Chris Donnelly’s analysis of Sinn Fein’s position in the Irish News is welcome as an all- too rare piece of criticism from an independent-minded sympathiser. The DUP would do well to emulate it. But self- criticism has a long way to go. The hope must be that behind the scenes amid the bluster of an election campaign, it will continue and produce realistic positions in the end. Chris does not go far as to say that the party has reached a fork in the road: to continue with an Assembly strategy or abstain and wait for the sectarian arithmetic to change. The latter choice would surely be disastrous in face of the massive challenges of Brexit and the pressures of fiscal consolidation.
… there is a pressing need for Sinn Féin to recognise that the party’s own failings to deliver through the institutions were a central contributing factor exacerbating nationalist disillusionment over many years, as witnessed in the declining nationalist turnout at successive elections.
Accepting that poses profound questions and challenges for the leadership of a party that has so far failed to deal effectively with the issue of a transition process which must involve replacing a trusted old guard, valued for attributes necessary during a conflict and peace process phase, with new faces equipped with the skills set and experience profile to compete in the legislative arena.
A sharper, hungrier and harder Sinn Féin is required to re-establish a political equilibrium in local politics between unionism and nationalism. The internal culture and practices within Sinn Féin continue to mean that the party experiences significant difficulties in attracting and retaining prospective representatives and advisers with the necessary skills and professional expertise to raise the performance of the party at executive and assembly level, compounding the sense of subordination and hindering nationalism’s capacity to use the devolved institutions to seize and set the agenda and establish parity with a DUP-led unionism still not at peace with peace.
The problem with this analysis is that specifics are absent.
How does a “ sharper hungrier Sinn Fein” translate into action?
The analysis identifies the DUP’s “incredible arrogance” as the immediate cause of the crisis. How would a more politically aggressive Sinn Fein contribute to a solution?
Does the trend in slight falls in Sinn Fein turnout imply a greater demand for a “sharper hungrier Sinn Fein” or greater competence in delivering in government?
Does the “disillusionment” which is producing a perceived demand a more politically aggressive Sinn Fein focus on the committed or does it extend to the wider public?
Might the lack of talent Chris refers to not suggest that Sinn Fein’s strategic focus is blurred and that the grinding business of government requires a different approach from an increasing concentration on identity politics?
What is the relevance of a more specific policy on Irish unity which Chris supports to the present context of Brexit, bilateral British-Irish relations, north-south, and relations between the parties in the north?
In short, what do the nationalist people really want and what does the Sinn Fein core really want? Are they in synch? Whether they are or not, isn’t this one side of what should now be debated?