Some unionist attempts at Kremlinology

Unionists are often correctly accused of having little insight into the political thinking of nationalists and republicans: it is a Northern Ireland version of Kremlinology. Two unionist commentators have, however, made an attempt at analysing the current position of republicans in the News Letter.

Alex Kane looks at the position of republicans within government:

Michelle O’Neill, their new minister of agriculture said: “We’re not career politicians. We’re republicans, we’re republican activists. That’s what we are about here. We’re not interested in wages or any of that stuff. What’s important to me is delivery of the republican agenda.’ …

How can you have genuine power-sharing if Sinn Fein ministers regard their role as the delivery of a purely republican agenda? How can you even speak about a post-conflict society when you make appointments and take decisions whose only purpose is to add salt to the open wounds of those who still suffer? Or, as Ann Travers put it: “We’re not allowed to move on because every time we want to move on Sinn Fein turn the knife a little bit more and we’re asked to accept a little bit more from them.”

Alex goes on to assess Sinn Fein’s definition of a post conflict society as

one in which the primary causes of the conflict namely, the British and the unionists have either been forced out or politically emasculated. That, as we know (and as the dissident republicans keep reminding them) hasn’t happened. And it isn’t going to happen, either. Sinn Fein has lost the only battle that actually matters to them.

He goes on to explain this behaviour as “the dying flames of Provisional Republicanism”

Appointing ‘political prisoners’ to key positions in the Executive is done just to annoy unionists. Appointing Gerry Kelly and Caitriona Ruane to the Policing Board is done just to annoy unionists. Holding on to the Education portfolio is done just to annoy unionists.

I suspect this is a simplification of SF’s reasoning. Annoying unionists is unlikely to be seen as a minus point for them but a lot of the motivation seems to be to consolidate the republican base. Appointing the murderer of Miss Travers is unlikely to benefit Sinn Fein in its attempts to gain votes amongst the middle class Catholics of South Belfast or elsewhere. However, they seem (correctly) to have established that they have gained a substantial part of that vote and currently seem more interested in shoring up their core vote. It is only slight but there has been a small slippage in the combined percentage vote for SF and the SDLP in the last election. This may well be within the margin of error but the continuing gain in nationalist percentage seems to have completely stalled. Anecdotally some hard line republican areas in FST have been reported to show a fall in the turnout even at last year’s straight unionist / republican Westminster battle.

Alex goes on to analyse the Sinn Fein position on the past:

Sinn Fein is incapable of forgiving and equally incapable of forgetting. Sinn Fein refuses to move on, yet expects others to move on. It requires everyone else to sign-up to the mea culpa interpretation of history while continuing to portray itself as more sinned against than sinning.

This leads on to the views of Norman Baxter: his article is about the election in general but particularly interesting are his comments on Sinn Fein’s attempts at historical revisionism:

The real problem for all unionist parties is that whilst they expended excessive time, money and energy in a political beauty contest with the electorate; Sinn Fein have been redefining the history of the conflict.
They now speak of themselves as revolutionaries, the RUC and UDR as armed groups in the conflict and have successfully disengaged the PSNI from their historical roots within the RUC.
Murderers and ex-prisoners now have equal status with innocent victims and the immoral IRA campaign is represented as a justifiable revolution for social justice.
The reality is that neither the DUP nor Ulster Unionists have directly engaged republicanism on an ideological level.
Sinn Fein remains unchallenged in redefining almost 40 years of ruthless terrorism. Unionism seems to have settled back into the comfort zone of believing there is safety in their numbers, whilst Sinn Fein by stealth and ideological cunning dismantle the political and social rationale for the existence of Northern Ireland.

Although Kane may sound in some ways more positive than Baxter there is significant common ground between them. The essential thesis is that republicans are using Stormont not to heal wounds, not to ease divisions and certainly not to benefit all the people of Northern Ireland but rather to carry out their aims by non violent means. Irritating as this may be to unionists it is of course SF’s democratic right. Although Norman Baxter is no doubt correct in his comments that unionists must not surrender the past to republican revisionism this is not especially easy. When unionists point out the crimes of the past they are accused of being backward looking which offends against the moving forwards narrative of unionist victory proffered especially by the DUP.

There is, however, a counter argument regarding Sinn Fein. Although their narrative is no doubt supported by much of the republican base, as I mentioned above much of their energies seem directed in that area. This revisionism is unlikely to gain any traction amongst unionists or even amongst non SF nationalists. In that way actually Sinn Fein’s recent stunts are not about reaching out to SDLP supporting nationalists let alone to unionists but about ensuring their position amongst republicans.

Despite all their best attempts Sinn Fein have made relatively little progress in this narrative of the Troubles that we were all involved in the conflict and we were all guilty. This failure has also been despite the enthusiastic support of many self appointed “peace makers” what Fitzjameshorse has called “The Liberal Dissidents.” In spite of the attempts by assorted middle class luvvies, some extremely unrepresentative churchmen and the odious Eames Bradley report it seems that most people in Northern Ireland are well aware that they have nothing to apologise for regarding the past. That Sinn Fein have reminded people again of their murdering past may be highly irritating to unionists. However, this strategy by SF is unlikely to gain them much new support: indeed it may well alienate a greater number of voters in potential target groups than it shores up in the base.

Then again as I said at the start unionists are no good at analysing republicans intentions.