Sinn Féin: the continuing cost of losing the initiative

The conundrum facing anyone wishing to untangle the events of the last three months is that when all the smoke clears, there is no one else the British or Unionists can do business with but Sinn Fein. The SDLP shows no real signs of being ready to punch back. And even if Fianna Fail were prepared to organise in Northern Ireland it would require serial political stupidity on the part of Sinn Fein to throw away its leadership position in Northern Irish nationalism.

That does not mean that the current crisis does not have the potential to cause the movement serious damage.

The bad headlines around the world are not good to read. It puts limits on Sinn Fein’s provenance as a legitimate political party. It’s certainly not good for a domestic audience that’s become accustomed to much richer pickings in the post ceasefire world. But, so far as it is possible to see, it has not actually damaged the party’s standing with it’s own substantial support.

So far the party has ridden a viciously turning tide reasonably well. Much to the consternation of its many critics, it clearly has a deep well of good will to draw upon. The Northern Bank robbery (if indeed it was an IRA operation) has a high degree of tolerance on the lines of the old Robin Hood myth. The McCartney case is different.

In the same way we know nothing definate about the bank robbery, we have nothing definative in the public domain about the events that night. The one account we have is an IRA statement that recounts all the lethal events as having happened outside the bar.

There is currently no evidence available directly from Brendan Devine although, significantly, the McCartney sisters claim that his throat was cut inside the bar. And to be fair, the IRA’s statement doesn’t directly rule it out: “…after the initial melee in Magennis’s bar, a crowd spilled out onto the street and Robert McCartney, Brendan Devine and two other men were pursued into Market Street”.

The details of exactly who was in Magennis’s Bar is emerging on a painfully slow drip feed, which is not entirely under the control of the Republican movement. With two former candidates and a former Belfast City Councillor, now placed inside the bar, it appears this killing is far from a simple military matter.

Martin McGuinness’s warning may have simply been a legitimate response to an electoral threat should one or more of the McCartneys decide to stand in the coming council elections. In these circumstances, it is (and has been) open to other interpretations. It may not be the best way to handle that threat in the context of a worsening PR situation.

All the information we have come across suggests that both the party and the IRA have told witnesses to testify, to the police if necessary. But the longer the ambiguity hangs over this case, the more damaging it is likely to be for the credibility of the whole movement.

In the meantime Ian Paisley’s notorious sack cloth and ashes remark seems less and less like an unreasonable pre-condition and more and more like an accute form of prescience.

  • slug9987

    The ground is clear for a new policy on NI.

    In two years’ time we are in a post-Blair, post-Trimble world in which the dynamic in the UK is totally different and lessons from the Blair era are learnt.

    Gordon Brown will use a different set of advisers. He will take an evidence based approach. He will learn the lessons of the Blair era. Build on the pragmatic successes of the Blair era such as the Parades Commission and the PSNI. And discontinue with the idealistic failures – the high-profile summitry, the high-blown rhetoric, the power politics that focuses only on tug-of-war politics between lead ethnic parties.

    He will not suffer fools gladly. His principles will lead him to concentrate on low profile pragmatic evidence based initiatives that have (a) a chance of working and (b) are at a people based social and economic rather than a politician based high political level. He will get on with doing what is doable in the interests of ordinary people. Because in the end he is in politics because he believes in improving economic and social conditions.

  • Alan2

    The “sack cloth and ashes” was Paisley speak which many took offence to but ultimately did not understand. Paisley preaches “being born again” and as such every “saved” member comes before the Lord hubled and as “sack cloth and ashes” and asked for repentance. That is the context I believe he meant but if you have never been to Free P / Baptist / Brethren etc type meetings it will be taken very differently.

  • fair_deal


    Parades Commission success? Parade disputes have spread to more places since its inception and it has singularly failed in its mediation role, it has not been involved in the successful resolution of one parade dispute.

  • IJP


    You know rightly the Parades Commission has no mediation function.

    Perhaps it should, but it doesn’t.

  • Stephen Copeland


    You assume that Sinn Fein did actually want to ‘come in from the cold’ at this juncture. Entertain the thought, however, that they perhaps did not.

    If all had gone according to the GFA plan, SF would be now, and for about another 15 years, co-administering NI on behalf of HMG as a minority shareholder. That is hardly what republicanism is about, and could have led to a situation anathema to republican ideals – an acceptance by nationalists of the status quo, and perhaps a growth in non-tribal politics, thereby retarding the nationalist project for years, even generations. This was clearly a situation that unionism wanted to bring about – SF knew that, of course, but maybe reckoned on the GFA being killed by recalcitrant unionism, leaving SF the winner in its high stakes gamble. Unionism’s near-willingness to play the GFA game was unexpected and worrying for SF.

    Hence, possibly, SF has deliberately sabotaged the GFA through its best route – itself. Rather than withdraw from it, as losers, it continues to talk the talk, while deliberately tripping up the walk. The timing, and the content, of IRA actions over the past few months is so out of keeping with SF strategy that it must be deliberate. Many say that it shows republican arrogance, but I don’t buy that. SF and the IRA are not stupid, they know the likely effects of their every word and action. So it seems to be an unavoidable conclusion that the republican movement has decided that it does not want the GFA as it stands, preferring to remain on the outside where its brand of anti-state politics can still be effective, and where in the absence of a ‘settlement’ it can ensure that the pot is kept boiling until such time in the future as it sees the tide turning more in its favour. That pot could be electoral, demographic, or geo-political – I guess that even SF don’t know what or when.