So much of what occured after the Belfast Agreement is so hidden from open scrutiny that it is often a case of paying your money and take your choice of who was responsible for who ultimately collapsed the outworking of that deal. Republicans blame unionists, and vice versa. However, much as it looked as though David Trimble paid the political price at the Assembly election of November 2003, Ed Moloney speculates that last Thursday Sinn Fein may just have antied up its whack in terms of its ambition in the south:
Gerry Adams and his colleagues could have sealed a deal with the former Unionist leader David Trimble long before the 2002 election in the Republic. All that was required was a sufficiently persuasive concession on IRA decommissioning – a list of weapons put beyond use, for instance – and Trimble would probably have survived. A powersharing government would thus have been in place for the 2002 poll and Sinn Féin well positioned to market itself as an experienced party of responsible government to Southern voters by the time of the 2007 election.
But the party leadership decided otherwise. The decommissioning issue was strung out for many more years even though an IRA Convention in 1999 had given the group’s leadership the go-ahead to dispose of weaponry as they thought fit. The effect, and very possibly the intention, was to polarise Northern politics even further. David Trimble became isolated from his electorate and was eclipsed by Ian Paisley’s DUP while the SDLP shrank in the shadow of Sinn Féin.
The result was that Sinn Féin became the largest nationalist party in the North. Any analysis of this period must therefore examine the possibility that this was deliberately contrived, that the Provo leadership delayed decommissioning in order to foster Sinn Féin’s electoral growth.
But there were other consequences. Refusal to fully decommission meant that the war had not been totally ended and that the IRA was still operational long after its sell-by date. From that came the Northern Bank robbery of some £26.5 million (€39 million) in December 2004 and then a few weeks later the grisly cover-up of the unauthorised IRA murder of Robert McCartney in Belfast.
The evidence that these two events were a tipping point in Sinn Féin’s standing with the Republic’s electorate is compelling. Before the Northern Bank/McCartney murder, opinion polls showed that Sinn Féin was supported by about 12 per cent of the electorate while Gerry Adams’s personal approval rating stood at 51 per cent, only two points behind Bertie Ahern. By March 2005, Sinn Féin’s support had fallen to about 8-9 per cent while Adams’s standing had dipped to 39 points.
Sinn Féin’s support and that for Gerry Adams never recovered from the Northern Bank/McCartney episodes.
The completion of IRA decommissioning didn’t reverse the trend in the Republic’s opinion polls, nor did the July 2005 “end of war” statement by the IRA or even the creation of a powersharing government with Ian Paisley. It was all too late, the Republic’s voters had been sickened. In the event Sinn Féin won a meagre 6.9 per cent of the vote in last week’s election, evidence that the pollsters had read the electorate’s mind pretty well.
Whilst, as he goes on to point out, it is impossble to know whether an early deal would have made a significant difference to Sinn Fein’s fate south of the border, the poll trends strongly suggest that the events of 2005 had a determental effect on its actual performance last week. Being stuck outside the machinery of government also gave them little opportunity to close the credibility deficit in its economic policy.
Ultimately, he argues, the procrastination of the IRA may have consolidated Sinn Fein’s power in the economic walled garden of Northern Ireland, but it also cost it any bounce it may realistically have expected in the Republic. However, Moloney suggests that the loss of forward momentum on such a talismanic issue may prove more problematic internally than with its public profile with voters:
Until last week Sinn Féin’s image was of an infallible, irresistible political behemoth which gobbled up or trampled everyone in its way. The image was created and sustained by a dizzying and seemingly endless series of electoral successes, stretching back nearly a decade and a half. But that too was the party’s weakness. Like a shark, Sinn Féin always needed to be moving forward, ever a threat to those around it; staying still or going backwards could be fatal. It will be interesting to watch how the DUP now interacts with Sinn Féin in the Belfast Executive or whether the SDLP’s battered morale is boosted by this result.
As with the party so with its leadership, especially Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams. His ability to take the Provisional movement down a road of disarmament and huge ideological compromise was largely due to an almost mystical faith in his strategic foresight on the part of a substantial section of the Sinn Féin and IRA grassroots. Their faith, until now, had been justified by a remarkably successful track record in both the military and political fields. How they respond now to this, his first major failure, will be the story to watch in the coming months [emphasis added].
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty