I was in Westminster, briefly, on Tuesday were there was some feverish speculation amongst lobby journalists about the Paul Quinn killing and including some interesting lines about who actually was there. It may all turn out to be just that, speculation. And for that reason, I’m not about to repeat any of it in the public domain. But, at the very least, there are some questions arising from Sinn Fein’s treatment of the family by getting its revenge in first and tarring the victim with the ‘criminality’ tag, without, it would seem, any proof being offered one way or the other.And there is a pattern in Sinn Fein’s behaviour towards grieving families who ask awkward questions that matches past events. Apart from any moral questions, it looks pretty bad from the outside. We can see the pattern most publicly in the aftermath of the Robert McCartney killing.
On that occasion Alex Maskey came out fairly rapidly and blamed ‘a knife culture’: a line that fitted a fairly vigorous news story in England at the time. As it turned out that, according a statement that eventually made by the IRA after a lengthy news investigation had uncovered a substantial Sinn Fein presence in the bar where the fracas began, three of those involved had serving IRA volunteers at the time.
In the immediate wake of Quinn murder, Gerry Adams referred to accounts emerging from the family and others that Republicans were involved as ‘tittle tattle’. He then suggested this was the result of a dispute between diesel smugglers. His source: a few phone calls to some people in the area.
Whatever Adams’ senior status as President of his party, it is not a statement that can be traded upon with any confidence.
As to the overall situation, there are several levels to this.
One relates to any future individual prosecutions. Apart from John Laird’s use of parliamentary privilege, I’ve not heard anyone mention individuals. Nor should there be, at least not without serious proof, or at the very least a police charge.
A second rests on the issue highlighted in a letter send out to local residents by the Quinn support group: i.e. public safety in the area.
And then there is the political aspect of this. At the time of the McCartney murder I consistently argued that the party’s coldness towards the interests of the dead man’s family was inimicable to the party’s longer term electoral interests. SF activists commenting on Slugger were fairly gung ho and saying that the Westminster elections would not be affected.
In the event the party took Mallon’s old seat that same year with relative ease. But they missed their other targets by an Irish mile. A good rally this March got them another net gain, but the election in the south was, by Chris’s own searingly honest account a complete disaster.
Incidents like this, and more importantly, the party’s vicious public reaction to it are messing with the party’s brand. The association is less with radical politics and increasingly with a callous disregard for the lives of anyone who disagrees with them.
In short it is in danger of becoming the ‘nasty party’, an image that the party’s behaviour, at various levels, in the face of public disasters like this does nothing to allay.
The thing that prevents any of this being serious politically damaging at the moment is that its nationalist opposition in Northern Ireland at the moment is a shambles. The senior parties in the Executive at the moment have a virtual autocracy that even President Chavez might have settled for. Sinn Fein and the DUP will seek to use their majority powers inside the Executive to dig in and settle down as the ‘natural parties of government’ for the long term.
But to make an analogy with ‘another place’, the Tories looked like they could walk on water with British Labour in 80s and 90s and seemed to have dumped the ‘nasty’ tag when they got rid of Thatcher, until Black Wednesday and Tony Blair, between them, finally buried them for a good ten years.
The lesson, I would suggest, is that brand corrosion happens over a long time, but it takes a decent opposition knock over any political project. So long as there is no effective opposition (and there is no sign of one) the party is safe enough in Northern Ireland. But they have already had a recent taste of brand failure in the Republic.
In the meantime, whoever is right or wrong, some of the party’s treatment of the Quinn family in the wake of their son’s killing has been downright nasty. In terms of its brand, this is fairly viscous stuff. And like tar, it sticks.