Sinn Fein’s intractable two nation problem…

There is no easy way in Ireland to guage the effect of a party conferences on public opinion. For small parties like Sinn Fein, which rarely get a chance to break past the bigger beasts who take the full attention of big media, such effects are critical. The focus of the party’s Ard Fheis (live blogged here), we were told, would certainly be on the future, and on the south. But amongst the big ticket performers Northern Ireland and the DUP featured front and centre. According to Mark Hennessey, this opportunity to pitch to a southern audience eager for change fell substantially short of the mark, not least because:

…the details that came were patchy and failed to convince, and certainly failed to differentiate the party from the clutter of noise amongst the Opposition.

The party has two problems. One they are always happy to speak about (Partition), but usually in terms of it being Someone else’s problem. The other they are much more cautious about, not least because it implies a generational shift in the leadership of the party is necessary; what character of leadership will win success on two sides of the border.

Having exploited the split polity of the island for many years often by playing one set of publics off the other, Sinn Fein is now failing to translate the strength of its power north of the border into something intelligable and compelling for audiences in the Republic. It’s a big ask. Short of the Ba’ath party in the middle east there is little evidence that it has been done elsewhere.

Although the IRA has decommissioned its weapons, the political narrative that once sustained it – ie that the partition of the island was imposed externally and would have to be dismantled through external negotiation primarily with the British government in London – still delimits the orthodoxy of mainstream party thinking.

The Belfast Agreement effectively ‘Ulsterised’ the problem of partition. As Paul Arthur argued in Special Relationships (back in 2000), the party officially accepted that the question of unification has shifted from an exogenous to an endogenous one. In other words, partition is now Northern Irish nationalism’s problem alone. It alone must come up with the road map and put it into practice.

Then there is the disconsonance between the Northern Irish leadership, and its southern ambitions. In 2007 Adams was played as what the party clearly believed to be a trumph card. The result was sobering.

By far the most compelling speech on the subject came from a young Donegal councillor called Padraig MacLochlainn. A parliamentary candidate last time out, MacLochlainn’s instinct is to turn an ideological bent into a pratical (and local) manifesto:

I live in the Inishowen peninsula right on the border. I have seen the negative and debilitating impact of partition at first hand. I have seen cancer patients travelling hundreds of miles when they could have had those services on their doorstep. I have seen investment agencies compete rather than cooperate and ultimately fail us on either side of the border. I have seen our services taken away and economic prosperity pass us by again and again. Partition has been a profound injustice to the people of the border counties but it has also failed all the people of this island.

That is as succinct and eloquent a description of the way in which one Irish county above all others has been penalised by the nearly 90 year old border. But it is a measure of the party’s overall problems that his own party’s minister for Regional Development, Conor Murphy, was compelled, in the same week as the party’s Ard Fheis to refuse to support for a cross border ferry serving Padraig’s own Inishowen, “because it conveys vehicles from one jurisdiction to another“.

Such conflict of interest in a single political party is underscored by a generational gap between the two men. Murphy is an old northern IRA man; MacLochlainn is part of what Irish economist David McWilliams calls the Pope’s Children generation; Ireland’s much later version (those born in the 70s as opposed to the 50s and 60s) of the baby boomers.

The new generation’s preoccupations are primarily economic and social and concerned with the future. They are much less likely to be engaged with the beggar-thy-neighbour exigencies of the past that drive unionist as well as nationalist politics north of the border. MacLochlainn is a good match for that generation, but his party’s leadership hails from another era, and a very different place.

Gerry Adams has been party President for coming up to 23 years, ever since he masterminded a bloodless coup by a group of northerners against the previous southern leadership. Under his leadership Sinn Fein has moved from absentionism to a ballot box and Armalite strategy and finally through the Peace Process years to electoral success in Northern Ireland.

Having elevated their one MEP in the Republic, Mary Lou McDonald to the role of party Vice President (the previous incumbent held the post for 20 years), they will hope she can pull off the seemingly impossible and win in a Dublin constituency that has lost one of its seats. Recent polls suggest the party’s support is stagnating in the south; even as voter confidence in the government parties is flat lining.

That the party was stranded in the posh southern suburbs of Dublin whilst 100,000 citizens took to the streets to protest the Irish government’s proposed pensions levy may have been sheer bad luck. But the impression given is of a party’s whose political instincts are becoming marginal to the concerns of the majority of those in the south they seek to represent.

In truth the party of rebellion is now a party of government. It is a reality that seems to trouble the party far more than its inveterate Unionist enemies in Stormont. And one that the party’s President Gerry Adams seems either unwilling or unable to confront. But until and unless he or his successor does; the party seem set to continue largely like a fiercer version of the SDLP. And as a northern party only.

Adds: You can see the problem illustrated in this interview with Gerry Adams on RTE at the weekend…

  • Mack

    The Republic only has one tribe. That is the problem.

    Ah now, hold on. If you join (get voted in), there’ll be at least two (with the new entrant effectively made up of members of all the tribes that make up the UK, so you could regard a united Ireland as truly British in that regard). So that’s hardly a reason to fear a united Ireland.

    Incidentally 12% of the population of Ireland (Republic) is foreign born. That’s a huge percentage.

  • Mack

    Congal Claen

    Constituionally, Lisbon can not be passed with out our electorate endorsing it. Care to contrast that situation with that of the UKs?

  • Mack

    Also, it may be of interest to note, that at current growth rates the proportion of southern population that is Protestant is doubling every 30 years or so.

  • Congal Claen

    Hi Mack,

    Again that’s the looking out perspective. From my perspective I see it completely differently.

    As regards Mary, she visited the OO as a publicity stunt after her latest fek up at the time. She wasn’t exactly down giving support to the Love Ulster parade in Dublin.

    “Ah now, hold on. If you join (get voted in), there’ll be at least two (with the new entrant effectively made up of members of all the tribes that make up the UK, so you could regard a united Ireland as truly British in that regard). So that’s hardly a reason to fear a united Ireland.”

    So for what reason do you fear a united British Isles?

  • kensei

    Mack

    Also, it may be of interest to note, that at current growth rates the proportion of southern population that is Protestant is doubling every 30 years or so.

    I doubt you coudl project that figure, and its still probably slower than those that don’t care.

    CC

    So for what reason do you fear a united British Isles?

    Look at Scotland.

  • Mack

    So for what reason do you fear a united British Isles?

    I don’t.

    In fact I fully support close co-operation, and pooling sovereignty, where mutually advantageous, between the states in these islands. I think most Irish people support that position too.

  • Mack

    Congal Claen, on her visit to the OO in Cavan, that was an official state visit, therefore she’s not “Mary”, she’s our President representing the state on official state business.

  • Greenflag

    ‘If the Euro collapsed thro’ German withdrawal I’m not sure what would happen with the debt. I can’t imagine it would just disappear… ‘

    The Germans will not be withdrawing from the Euro . On the contrary the new world financial order will end up with the Euro being seen as a ‘partner’ to the Dollar and depending on the degree of reform of international financial regulations the pound as well as some of the Eastern european currencies will end up in an enlarged eurozone.

    As for imagining how ‘debts ‘ disappear ? Usually when a country ‘defaults ‘ on a neigbouring country ‘war’ was considered a legitmate resort to get back one’s losses . American business is still aggrieved at Cuba’s ‘nationalisation’ of American property/assets prior to Castro’s revolution . The Soviets simply walked away from Russia’s WW1 debts. The WW1 victors attempted to collect form the Germans /Austrians /Hungarians and Turks but instead threw most of the former into economic chaos , hyperinflation and destroyed emerging ‘democracy ‘

    Nowadays the ‘punishment ‘ is more likely to be capital flight , non investment and a local country deflationary spiral ending in political upheaval , fascism , one party rule , mass starvation etc etc etc . Zimbabwe and Argentina being good examples . Nowadays most countries in the world are at ‘risk’ and will continue to be so until such time as there is a new ‘world ‘ financial system which does a better job of regulation of international capital flows . It won’t be easy but the alternative will be a return to ‘protectionism ‘ which will result in even more ‘resource ‘ wars between and within countries as the ‘rich and well off everywhere strive to keep the plebs everywhere from replacing the tyranny of capital with the tyranny of new found revolution of the left or of the fascist variety . In the France of the 18th century the ‘rich’ were cast to the winds several times as the King needed to ‘default ‘ on his debts . Eventually of course this led to one ‘default ‘ too many and said King ‘lost’ his head not just in the metaphorical sense .

    The ‘neo conservatives ‘ and their political facilitators have indeed a lot to answer for as indeed has the entire financial services sector including banks , insurance companies , hedge funds and mortgage brokers etc . They have singlehandedly almost destroyed the entire world economy through overweening and arrogant greed beyond redemption . The ‘consumer ‘ and the get rich speculators of the property bubble are /were mere bit players in all of this .

    We should see some light come summer . Until then keep the curtains drawn . It’s still dark out there 😉

  • Congal Claen

    Hi Kensei,

    “Look at Scotland.”

    What? Bailed out twice from complete economic collapse. Where’s the problem there?

    Hi Mack,

    “In fact I fully support close co-operation, and pooling sovereignty, where mutually advantageous, between the states in these islands. I think most Irish people support that position too.”

    Agreed. I think most unionists would also agree with you.

  • kensei

    CC

    What? Bailed out twice from complete economic collapse. Where’s the problem there?

    Either it gets government it does not want a la the 80’s, or the marginal influence it exerts is resented by England a la Clarkson re GB. Consistently lower growth than the best performing parts of the UK. Dependent on the largeresse of the UK exchequer. And so on.

    And “bailed out twice”? It was “bailed out” once at the start of the Union and since then any failure is laid the British Government, not the Scots.

  • Congal Claen

    Hi Kensei,

    “Either it gets government it does not want a la the 80’s, or the marginal influence it exerts is resented by England a la Clarkson re GB. Consistently lower growth than the best performing parts of the UK. Dependent on the largeresse of the UK exchequer. And so on.”

    Swings and roundabouts. England has a Labour government that would otherwise be Tory without the Scottish MPs.

    “And “bailed out twice”? It was “bailed out” once at the start of the Union and since then any failure is laid the British Government, not the Scots.”

    We’re only after bailing out RBS and HBOS. Something Scotland could not have done. You’ll also note it has been 2 Scots in government who have completely f*cked the UK economy as a whole.

  • kensei

    CC

    Swings and roundabouts. England has a Labour government that would otherwise be Tory without the Scottish MPs.

    Net-ner! Nope. The Tories got a majority of English votes, but not seats. And while possible, it is also much rarer. Scotland has been solidly anti-Tory for more than a generation.

    We’re only after bailing out RBS and HBOS. Something Scotland could not have done. You’ll also note it has been 2 Scots in government who have completely f*cked the UK economy as a whole.

    I’m unsure whether or not HBOS and RBS oculd have been bailed out by Scotland or not. Perhaps they wouldn’t have got so big in the first place.

    Government has collective responsibility. Mor eEnglish faces, and Blair ran it dfuring the boom, when many of the problems were created. This is precisely the type of shit I’m talkign about.

  • Congal Claen

    Hi kensei,

    I stand corrected on my majority Tory claim.

    Blair was PM. But Brown takes the credit for f*cking up the economy. If Blair had have been running the show we would have been in the Euro. So, it was Brown’s fault RBS/HBOS got too big. They’re almost too big for the UK to bail out. Scotland would have had no chance finding the money.

  • kensei

    CC

    Blair was PM. But Brown takes the credit for f*cking up the economy. If Blair had have been running the show we would have been in the Euro. So, it was Brown’s fault RBS/HBOS got too big. They’re almost too big for the UK to bail out. Scotland would have had no chance finding the money.

    Brown has big responsibilities. But the cabinet bears collective responsibility.

    I’m not sure that they are anywhere big enough for it to be a problem to the UK as a whole. For Scotland I am unsure. I depends what you are guanteeing and whether failure presents a systemic risk. Plus if Scotland let HBOS fail, where would most damage be concentrated? Remember the publci has asumed someof the banks risks but at the outset, they were very much private.

  • Congal Claen

    Hi Kensei,

    “But the cabinet bears collective responsibility.”

    I agree. But surely the collective extends to the UK. ie Scotland needn’t whinge about “their” oil. It was found when they were in the collective so it’s UK oil.

    I believe HBOS has loans in the region of 3 times UK GDP. Obviously they all won’t turn bad. However, it’s going to be a sizeable amount.