Daithi McKay as commentator is a welcome development for northern nationalism

Daithi McKay has begun his career as a columnist with an interview in The Belfast Telegraph in which he speaks of his time in Sinn Fein, at Stormont and the manner of his leaving. There is nothing particularly new in his discussion with Malachi O’Doherty about the incident that led to his departure, apart from his assertion that he neither coached Jamie Bryson nor ‘took a bullet’ for a more senior member of Sinn Fein.

The most interesting aspect of the interview is McKay’s revelation that he has left Sinn Fein and is keen to speak as a commentator on Irish political affairs. From the article:

We always need to have more debate and critical analysis, and that in my view is intended to be as beneficial to those that the criticism may be levelled towards, as members of the public,” he said. “I see myself as being progressive and Left, and that will certainly come through in my analysis.” And he will have things to say directly to Sinn Fein.

He added: “Increasing the popular vote whilst in government in the north is not an easy task, and sooner or later the party will have to consider the possibility of entering a coalition in the Dail.”

That defines two of the immediate problems. The vote has perhaps peaked and has no more growth available to it. And power may only be available in the Dail through partnership and compromise. But there are others, including the inevitable departures of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, and the questions of who will replace them. He might have added a party that curtails opportunities for its brightest young members like himself is cutting itself off at the knees. Some would argue that even the fresh new generation that emerged in the Republic is already tiring, has missed its moment to take over with energy and impact, because Adams has stayed on too long.

McKay says that success for the party will depend on “remaining relevant and rooted in communities”.

Not so easy when members who are angry with the leadership resign because they don’t trust that their protests will be heard. That’s what happened when McKay was dropped.

But trying to get him to say things to Sinn Fein that might wound the party is difficult. He knows what the problems are, but he wants to air his criticisms tactfully so that they will be heard and not dismissed as driven by grievance.

“Sinn Fein has always been good at using its political initiative and taking risks. The challenge for them will be to keep that momentum going,” he said.

He is aware that the party is taking flak from supporters who believe it has conceded more to unionism than it has got back in return. McGuinness’s expressed respect and affection for the Queen have not been significantly reciprocated by unionists.

He said: “It cannot be all one-way traffic and republicans on the ground will want to see the DUP more robustly challenged when there are justifiable grounds for doing so.”

He intends to be part of that robust challenge, not from the floor of the Assembly, but in the media.

He added: “Martin McGuinness absolutely did the right thing in meeting the Queen.

“We all can be respectful without necessarily surrendering any of our principles or views.

“However, the challenge as I see it is ensuring that the DUP also takes similar steps forward in the coming years to become more respectful and accommodating of the minorities within our community.”

McKay hits on a number of themes which continue to resonate within northern nationalism and which must be troubling Sinn Fein as they struggle with the process of transitioning, a theme I‘ve addressed in earlier posts.

Earlier in the article, Malachi O’Doherty correctly identifies that Daithi McKay, in spite of the manner of his departure from the Assembly and party, was actually one of the best political operators for Sinn Fein at Stormont in terms of using the legislature and its committee structures to articulate, advance and critique policies, developments and proposed/actual legislation. His Private Members Bill led to the plastic bag levy, whilst he also led the investigation into the planning process around a heritage centre at the Giant’s Causeway which proved to be quite embarrassing for the DUP and Arlene Foster after the developer’s DUP membership and relationship with Ian Paisley Jnr was publicly revealed.

Ironically, his first public column as a commentator (also carried in the Belfast Telegraph) demonstrates his capacity to think and articulate ideas that should challenge Sinn Fein and the SDLP at a time when nationalists are clearly seeking a vast improvement on the return from their political class at Stormont. In an article in which he addresses the recent comments of GAA President, Aogan O Fearghail, regarding the place of the Irish National Anthem and National Flag at fixtures, McKay correctly notes that, in a northern Irish context, “The elephant in the room when it comes to flags is the lack of any Government recognition – at Stormont or council level – of the Irish tricolour.”

McKay’s comments are particularly welcome, coming after the embarrassing debacle for Sinn Fein that was the appointment of a panel to the Fresh Start- conceived Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition which is glaringly unionist-leaning in composition.

Having been a political insider for many years, and clearly speaking and articulating opinions from the perspective of a critical friend and supporter, Daithi McKay’s opinions will carry weight within Sinn Fein and the broad nationalist community.

That can only be a good thing.