Post election, Sinn Fein’s position is (not) like…

…any other party’s on the island. Any activist worth his salt will remind you that Sinn Fein is a movement, not just a party. A few short years ago, when the party was committed to political development but alienated from policing and justice, that held a certain menace.

But that is changing, and changing substantially. Into what is not yet clear, but as the Latin poet Lucretius once noted in De rerum natura (On the nature of things):

Nam quodcumque suis mutatum finibus exit,
continuo hoc mors est illius, quod fuit ante

Or, more intelligibly, ‘whenever a thing changes and alters its nature, at that moment comes the death of what it was before’. The party has traversed a great deal of ground: some of it far from easy.

And, at times along the way, there has been a great deal of economy with the truth.

If there was no visible bounce from their successful election campaign in the Republic in March, neither was there retribution for the chaos unleashed within schools nor the mess at NI Water over Christmas.

Indeed, the electorate has been happy to confirm Sinn Fein in their leadership role within Northern Irish nationalism, not to mention their ‘power-sharing arrangement’ with the DUP within the Executive.

On a tiny swing, they have snuffed out the SDLP in Fermanagh South Tyrone, and broken new ground in East Antrim. Their Nationalist rivals hang by a thin thread in West Tyrone and Upper Bann.

As Eamonn Mallie writes in his excellent analysis of the party’s Ministerial picks, one of its key strengths lies in the capacity to disrupt the expectations of its opponents.

In the case of the Education Ministry, it did so by carefully fuelling expectations in the media, and even its close partner within OFMdFM, that it would pick Enterprise. It has even disrupted the expectations of its own would-be stars.

Here’s Eamonn:

Spare a thought for Michelle Gildernew, Conor Murphy, Caitriona Ruane and Gerry Kelly – Team Sinn Fein was no friend to them. They were unceremoniously stripped of the trappings of power including the Skoda. The baton was passed on with the ruthless efficiency of a military machine.

Ruthless and efficient surely.  But such internal disruption cannot be entirely without risk. Michelle O’Neill in Agriculture is a cute move. She’s female, hard working and has a good reputation amongst rural Unionists. All Sinn Fein’s Mid Ulster MLAs now have an official status to pitch against the SDLP’s deputy leader, Patsy McGlone.

Each of the others have something to offer too. Many thought Barry McElduff would have been shoo-in for Culture, but Carál Ní Chuilín gets the call instead, and racks up pressure on Alban Maguinness in North Belfast ahead of boundary changes in North Belfast.

John O’Dowd takes Education, with the promise of a more functional approach to educational reform (if Team Sinn Fein will allow it). And Martina Anderson (@standup4derry) gets the junior Ministry at OFMDFM, to further underscore her seniority over the newly arrived SDLP cubs in Derry.

It’s an impressive expression of raw political power, not to mention the foresight that comes with incumbency. The downside risk to shuffling all but one (the DFM) of your team out of cabinet at once, and forcing all the new ones to learn the ropes from the get go, is that you make yourself unnecessarily vulnerable, particularly within the context of any unforeseen crises.

Eamonn suggests the party is drawing deeply from a culture rooted in its clandestine past:

Tiering of leadership has long been a republican practice. In the wake of the signing of the Anglo Irish Agreement there was a genuine fear that Margaret Thatcher and Garret Fitzgerald might introduce selective internment or even go down the road of cross border ‘ hot pursuit’ whereby police from either side of the border could operate without cries of ‘ territorial violation.’ To obviate a crisis in IRA ranks the leadership put in place second and third tier leaderships.

So Team Sinn Fein, originally a crisis management tool for the military side of the movment, has now become the way things are done politically too.  Strategy is formulated ‘off-site’ by the party leadership and then carried into the Executive by whomever is assigned as Minister. Dissent brings the risk of getting ‘busted’.

It was precisely this disembodied arrangement that contributed to the chaos in Education.

Yet, the damage there seems to have been controlled; and localised to South Down. It did not evidently curtail the performance of any of the party’s other Ministers, so perhaps the Team Sinn Fein system will prove perfectly serviceable in the context of Northern Ireland’s highly conservative political institutions.

It has had its critics. Last year, when still a Dublin City Councillor Killian Forde shared his concerns in regard to this internal culture:

There is little tolerance for dissenting opinions and nowhere for people to take those opinions. Criticism and accountability of the leadership has been discouraged for so long that simply put there is a culture of fear and misguided loyalty that militates against empowerment and people taking responsibility with their work and the development of the party.

Forde was dismissed at the time as a careerist. And when you look at some of the deeper problems within the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP where, in some cases, the individual job is valued more highly than the sum of all the parts of their party, there is surely merit in trying to obviate the overweeningly ambitious.

But the squeezing out of ambitious talent, in particular at the policy making level where both intelligence and creativity are crucial to the successful handling of any brief in situ, has led to over-reliance on the ‘safer pair of hands’.

These are often old military men whose very presence limits the party’s capacity to attract the younger, more middle class policy types that would improve their capacity to compete on a more even plane with the DUP.

For whilst Sinn Fein continues to cane the SDLP at the ballot box, it still obviously lags in its professionalism a long way behind the their colleagues in OFMDFM. This matters for two reasons:

  • One, turnout is falling in Nationalist areas as well as Unionist ones. Increasingly government competence will matter in sustaining the morale of the party’s voter base.
  • Two, standards are a great deal higher in Dublin.  If Sinn Fein is serious about getting into government it will need to raise its standards considerably between now and then.

To return to Lucretius and change and the death of what went before, Sinn Fein is no longer an anti state actor. Amongst other things, it is an organisation which possesses substantial democratic power to effect real change for those who lodge their trust with them.

Taking down (or in this case merely wrong-footing) the opposition, will now become great deal less important than the quality of overall delivery (not least because the opportunities to do so are few and far between). The crisis management regime of the party’s ‘war time’ days will no longer suffice.

And increasingly the public will want to have some idea of what kind of politics they are buying before Team Sinn Fein delivers it… As Ferdinand Mount noted a few years ago:

The political leader is not a god set apart from his people. Most of the time, as Mandeville pointed out, even the most skilful politician must be a slave to the fashions of the times. What he stands behind is not so much a mask as a solar panel, which picks up the public heat, absorbs it and transforms it into energy.

At its best, there is a benign synergy, but that can happen only if the facts are shared and if the debate is conducted honestly. The democracy that really matters is the democracy of information.

Sinn Fein have clearly cracked the first. But in its laudably full blooded pursuit of democratic power, the party demonstrates too little understanding of how that ‘democracy of information’ possesses the capacity both to shape the party’s own future and the nature of its ultimate destination.

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

– Abraham Lincoln

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