After the election… Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland…

So how was it in Northern Ireland for Sinn Fein? Answer, not bad. The party’s big machine and, by now, well established incumbency pretty much took care of business, whilst the main show went ahead in the south.

One of Sinn Fein’s signal achievements, with the aid of more than a few helpful witnesses in the Northern Irish media, has been to keep relatively private just how little it has done with the substantial mandate it has had in Stormont since the institutions restarted back in 2007.

Since ‘taking power’ in Northern Ireland, the watchword has been: “Avoid making policy, just keep to standing orders”. This is one of the reasons why the party is genuinely impossible to categorise as a creature either of the left or right.

It claims to believe that Ireland’s place in the EU and yet Sinn Fein has never publicly campaigned for a Yes in any referendum from Ireland’s accession up until the most recent votes on Lisbon and the fiscal compact. However hard you look, policy just isn’t there.

After the Assembly elections of 2011 Sinn Fein all but abandoned the proper functioning of their ministerial roles (to such a point that some of their Ministers seem not to understand their own practical briefs) within the NI Executive, shipping most of its real talent and resource to Leinster House.

In Agriculture single farm payments were delayed for up to six months, and latterly (after the elections of course) has come the news that after £17 million and seven years of vacillation their Education Minister has finally scrapped his own party’s plans to set up an Education and Skills Authority.

In the resulting vacuum the central democratic position of the Stormont institutions has been usurped by less than democratic forces in the streets in disputes over Orange marches and the flag dispute. There have been extra parliamentary negotiations in Cardiff, and under Haass.

When SF’s party leader was arrested and questioned as part of an ongoing murder investigation the deputy First Minister even threatened to withdraw his party’s seven year long support for the PSNI (bunny was duly returned to the box on Gerry’s release, and nothing more said).

And yet, tellingly perhaps, aside from triggering growth in the Unionist vote none of the above appears to have either significantly improved or diminished Sinn Fein’s performance in the elections.

Despite a fall of a half percentage point in vote share, the party kept Martina Anderson’s top of the poll position from 2009.

Not a bad outcome for a candidate who seems to have spent much of the official campaign in photo ops with the party’s three successful southern candidates.

Indeed, its notable that this highly flattering crossborder success was the story the party was most keen to push, linking its dramatic increases in Dublin and Cork with more modest structural increases in Derry and Strabane and Belfast councils.

Over on his blog, FitzJamesHorse uses Nicholas Whyte’s projections to to claim a loss for SF, but to be fair to Sinn Fein the differences in the calculations are so minute, these losses just aren’t real.

Now we have the new boundaries (though not the councils themselves) the clock is well and truly reset. All the big changes in local government all went through the system back in 2005. Since then, there has been no such thing as momentum for any of the parties, big or small.

Apart from gentle decline the only other genuinely novel development on the nationalist side of the equation has been the ingress of radical and dissident orientated independents in Belfast and Derry into both Sinn Fein and to lesser extent SDLP territory.

It’s an interesting development, particularly if you consider the increased barrier to entry imposed by the larger DEAs in the new councils. A new political bog meadows emerging from SF’s decided ambivalence towards the institutions its MLAs are elected to.

At the end of the day, the party’s machine is impressive enough to deliver stability in the vote even when the party’s mind is so clearly elsewhere.

They’ve been blessed with a friendly liberal media that growls at every verbal misstep within unionism, and somehow misses every odd or interesting turn in the career of the SF party president.

Under these conditions, the simply need to maintain a new moon darkness over their inactivity in Northern Ireland whilst slipping into rising influence (the veterans of the AC are too long in the tooth to be fooled into taking actual power) in the south.

Another good days work…

Except that far from challenging Unionism’s political strength in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein’s clandestine retreat from its democratic institutions has strengthened the influence of Unionism’s fundamentalist wing over its moderates.

And possibly that of the dissidents too.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty