What’s the point of Sinn Fein’s United Ireland campaign?

Free of his Policing Board constraints, Denis Bradley has made a curious contribution to the “National Question.” In its United Ireland campaign in the US and NI (with more in Westminster from Gerry Adams on Tuesday), he urges Sinn Fein to stop attacking Fianna Fail.

Sinn Fein is attempting to be the primary champion of a united Ireland and a normal political party at one and the same time. It can be a champion or it can be a normal political party. It cannot be both.

He also wants it to drop its version of socialism on the grounds that there is already a Labour Party on the island.

I was arguing that any reference to socialism was a big mistake. It was complicating and obscuring the focus on a united country. It was a distraction from what Sinn Fein should be.

From Sinn Feins’s point of view I can’t see anything wrong with its claim to be the keeper of the unity flame, having fought and died for it etc. And its popular marxism is a useful sticky burr for picking up protest votes, even if it fails to impress southern voters at the moment. Bradley seems to be arguing for Sinn Fein to abandon its unique selling points. What is it then left with? A conspiracy theorist (not that I’m one) might suspect he has not got Sinn Fein’s interests at heart. My own view of course is that the Unity/ Unionist argument is a sterile one these days. Far better even for its own sake, for Sinn Fein to try to kill unionism by kindness and cooperation and ease up on political fundamentalism. While there’s a gap between how public opinion registers on the issues ( see Life and Times survey for 2008) and bottom line voting, there are signs that voters filter out fundamentalism anyway. I can’t see where a purely consolidation strategy like its United Ireland campaign is taking Sinn Fein. The big question is how to build momentum. It’s a different world over there in some respects, but Sinn Fein should take a look at how astutely Alex Salmond is increasing the popularity of the SNP, with an appeal that stretches beyond the core. Why not give it a try?

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London