Thoughts on Sinn Fein

Following on from Eoin O’Broin and Brian Feeney’s comments some weeks ago- carried on Slugger here– I feel compelled to add my own tuppence worth regarding the current position facing Sinn Fein and would welcome comments- critical, supportive or otherwise- from across the political spectrum.

Let me preface my comments by acknowledging that the party, as the largest nationalist electoral force in the North and even at 8% in the South, remains in the strongest electoral position since partition to potentially effect change and drive an all-Ireland agenda from the margins into the mainstream of political discourse on the island, a testament to the sometimes masterful manner in which the party leadership navigated the process of change from armed conflict to compromise over the past decade and more. Eoin O’Broin is correct to point to serious failings in the party’s approach to date in the South, but sitting at 8% the party still remains on course to be in contention for the role of coalition partners in any future post-election mix. The problem, as I see it, is that the Stormont experience to date suggests that, were Sinn Fein to secure a position in government within both jurisdictions in Ireland simultaneously, on current form the party would not appear to have anything close to resembling a plan to maximize such a position of influence and power to further nationalist objectives.Whilst Eoin has highlighted serious deficiencies with the party’s approach in the South, I would like to focus primarily on the party’s failings to date in the new northern administration and legislature, failings which are a cause for concern given that they point to the necessity of significant leadership-led changes to the party’s modus operandi if the party is to begin to plot a way forward which will maximize delivery for its constituency and begin planning seriously about how to not only grow support in the South but also utilize any potential electoral/ political strength for its wider objectives of Irish unity.

Let me state from the start that I haven’t been particularly impressed by what’s shaped up at Stormont to date across the board, with few of the 108 MLAs scoring highly in terms of articulation of policies, quality of debate within chamber/ committee or ability to deliver a pro-active Ministerial agenda. But, given I’m a republican, my most pressing concern has been the –to my mind- sluggish performance of Sinn Fein at both Executive and Assembly level to date, which indicates the need for decisive action from the party leadership to ensure that the tremendous potential of the current political environment is not lost.

There needs to be greater clarity regarding the strategic direction of the party at this time. Pursuit of Irish unity is its cornerstone, defining objective, but beyond seeking to hold the reins of power in the two administrations on the island, there isn’t a clear direction being provided from republicans about the way ahead. More than troubling, this is perplexing given that the canvass shouldn’t be that difficult to fill.

As I see it, the root cause of the current malaise is a failure to expedite the process of transforming Sinn Fein into a professional political party, with all that entails for the development- and delivery- of policies; for performing the multi-faceted roles of legislators in a competent and articulate manner; for addressing the deficit in professionally experienced and skilled advisors within party ranks; and for upgrading the constituency service provision to a level which no other party in the north should be able to match.

That’s not to say I believe the party is performing at a sub-par level in regard to each of the outlined areas when compared to the other main parties in the north; rather, I’m suggesting that the party needs to set itself higher targets and standards quite simply because a) it has the ability to do so and b) it needs to, given that its political project is much more ambitious than any of the other parties in the north at this time.

Too many of the party’s policies- spanning all areas of social, economic and cultural life, as well as regarding the constitutional question- are little more than broad brush vision statements, often lacking in both imagination and, most importantly, a sharpness and clarity of purpose that comes from a body politic embedded in the professional world. Maybe that’s harsh, but it’s true. Again, could be said of most other parties (perhaps with the exception of the DUP) but that isn’t my concern.

In most legislatures at any level, there are, broadly, two types of elected representatives: the good constituency representative, who owes his/ her election to a reputation built on familiarity with constituents through the hard graft of constituency work/ advocacy. And then there’s the policy legislator/ ‘wonk’, who along with party advisers drives the policy agenda of the party and helps formulate and articulate a party’s stance on the plethora of issues facing a political party.

It will hardly come as a revelation to political observers on Slugger to suggest that Sinn Fein is dangerously top-heavy with the former, to the extent that the party has been exposed in a number of policy areas as simply not having the professional experience within either its pool of elected representatives nor in the ranks of party advisers to cope with the broad range of issues facing the party at Executive level and within the legislature in a satisfactory manner –never mind being consistent with any ideological position.

Again, Sinn Fein is not alone in this regard, and anyone having watched or listened to any of the Stormont debates or studio discussions involving politicians in the past 18 months will see that all parties have their share of MLA’s with a painfully obvious level of ignorance when it comes to policy issues under discussion. But given that the party needs to avail of its access to power in the north to sharpen its ideological consciousness and policy platform to better equip itself for a successful southern relaunch, then the need for swift and decisive action from the republican leadership becomes clearer.

Ironically, it has been the continuing decline of the SDLP which has contributed to the lethargy within republicanism leading to the current predicament. The abysmal state of that party has ensured there is less of a sense of urgency to address such shortcomings within Sinn Fein. In this regard, the more robust level of competition within unionist politics in recent years has clearly benefitted unionism in keeping the DUP on their toes and by forcing the UUP to consider the imaginative (but ultimately doomed) option of linking up with the Tories to try and break the DUP’s dominance within unionism.

But governing politics has its own dynamic, which invariably poses electoral problems for incumbent parties, as the DUP and Sinn Fein essentially are, given their predominant position within the Executive.

The tendency of electorates to grow tired, disgruntled and ultimately impatient with the governing party(ies) is a common theme across western liberal democracies, hence the importance of Sinn Fein acknowledging and providing a simultaneous function to fill the opposition deficit within the consociational arrangements at Stormont. To this end, the party has shown a reluctance to pro-actively and effectively fulfill the opposition role it must assume in all but the three Departmental Ministries it holds. It needs to realize that the Executive ain’t no normal government: the gloves should be off for all but the party’s own Ministers.

In sum then, my proposals are simple. The party needs to invest in expertise and innovation, free itself of the shackles of laudable but otherwise counter-productive party rules and conventions and in the process equip itself with a refreshing and attractive policy platform to not only earn a place in government across the country but to utilize that position to transform the political scene in Ireland, in the process shifting others onto the ‘all-Ireland’ platform.