I recently blogged the decision of Limavady council to remove various offensive items. Mr. Donnelly produced an interesting blog from a republican perspective about the The Lessons of Limavady and how it illustrated unionist thinking. Whilst I do not believe in tit for tat blogging; this episode along with the recent Cavalcade for Londonderry counterpoised with the ongoing love in makes for an interesting time to analyse the current tactics of Sinn Fein from a unionist perspective.Clearly in Stormont the love in seems to be progressing. The budget elicited a fairly positive response from Mitchel McLaughlin the Sinn Fein finance spokesperson. Although the SDLP opposed the budget; SF MLAs seem to be supporting it.
Some around the peripheries of SF have objected to the nature of power sharing in Stormont; this seems to be the central issue on which Gerry McHugh resigned from SF. Others within the broader republican movement of course reject the whole concept of ending the armed struggle and regard it as surrendering to the hated Brits; this seems to be the position of Republican Sinn Fein in so much as they show any evidence of a coherent political strategy. Of course others who would be of a very different ilk of republican such as Sluggers own The Dubliner have also lambasted Sinn Fein not only for their support of violence but now their entry into a partitionist settlement. These criticisms are of course an echo of the DUP which has claimed SF entering power sharing with them represents a victory for unionism.
Sinn Fein of course refutes these analyses. They have continued to argue that entry into Stormont is merely the latest tactic in the ongoing struggle; this argument continues to be advanced such as here on Balrog by Adelante. It is an argument which I, from a diametrically opposite position, find relatively convincing. Here is not the place to rerun my view that the IRA whilst not staring defeat, was staring complete irrelevance in the face; and that the current system of power sharing gives republicans very significant power along with the opportunity to advance towards their objective using this means until such time as they need to reactivate the armed struggle.
The Republican movement has always played an extremely long game. That does not mean that every occurrence has been pre planned or that every eventuality has been allowed for. I would, however, submit that in view of Adamss claims that by the mid 1970s there was a military stalemate, this shows that as long ago as then, Adams was preparing the ground for a political strategy which would result with republicans in a Stormont executive. His strategy to get his party to there is of course open to very many interpretations (mine highly unfavourable) but, I would submit: was mapped out, at least in sketch form, many years ago, has changed only in detail, not in principle, and is still, in the eyes of SF a stepping stone to a united Ireland.
One of SFs major problems is, however, the fact that many of its grass roots supporters will find this long complex way forward all very boring. Whilst this approach may help Alex Maskey whisper pseudo liberalism up the Malone Road, it is less likely to be effective to other parts of SFs potential or actual constituency. It is particularly likely to receive a poor reception in the socially disadvantaged urban parts of the province which are seeing little obvious benefit from the love in especially with SF supporting a fairly right wing budget, effectively failing to beat the unionists on the 11 plus and seeming to make no progress on things like the Irish language.
For these groups a good bit of Prod bashing might help to remind them that SF is still there for them: that has not been corrupted by power, that it still likes nothing better than annoying the Huns whilst of course all the time remaining a completely non sectarian organisation.
It is in this context that Unionist Engagement must be seen and it was indeed a stunning success. However, that was a good few months ago and new wheezes keep need to be being produced to keep the troops happy. The cavalcade for Londonderry was, I am sure, tremendously good fun and was a nice piece of regional MOPEry for Londonderry; however, it did not address the need for and the benefits of, a good prod bash.
The Limavady escapade by contrast was a practically perfect piece of Unionist Engagement. After having spent a year (and it is unclear how much money) finding the offensive items (not helped by the failure of any of the councils employees to report any offence); it was necessary to have some fun with these discoveries. Simply removing the mug, dragon etc. might have caused no irritation by themselves. Hence, it was necessary to remove them with a great fanfare. Simultaneously removing an object with republican resonance (a book on the Hunger Strikes) might, however, have led to the possibility that SF could have been seen as petty but it might not have elicited adequate unionist engagement (read outrage). So the quite brilliant ploy of removing the statue of Mr. Massey, the former PM of New Zealand. By proclaiming that this individual represented one side of the community because he was an orangeman (clearly much more important than his having been PM of New Zealand) unionist engagement was practically guaranteed. Just to ensure adequate engagement it was also revealed that the councillors used the internet to establish whether or not he was unacceptable. This raised the engagement to quite epic levels.
Subsequently we have had, from some quarters, the suggestion that an alternative strategy would be to erect a statue to a famous resident from the nationalist community. Whilst that is not of itself unreasonable tit for tat statue production does seem extremely silly. By this logic if Magherafelt Borough Council wished to erect a statue of Seamus Heaney they would also have to erect one of a leading citizen of the area who was from the unionist community. Whilst in the current political arrangements we seem to have two (or even four) of lots of things; having two statues every time we want to honour someone descends to truly epic levels of silliness.
As it is removing Masseys statue was an effective way of guaranteeing unionist engagement/outrage. The fact that it also offended some people in New Zealand is of course of little importance to Sinn Fein. Had the statue been of an American president, however, one wonders if Sinn Fein would have taken a somewhat different line.
Following this announcement there was then the episode of Sinn Fein councillors being abused by protestors. Any violence, intimidation or other criminality is clearly unacceptable but for SF this had the added benefit of permitting them to play the victim again; a further triumph for MOPEry.
Hence, we see that the Limavady episode was the practically perfect vehicle to please a certain section of the republican support base; combining as it did Prod bashing and MOPEry wrapped up in a pseudo politically correct mantle of promoting a neutral working environment just to keep any concerned outsiders happy. Limavady and the cavalcade are both vitally important aspects of keeping together the coalition which brought SF to power. SF is well aware of the dangers of allowing their hard line, disadvantaged supporters to become disillusioned. Yes they can tell people that the current arrangements are a step in their on going to and fro struggle for a united Ireland (and I believe that they do actually believe it). However, SF knows that some of the support base will find that too long term, too esoteric. As such these episodes of MOPEry and engagement are just what is needed.
The SF leadership are not fools and the republican movement very rarely execute their activities without significant prior thought. I have no doubt they thought through La Mon and Enniskillen and I have no doubt that these apparently silly episodes were also carefully planned. Whether or not the planning of these episodes was led by the same people I will not comment on.
This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.