So what does SF’s decision to replace Daithi McKay with the guy McKay himself replaced back in 2007, Phillip McGuigan, mean?
North Antrim is no hotbed of radical nationalism. In his earlier role as MLA McGuigan was credited with creating a senior role for Sinn Fein in what had been solidly SDLP territory. No explanation was given at the time for his stepping down.
But it is hardly indicative of a party with talent breaking down its door to get in when the same man who left his Assembly office nearly ten years ago is first in the queue to take it back again.
In the Irish Times Newton Emerson traces the lack of talent in the second tier of SF’s northern project to one particular incident in early 2005:
The longer the mediocrity continues, the more it seems a permanent setback occurred in 2005, when Sinn Féin’s formal talent development suffered a profound calamity.
The party had established what was in effect an undergraduate training programme for aspiring politicians, complete with course material and written exams.
On January 30th, after a field trip to Derry for a Bloody Sunday commemoration, many of these young people were dropped off at a Belfast bar that was about to witness the IRA murder of Robert McCartney.
The trainees did not witness it, however, nor the IRA clean-up operation that followed.
In statements to police, 71 people claimed to have been in the pub’s one square metre lavatory. That was the end of the programme, while only a few brief careers emerged from the Tardis toilet.
It seems that everybody else went home to their horrified families and were told to have nothing more to do with Sinn Féin – and the wisdom of that advice has sunk in across a new generation.
He goes on to note something that rarely makes it into the mainstream media’s assessment of the state of nationalist politics in Northern Ireland:
The party’s university presence has shrunk, even as the student body has approached a two-thirds Catholic majority. Sinn Féin’s style of politics was rejected outright at Queen’s University Belfast two years ago, when the party forced a union vote supporting a united Ireland and lost, after large number supported neutrality.
For some time, nationalist and republican students aspiring to politics have joined the SDLP or Fianna Fail –the former offering respectability, the latter with the buzz of the future about it, albeit always seemingly 10 years away.
Sinn Féin offers neither. There is a strong sense that it has simply missed its window.
Last year, Fianna Fail, not for the first time, out-recruited every other nationalist party at fresher’s week in Queens. Although the SDLP took another step down in numbers in May’s Assembly election, there’s no doubt they have sloughed off the old guard and renewed most of what they have left.
Outside Mairtín, most of the public interest in Sinn Fein still configures around old military men like McGuinness, Kelly, Murphy and, less frequently these days, Alex Maskey, few of whom have excelled themselves in their new roles in Northern Ireland’s Nationalism’s natural party of government.
That may explain why so much of the party’s official narrative is so much more focused on matters arising from an increasingly distant past than of the future.