“Just following orders”: SF Ministers are subordinate to their own command structure

Tuesday night’s Spotlight on the killing of Mary Travers was indeed fascinating, not so much for the story of the ambush itself – although I had never seen the family members speak on camera before, and their continuing suffering was palpable – but for its insights into the inner workings of Sinn Féin.

SF’s arrogant attitude towards journalists is well-known (how dare they ask impertinent questions!), but it was the juxtaposition of Carál Ní Chuilín’s bad-tempered interview and her relationship with Mary McArdle in prison that got me thinking.

SF keep telling us they’re not just a political party, but a movement. I suspect many people have been too dismissive of that distinction. In a revolutionary movement, especially one as internally disciplined as the IRA, you don’t ask questions.

In an army, especially an irregular one, you do exactly as you’re told or your comrades suffer the consequences. The IRA may be no more, but there is a considerable overlap between its membership and that of SF, and the corporate culture is unlikely to have radically changed.

In a telling moment in the interview, Ní Chuilín says “Mary McArdle and I were both appointed by the party”. She didn’t have any say in her choice of SpAd. She’s just doing as she’s told. How better to explain the barely-articulate incompetents at the Executive table? The disastrous management of the water service, the incapability of forging consensus over transfer tests?

Management theory in government is an alien concept to someone brought up in a revolutionary movement. You get your orders and you give them, and you don’t care if your subordinates get the hump. Massaging egos isn’t part of the job description.

It also explains the lack of personal remorse by volunteers such as McArdle over troubles-era atrocities. Yes, there were tragic mistakes, but it wasn’t their fault. They were just following orders.

No, Sinn Féin is not a normal political party. It runs on military discipline. The bums on the Executive seats are not there because they’ve charmed, dealed, crawled their way up through the usual personality-driven political process.

They’re there because they can follow orders. So it doesn’t really matter which Shinner politician gets elected to the Assembly or who gets which portfolio – they’re not the ones making the actual decisions.

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