Highly insightful reporting and analysis from Brian Rowan in the Irish Times on Monday re the current rumblings inside Sinn Fein and its leadership class of old IRA men, which (if we’re lucky) will raise serious internal questions about direction of the project:
Republicans are now questioning the worth of the Stormont institutions and a decade-long relationship with the DUP at the head of the Northern Ireland Executive.
This was the mood inside the Felons Club that Saturday in January. Within hours, news filtered out that when that republican gathering moved into private session, the loudest cheer was in response to a call to “bring the institutions down now”.
In other words, collapse Stormont. “People have reached the end of their tether,” a senior republican said that evening. “The anger in our community is palpable.”
The question being asked, he said, is: “Why are you up there [in Stormont]?”
For now, the Sinn Féin leadership has no answer to that question and, after the McGuinness resignation, the message being delivered to the republican grassroots is that there will be “no return to the status quo”.
The audience at the Felons Club included many of Sinn Féin’s elected representatives in the North – including party chair Declan Kearney, MEP Martina Anderson, Stormont MLAs Gerry Kelly, Raymond McCartney and Michelle Gildernew and, on stage with Adams, new party leader at Stormont, Michelle O’Neill.
Adams has not only heard what people are saying. He has heard what he was being told to do. For over two decades, a key consideration for the republican leadership has been the cohesion of its movement and party and community.
During that period, Adams and McGuinness have relied on a small group of senior republicans to be their eyes and ears, to take the pulse and to know the mood.
Among that small group are a number of Belfast republicans, who were significant figures in the IRA leadership and who have been part of the transition into peace and into politics. Bobby Storey, Seán Murray and Martin Lynch were all inside the Felons Club.
“They are not just reflecting it, they are the mood,” another republican told me.
He means that key group, working closely with Adams and McGuinness and other senior republican figures such as Ted Howell, have come to that point of questioning the credibility and viability of the Stormont political project.
This is the team to whom Martin McGuinness had to answer at every twist and turn over his ten years as dFM. None are elected or accountable to the electorates, north or south. Yet every elected SF councillor, TD, MLA and pensioned MP answers directly or indirectly to them.
In times past, the names of men like Howell would never have made it into the public domain. And yet and withal, these are the people with whom the buck stops for the party’s (by its own account) epically failed engagement with Stormont.
Theirs was less a strategy than a series of tactics aimed at keep ‘the unionists’ dancing. Peter Robinson’s peculiar in-out hokey-pokey, for instance, was to keep the institutions up and running, after the murder of Kevin McGuigan was linked to the IRA.
These days, none of them live in a bunker. Around them in west Belfast, despite having by far the best election machine in NI, the Sinn Fein vote stagnated at first and then latterly has begun slowly leeching away.
They’d had warnings that this barren approach to Stormont would cost them in loss of public sentiment amongst base voters. A criticism which was shut down almost as quickly as it would sprung up.
Now they face an election in which their arch rivals in Dublin, People Before Profit present a significant challenge in West Belfast, and perhaps even in Derry.
Cllr Seanna Walsh calls these men “the risen generation of 1969“. They played a vital role in what became a baby boomer-led IRA: eventually coming into their force in the late 70s and early 80s as overseers of the famous Armalite and ballot box strategy.
When the peace came not only did they play their hands carefully and well, they were also dealt some handy trumps (along with some letters of comfort) from the bottom of the British government deck.
But having forced Sinn Fein in particular and Irish Republicanism in general into this cul de sac they have surely some responsibility to demonstrate they have a more productive plan than the one they’ve been using for the last ten years?
As Rowan perceptively notes towards the end of his Irish Times piece:
Leaving another Sinn Féin event at the Felons Club last week, the influential Belfast republican Bobby Storey shouted across the road towards journalists: “Let’s go.”
It was a reference to the election – scheduled for March 2nd. But, let’s go where? This is the unanswered question.