Sinn Fein: down but not quite out…

Alex Kane reckons that after twenty years with the political wind at their backs, Sinn Fein will never again have it so good. It’s not that he thinks Sinn Fein cannot make a decent go at good government at Stormont, but that its recent rejection by southern voters leaves it in a place it not expect to be, and in a position within the UK that increasingly looks devoid of a credible exit strategy. He believes the party faces four critical challenges:By Alex Kane:

The one thing you can be certain of with Sinn Fein is that they won’t let an electoral or political hiccough distract them from their overriding purpose. In 1992, when Adams lost his West Belfast seat to the SDLP’s Joe Hendron, and Sinn Fein’s overall vote fell to 10 per cent, a number of commentators argued that their “electoral bubble” had been burst. Yet fifteen years on, it is the SDLP which has the problem of long term survival.

And while it is true that Sinn Fein performed appallingly at the recent Irish election, it would be a huge mistake for unionists to gloat too much. We got a lucky break this time, with Ahern doing very much better than had been expected; and that lucky break means that we have been spared the immediate prospect of Sinn Fein inside an Irish government. But who knows what could happen in a mere five years? In the meantime, Sinn Fein will reassess its position and review its tactics, calculating what it must do to keep the unification project on the road. It will have four main priorities.

First, it must prove that it can make a difference for the better in Northern Ireland. The up and then down again nature of devolution between 1998 and 2006 meant that it was never really tested in government and never got the chance to prove what it was capable of. This time will be different. Martin McGuinness will remain on a permanent charm offensive (helped, immeasurably, by the genuinely good relationship he has with Ian Paisley), while the three Sinn Fein ministers will concentrate on crowd-pleasing measures and looking efficient. The aim, of course, is not to frighten unionists up here, while, at the same time, proving to southern voters that they can be trusted in government.

Second, and this may prove more difficult, they have to convince their republican heartlands that power-sharing with unionists in a British sanctioned Assembly in the United Kingdom can still be interpreted as ongoing progress towards a united Ireland. The task is made a little easier by the fact that Sinn Fein has seen off all electoral rivals and that there doesn’t appear to be a credible replacement for the IRA. That said, they still need signs of progress, and that’s why an Irish Language Act and control of three super-councils west of the Bann will remain on their agenda.

Third, they have to accept that they aren’t going to make an impact south of the border by relying on “A Nation Once Again” and hand-me-down Marxist economics. For all of Sinn Fein’s talk about building a “New Ireland,” it would seem that the Irish electorate believe that it was built by the Belfast Agreement and endorsed by the changes to the Irish Constitution. So, if Sinn Fein is going to make electoral progress in the Dail, it is only going to do so if it plants itself on the soft-left of the political spectrum and tones down the unification rhetoric.

Finally, it will continue with its “Charter for Unionist Engagement,” which it launched at Stormont almost a fortnight ago. Now, in my opinion, no unionist worthy of the name would have attended the event; but my opinion counts for nothing among those woollier minded ninnies who believe that a politically motivated rapprochement with Sinn Fein is, of itself, a “good thing.” It isn’t. I have very grave reservations about the “Shared Future” approach to our problems (which I will write about next week) and I am utterly opposed to unionists being sucked into Sinn Fein’s deliberate and cynical wooing of our professional softies.

Republicans have always played the long game. Let’s face it, 800 years of whingeing about British oppression has conditioned them to that sort of game. But they also believe that they are probably closer now than they have been for over a century to realising their ultimate goal.

As it happens, I believe they are actually further away from that goal than they have ever been. I detect no signs from either the British or Irish political establishments that they regard the Assembly and the Belfast/St Andrews Agreements has anything other than permanent. It is clear, also, that the Irish electorate has no great desire to embrace the social, political, constitutional and economic consequences that would accompany unification. They certainly don’t want the nightmare of thirty or so unionist TDs forever holding the balance of power in the Dail!

Again, as far as Northern Ireland is concerned, if Dublin and Washington have taken their eye off the ball and most internal republican demands have been met, then where is the motivation for unification? Adams’ generation is aging and the upcoming generation will have no hard physical evidence of the brutality and one-party rule which acted as the recruiting call for the IRA.

The only useful card that Sinn Fein has left is that of a border poll; and it will want to play it at some stage. But for that card to be truly effective it will require a smaller than expected turnout from the pro-Union electorate. And that is why Sinn Fein will be so keen to prove itself in government; it is why Martin McGuinness will smile a lot; and it’s why the unionist engagement project will continue.

The only way that unification can happen is if Sinn Fein can prove that there is a majority mandate for it in Northern Ireland. That will not happen in my lifetime. Indeed, it won’t happen at all if the pro-Union arguments are clearly made and properly deployed. Sinn Fein has had a good run since the early 1980s, but the unpleasant reality for them is that their day isn’t coming after all.

First published in the Newsletter.

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