope that unforeseen events somehow transform the political landscape and lead to a dramatic change in perceptions.

Of course, the Border Poll appeal is actually part of a longer term strategy which, for Sinn Fein, requires that Irish unity remains never far from the political agenda until a critical point in time arrives when a winnable plebiscite campaign can be launched.

It’s quite a blunt instrument, laced with an element of insecurity, reliant on millenarian instincts and with the added advantage of not requiring anything remotely resembling the 600 page plus document produced by the SNP ahead of the Scottish Independence referendum, nor the years of preparing the groundwork inside and outside of government to deliver a referendum campaign that shook the British state to its foundations.

In reality, it’s part of a holding position for a Sinn Fein party whose leadership is aware of the fact that the party is long past the point of needing to effect significant changes in both personnel and policies to make it fit for purpose in a post-peace process era requiring a change of direction to begin the generation-long work of preparing for the real referendum which the party- and nationalists in general- can confidently envisage being in a position of readiness for in a medium term context.

And the evidence suggests that the process has begun, with Adams, McGuinness and other leading republicans using opportunities in public and private to increasingly talk about the party being ‘in transition.’ In the past few days, this has included Adams intriguingly speaking of a plan being agreed regarding the ‘when’ of his departure.

But it is not just in the context of changing the face of its leader that Sinn Fein is in transition.

As I have written about before on Slugger here, there is a significant difference in terms of northern and southern Sinn Fein which can be attributed to the conflict legacy but which has meant that the southern wing of the party appears in a much healthier state with regard to its capacity to effectively function in the post-peace process era.

Effecting changes to improve the capacity of northern Sinn Fein to fulfill its functions as a governing party and the lead voice for nationalism will require leadership-instigated measures to bring in new voices equipped with the skills and experiences to advance the party’s performance at Stormont and within the Executive. The moves to begin examining and ultimately shelving the salary policy are in recognition of the fact that, if republicans are to maximize the potential to advance their agenda from their position of relative electoral strength, north and south, then they need the best and brightest inside the party as both elected representatives and advisors.

That will not be easy for Sinn Fein, because it will necessitate not simply shuffling the deck to alter the face of the party presented to the electorate, but actually ceding power and influence to a new generation and away from a generation that has retained authority and moulded the internal culture of the party for more than 30 years.

In the past week, the local political scene was rocked by the news that the Executive parties had managed to secure the services of the exceptionally talented, David Gordon, as their Executive Press Secretary. The lengths that Sinn Fein agreed (with the DUP) to go to in order to attract Gordon demonstrated a commitment to attract someone presumably that they believed could deliver (in a presentational manner) for both parties. If this move signals a similar desire to attract and maximize the skills and experiences of the best and brightest into Sinn Fein, then it would represent a significant leap forward for the party.

Expect to hear a lot more from Adams and McGuinness about transition, but, more importantly, watch for the moves taken to better prepare the party for when that moment arrives. I would envisage a number of O’Muilleoir style co-options in the short term, and by that I mean the strategic retirement of MLAs that allow the party to address gaps by ensuring replacements can bring much needed skills and experiences to the party team.

Change is coming.