Sinn Fein is now a normal party that needs an opposition

In today’s Irish Times, David Adams touches on two big stories of the last week. He points out that Sinn Fein is now a political party just like any other and it should be treated a such, and some trust investedt aht they no more sanction criminality than anyone else. But he also talks about the scrabbling for clarity on the increasingly enigmatic Ministerial Code, which certainly exists but apparently without much gravitational force. Nevertheless, he argues, that if the two big parties are going to act as a ruling cartel within the Executive, what is in it for the UUP and the SDLP, if they are going to get knocked back on anything they wish to be bring forward that’s not already pre-approved by the big two?By David Adams

Recent events have reminded us of just how tenuous the political arrangements at Stormont still are. First, there was the public row over Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie’s decision to withdraw government funding from the UDA-linked Conflict Transformation Initiative (CTI). Then, reminiscent of times past, suddenly there is a possibility that a despicable crime might bring the Assembly crashing down.

The issue central to the first problem has been all but lost, amid arguments for and against Ms Ritchie’s decision; allegations of bullying, outside interference and negative briefings; claims and counter-claims around procedural matters; and various threats of legal action.

The DUP and Sinn Féin allege that the Minister broke an undertaking to share legal advice and consult with the Executive before taking any decision on whether or not to continue funding the CTI.

Ms Ritchie maintains that she pledged only to share her legal advice with First Minister the Rev Ian Paisley, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, and Minister for Finance Peter Robinson, which she did. Her Ulster Unionist ministerial colleagues, Sir Reg Empey and Michael McGimpsey, agree that she gave no wider undertakings.

All three Ministers subsequently refused to endorse a hastily produced set of minutes that backed the Sinn Féin/DUP version of events. The two larger parties then took the unprecedented step of simply voting the disputed minutes through, regardless. The adoption of these minutes could possibly lay Ms Ritchie open to a charge of breaking her ministerial code of office.

However, none of this has clarified in the slightest where ministerial autonomy for decision-making ends and where, if at all, the Executive’s collective responsibility begins.

If a (heavily disputed) broken promise is the best argument that the DUP and Sinn Féin can mount for censuring a minister over not seeking approval from the Executive before making a public announcement, then self-evidently there is nothing already in place that obliges a minister to seek such approval.

Moreover, if, as was attempted last week, the SDLP and UUP Ministers are going to be overruled on every decision that, for whatever reason, does not meet with the approval of the DUP and Sinn Féin, then the smaller parties are better off without any such obligation.

Yet, neither can we have a situation where ministers are free to do virtually what they like without reference to the Executive.

The answer to this problem is clear: as the minor players in an involuntary coalition, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP should relinquish their ministerial seats and form a loose coalition of opposition.
As I suggested here before (Opinion, March 16th), it is in the interests of both the parties and, more importantly, democratic accountability that they do just that.

If they remain in the Executive, they will get to share responsibility only for unpopular measures like water charges, while the DUP and Sinn Féin will receive all of the plaudits for any successes.

Of substantially more threat to the survival of the Executive than the row over CTI funding was the beating to death of Paul Quinn (21) from Cullyhanna by a gang of men last Saturday evening.

Mr Quinn’s family maintains that members of the Provisional IRA were responsible for his murder. If this proves to be the case, then the DUP will find it extremely difficult to remain in the Executive.

Yet, irrespective of who murdered Paul Quinn, this raises another fundamental question: how long, in a situation where paramilitary groups are disintegrating, do we intend holding Sinn Féin to account for every act of criminality carried out by former or even current members of the IRA?

We trust Sinn Féin enough to hold executive office in Northern Ireland, so surely it is time to trust that they do not sanction, control or necessarily agree with everything done by “republicans”. It is hardly in their electoral interests that unbridled criminality continues in republican areas. Both Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were unequivocal in their reaction to the murder of Paul Quinn.

They condemned it (easy enough for them to do), they described those responsible as criminals (not necessarily so easy), and they called for information to be taken to the PSNI and/or An Garda Síochána (this would previously have been unthinkable). There can be little remaining doubt that Sinn Féin supports policing and the criminal justice system.

We cannot afford for the Assembly to collapse again. Yet, its integrity is damaged more by the hair-splitting semantics of politicians and police chiefs struggling to keep it alive, than it ever could be by an open acknowledgement of a truth that is staring us in the face: Sinn Féin is now as normal as any other political party.

© 2007 The Irish Times

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  • DC

    “Sinn Fein is now a normal party that needs an opposition” yea and Westminster needs STV elections to better represent the people.

    Both of which unlikely to happen any time soon for the reason that it affects those in power too much.

  • Frank Sinistra

    I think their endorsement of the DUP driven draft budget is a further demonstration of how far SF have travelled from any kind of revolutionary position and they are certainly working for what passes as acceptable and ‘normal’ in other political groups.

    To me there is no opposition to be found from within Stormont, they all willingly signed off on a centre-right economic programme. Finding an opposition would require a Left or Socialist voice and that doesn’t exist within any party at Stormont.

    They have given a clear demonstration that system corrupts anyone involved, I wouldn’t be impressed with any Socialist touching it with a barge pole.

    I’d prefer an opposition based on rejection of the whole farce on the hill.

  • parci

    actually Mick, those last 4 paragraphs constitutes a pretty good response to the Hearts and Minds thread.

  • Mick Fealty

    Indeed. But none of this stuff can or should be locked down Parci in the way I suspect some of us are too keen to do.

  • joeCanuck

    I agree that the absence of a proper opposition at Stormont is a serious drawback to the functioning of a normal assembly.
    Both the UUP and the SDLP should withdraw from the Executive. Apart from anything else, if they are effective, it can only enhance their electoral potential down the road.
    I was supportive of the unusual parliamentary arrangement at first, but as time goes on, I think we all acquiesced in the creation of an unworkable monstrosity and mockery of democracy.

  • Frank Sinistra


    To me the debate seems nonsensical (from those that give a toss) unless it is coupled with a serious debate on review of Assembly structures and essentially a call to renegotiate the Agreement.

    All parties signed up to the system, unless they are presenting an alternative it just seems like sour grapes once they were overtaken electorally.

    The SDLP and UUP loved the system when they were the driving forces, now they are the junior partners it doesn’t suit. The UUP even abused Executive procedures to a greater extent than they are claiming of the DUP and SF when they held the driving reign.

    Sorry, until they start to act with credibility on the entire issue I’m just reading this as huffs and bluster from those that fared poorly in an election.

    The moment they walk out that door they admit the Agreement was wrong. They don’t have the balls. They certainly don’t seem to have the ability to articulate why it was wrong and their alternative.

  • joeCanuck

    I’m not sure whether we’re agreeing or disagreeing.
    The current arrangements are unsustainable, I believe. If it takes a new Agreement, so be it.
    I’m not a supporter of any party since I don’t have a vote.

  • Frank Sinistra


    Do we need to agree or disagree? Having a wee chat suits me.

    The thing is we are talking about political parties that agreed. They even agreed when and how they could review their initial agreement. And they did review it.

    The UUP and the SDLP accepting an oppositional role without a clear presentation of their reasoning and alternative would just be a rejection of a system they negotiated and endorsed.

    If the reason for rejecting what they implemented is more to do with reacting to a reduced electoral position than the substance of their previous position that’s just ideology light politics.

    It only became an issue once the electorate put them in a reduced position.

    I’m a plod. These guys delivered it and base electoralism to smash it seems a pretty pathetic reason to oppose what they championed.

    Its a question of integrity and I question theirs.

    btw: I have a vote, god knows what use it is.

  • joeCanuck


    I didn’t mean my post to say that they should do it (go into opposition) for electoral reasons. In my ever undiluted optimism, I hoped they might do it for more noble reasons (please don’t laugh), namely to enhance democracy.
    As far as I am concerned, power sharing is a smoke screen. The only keystone in any arrangement for our still divided society is the requirement for cross community support to enact new laws.
    The largest party should be given the opportunity to form a government (obviously they would need a major partner as things now stand), and if they can’t, then any other grouping should be given the chance if they can convince the proconsul that they can survive an immediate no confidence vote.
    The present situation just can’t work in the long term.
    Ask Margaret Ritchie.

  • Frank Sinistra



    Seems fine in principle.

    So far the main majoritarian decision I can remember is the Unionists voting as a bloc against fast-tracking a Bill of Rights and a Single Equality Bill. Something they were committed to delivering

    Maybe you, or someone else, can recall an instance that would indicate a majoritarian approach would mean anything other than Unionist dominance?

    Gay rights, they were all against that too.

    You think all of a sudden Unionism would start acting in a balanced way if they got a return to old Stormont rules?

    I see no indications they’ve moved on.

    What I see is the SDLP and UUP feeling a bit sick the electorate didn’t make them top dogs and finding the junior positions difficult to deal with.

    I see a twisted political system destined to failure because it wasn’t an agreement or compromise, it was a failure to deal with the core issue. A fudge. A painted turd.

    Now, if the UUP and SDLP are joining those of us who recognise the emperor has no clothes, even Johnny-come-latelys like me, we have a debate on.

    If its working their way through a mouthful of sour grapes we’ll go nowhere fast again.

  • veritas

    sf will only be “normal” when they don’t have a military wing.

  • Scrabble Tower

    I agree that the only way a democracy can function is with an opposition. The only alternative to the right wing CBI love in is a left, even slightly, alternative. It would be ironic if the UUP and SDLP were to supply this. If I hear again about those wonderful business men and those horrible public sector workers I will be sick. It is time some party raises the flag for the majority of the people who work hard and get screwed by this budget.

  • Nevin

    “We trust Sinn Féin enough to hold executive office in Northern Ireland”

    Count me out on that one, David. IMO they’re still parapoliticians ie SF is the political component of a paramilitary organisation and AFAIK it still takes its orders from that organisations army council.

  • CTN

    In Dublin they’re primarily an embarassment- look at the Dumbo Snodaigh factor, he has been retained as spokesperson for Justice for another 5 year term after his wife is convicted for smashing pint glasses of police cars outside city center pubs, his election posters are found in IRA getaway vehicles complete with stun guns, cudgels & CS gas then his alleged director of elections is caught with information likely to used for paramilitaries in his own house.

    Only a myopic imbecile such as McGuinness or Adams would appoint such a person- a dreadful speaker with no redeeming feature (other than being a good henchman of their’s) to such a position- especially when SF’s problem in the 26 is that they are transfer repellent….

  • hib

    Fair play CTN you have hit the nail on the head, SF in Dublin are a disintregating disgrace- a total farce and it is up to their shrinking grass roots members to seek the removal of their current leadership or at least some kind of changes.

    That would be very unlikely to succeed- I think they will be wiped out here in the ’09 locals and Mary Lou already looks like she’s had it.

    They will then be stuck with this embarrassment O’Snodaigh who will hopefully for the sake of republicanism bow out in the next generals!

  • CTN

    You have to be cruel to be kind either- SF get with the program and hoof out the dead wood or evaporate in the capital. David Adams’ analysis stops at the border- fair enough for a unionist- but it is Dublin were the shinners placed so much importance that they are now in an unforeseen freefall.

    The Quinn Murder may also harm them here as well;- whereby a fickle and unforgiving southern electorate feel a sleaze factor attached to SF even if the provos weren’t involved even if the transparently materialist DUP maintain their mercs and perks bonuses within the executive without sinbining griz & co. from Stormont…

  • hib

    We may not have heard the last of the Quinn murder as the family could emerge publicly in a slow burning factor similar to the McCartney sisters….