Sinn Fein’s Unlikely Candidate

When Sinn Féin’s Assembly Election ’17 candidates were formally introduced at the Waterfront Hall on Monday morning, Dr Peter Doran, the candidate for Lagan Valley, quietly stepped into the limelight of Republican politics for the first time.

The Donegal native, who currently teaches environmental justice at the School of Law in Queens University, raised eyebrows in the media and among friends in activist networks when he joined Sinn Féin a few years ago after twenty years a member of the Green Party in the north.

Until now, his profile has been limited to social media and occasional appearances on radio and television commenting on the United Nations climate change process and related negotiations at UN HQ, where he has worked since his earliest assignments with the UN Climate Convention in Kyoto back in 1997 (the ‘Kyoto Protocol’).

I met Peter Doran several days ago to find out more about the prospective MLA, whose background confirmed him as someone not fitting the expected profile of a northern republican candidate. His candidacy intrigued me, given my background as having acted as Director of Elections and of Canvass for the party in this constituency more than a decade ago.

Since Paul Butler departed the stage (after securing an Assembly seat for Sinn Fein in 2007), the party has failed to mount anything remotely resembling a credible challenge for a seat in this majority unionist constituency. Lagan Valley has joined North Down and Strangford as the three majority unionist constituencies in which the republican party has abjectly failed to put any real effort into developing a credible, local profile for the party and its politics, resulting in derisory electoral support for the lead party of nationalism in the constituencies where a credible medium term project could yield positive results in terms of local council profile and for future Assembly contests.

Doran’s appearance on the Sinn Féin ticket in Lagan Valley could be an indication that the party is serious about its ‘transition’ and the promotion of a new professional tier of politician, drawing on an academic and policy experience clearly missing from the ranks of its current batch of representatives. If this is the case, then it is much more likely that Doran’s future status as an MLA will have been secured as a result of a strategic co-option than due to being elected to a Lagan Valley constituency in which the party secured a mere 2.7% of the vote in last year’s Assembly election.

The decision to stand Dr Doran in Lagan Valley was either an inspired one or a happy accident. At face value, he is peculiarly well qualified to test the waters in a constituency where the party must make a direct appeal beyond its core support. In this objective, Doran’s atypical life story may prove quite an asset.

Doran spent three years in the renowned monastic foundation of Taizé, founded by the Protestant pastor, Brother Roger Schutz. He spent most of his time leading young people in the arts of social justice, reconciliation and theological reflection. Voters across the community may be surprised to learn that their Sinn Féin candidate was involved in pioneering Christmas liturgical acts of reconciliation at Derry’s Catholic and Church of Ireland cathedrals back in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Doran was involved with the Carnegie Trust and the work that led to the redesign of the outcomes-based Programme for Government- which he explained to a Slugger audience last year here. He has worked at every level of governance, from the high-level United Nations circuits around the world, to the Northern Ireland Assembly where he once led environmental research, a policy role in Dail Éireann, to numerous roles with local government partners.

A life-long campaigner on a host of issues that are never far from environmental concerns, Doran was involved in a campaign by Earthwatch/Friends of the Earth against France’s nuclear tests in the Pacific. He once arranged for a guest of the French embassy in Dublin to be invited to a special lunch for Bastille Day. In the presence of the Ambassador, the guest removed her outer clothes to reveal burnt and singed under-garments before proceeding to read an alternative declaration on freedom, liberty and equality on behalf of the Pacific Islanders, drafted by Doran.

For relaxation and reading he relies on a life-long immersion in Zen Buddhist writings and Routledge will publish Dr Doran’s own book on mindfulness and consumerism in June this year.

It is highly unlikely that the Zen Buddhist geopolitician will be returned to Parliament Buildings as an MLA when the final votes are counted, but he could yet become a recognisable figure in an elected or advisory capacity in a transitioning Sinn Fein increasingly aware of the need to plug gaps in its Stormont operation.