Newton Emerson has clearly been doing some thinking about the future beyond the Hokey Cokey of the last few months. In yesterday’s Irish News column he makes two seminal points about SF’s strategy (or lack of it).
Firstly, SF as a good negotiator. It seems to have escaped the notice of the press (but not I suspect of some of their former SpAds), that SF has a tendency to come up empty handed from encounters with the DUP. [What, not even a post dated cheque? – Ed]
The subtext of Sinn Féin’s position at Stormont is that it is a terrible negotiator. How else could it have let London, Dublin and unionism away with two decades of allegedly ‘outstanding commitments’?
Sinn Féin’s message in walking away from the executive is that it has learned its lesson and there will be no return to the status quo. But what if this is just more terrible negotiating?
Three months ago, republicans had the DUP bang to rights over the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal. Turning that into a landmark election victory put the whole of unionism on the run.
Now Sinn Féin has lost the run of itself, demanding that everything it did not pin down over the past 20 years be delivered overnight, with no devolved government or direct rule if it does not get its way.
Now, it has to be said that in binding unionism to the often “very odd and archaic” DUP (caused structurally by that malign (nay, stupid) tweak at St Andrews) will be damaging to Unionism in the long run. However, says Newton…
…the long run in this context is somewhere between 10 and 30 years, during which Sinn Féin will not become the largest party and cannot conceivably win a border poll.
That is too long a period to play the current game at Stormont.
It assumes voters will continue rewarding Sinn Féin for knocking devolution over, blame only unionists and Tories for the limbo that results and keep the flame of anger alive at some memory of ‘disrespect’ that already looks like an excuse to stir the pot.
Sinn Féin grew its vote during the five fraught years of suspension from 2002 to 2007 but the prize then was replacing direct rule with devolution. Replacing devolution with deadlock is a much harder sell.
All the magnificent anger in the world does not make politics any less the art of the possible.
Sinn Féin’s only realistic options in the next few years are to return to Stormont with a fraction of what it is asking for or admit it has given up on power-sharing altogether, reverting Northern Ireland to its British and unionist default.
How is that a success?
It would, of course, free them from responsibilities and allow SF to go back to protesting. But after all this time, that’s hardly a success. Nor is it sustainable to keep the nationalist electorate in a state of high dudgeon for that long.
At 69 at his next birthday, Adams no longer has the luxury of the long game he’s been playing as party President since 1986. If unification is ever to become realistic, the main questions being put in front of the Northern Irish people will have to change.
It would require the experiment with notions of ‘exchange’, both with friends [when does West Belfast get a payoff? – Ed] and enemies. It would embrace multiplicity of identity, uncertainty, development of new connections, cohesion, synthesis and ambivalence.
Sinn Fein’s old soldiers do know how to win elections. We see that magnificent performance time and again. But where does it go, and what effect does it have on other non-unionist players? And what effect, over time, does this profound lack of delivery have on its base?
As Micheal Martin said in the Dail this week:
Northern Ireland has the highest poverty rates on these islands. The crisis in its health service gets worse every year. Sectarian incidents have increased as have shootings and beating by paramilitary thugs.
And of course we have the British government moving forward with the historically destructive Brexit process with no political leadership speaking for the people of Northern Ireland.
Stephen Collins was not just (as his namesake, but no relation, Jude says) talking this week about narrative, he was talking about the long established strategy of the Irish government to bolster and support Sinn Fein as the leading party of nationalism in Northern Ireland:
If Sinn Féin makes it clear in the next few weeks that it is not prepared to engage with the institutions established in 1998 the Government in Dublin will need to take a long, hard look at the strategy it has been following for more than two decades.
That strategy involved giving aid and support to Sinn Féin at every stage in the tortuous negotiations that resulted in the Belfast Agreement and its successors. If the party now effectively abandons the agreement a serious rethink of that approach will be will required.
The Greeks broke narrative into two integral parts: mimesis, the
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty