Is Sinn Fein planning to make a virtue of its inability to ride two horses north and south?

One of the most enduring political quotes of 20th British politics is attributed to the Independent Labour MP John Maxton for Glasgow Bridgton, which goes to the effect that “if you cannot ride two horses at once, you shouldn’t be in the circus”.

When you consider from a distance what’s been occupying Northern Ireland’s columnists, ie Sinn Fein’s dilemma over how to build a coherent all island political project over two separate political entities with rapidly diverging and after Brexit, potentially conflicting political cultures.

Patrick Murphy in Saturday’s Irish News puts his fingers on SF’s dilemma:

The driving force behind them is the party’s belief that being in power in Dublin and Belfast at the same time will deliver a united Ireland. It would be a good theory if it were not for the potential threat from loyalism and the vagaries of southern politics. But it would certainly do the party no harm.

Until three months ago, SF had achieved the first part of its strategy. But it was slow (very slow) to realise that the benefits of sharing power at Stormont were outweighed by growing public contempt for an exceptionally poor government.

The aim was for Martin McGuinness to hold Stormont together until Gerry Adams delivered power in Dublin. But SF’s concessions to unionism and Stormont’s inability to deliver, or even devise, a realistic programme for government damaged public confidence in the north and made Sinn Féin less than credible in the Dáil.

Murphy speculates that had McGuinness not died so prematurely, then “Sinn Féin might still be in the executive under a new agreement. He believed it promoted the party’s image as potential coalition partners in Dublin and he tolerated no criticism of Stormont.”

This hints that the collapse of Stormont was dictated by a party weakness rather than a strength.

Certainly, Adams insistence on taking everything over from Martin rather than delegating directly to Ms O’Neill suggests that, despite much speculation to the contrary, the leadership was far from prepared for a northern succession.

Derek Mooney, a veteran advisor of several Fianna Fail led coalitions (and occasional contributor to Slugger), sees this in the contrasting confidence of that joint statement of last October, and the vacuum of now:

Exactly 18 weeks ago The Irish News carried a joint article from the then First and Deputy First Minister with the headline: First and Deputy First Minister vow to just ‘get on with the work’ with ‘no gimmicks’.

If only their parties had both stuck to that promise. In that article both the DUP and Sinn Féin presented themselves as the twin pillars of progress and duty…

And, he notes…

The turnabout did not take eight weeks, it took just two and a half – that was the gap between the Felons Club speech and Sinn Féin abstaining on the December 19th vote of No Confidence in Arlene Foster.

Adams used the RHI scandal and the DUP’s inept handling of it to turn the November 21 joint declaration from Foster and McGuinness on its head. He had come to recognise something that voters had already seen – that Sinn Féin in office was not delivering.

Top of his list of failures was the failure to produce a Bill of Rights followed by the absence of an Irish Language Act. There were other issues too; the decision to renege on the Programme for Government commitment on the Long Kesh site; the DUP’s resistance to the legacy and truth recovery mechanisms of the Stormont House agreement; the Red Sky scandal and the Project Eagle debacle.

His key point though is that all of this belies a lack of coherent strategy…

Adams had no strategic or political interest in resolving this crisis. This has been his modus operandi for most of his career, well for the latter political portion of it. When things get tough Adams throws all the balls in the air and then lectures others at length about their responsibility to sort it out.

You’d have to add, though, that his party has not done badly off it. In the chaos and confusion that ensues, everyone else runs around like headless chickens sorting out a problem that exists largely because of Sinn Fein’s own domestic weaknesses.

A problem, in other words, that can only be solved (if it had the political will) by Sinn Fein itself. But the calculation is that if it’s impossible (without McGuinness) to ride both northern and southern horses, then close it down and blame everyone else.

Murphy again:

In an ideal world, Sinn Féin will not re-enter Stormont until after the next election – in the south, not the north. Since the world is far from ideal (especially in Ireland) the party might not get its way.

However, aspiring to membership of Dublin’s next coalition government is one of three reasons why SF is boycotting Stormont. The other two are Brexit and the realisation that the assembly had become an electoral liability.

With the fragmentation of southern politics, there’s undoubtedly a game afoot for SF in the south. But as we’ve seen with the untimely loss of McGuinness even Sinn Fein can be vulnerable to that other great sententious maxim from British politics: “events, dear boy, events”.

Collapsing Stormont without good or coherent reason is de facto admission of the structural weakness of its all island civil revolution.

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  • Ciaran O’Neill

    Had she stepped aside before Christmas then there would not have been an election. It is really that simple. We know that the Dark Lord of The Sith commands blame for everything, including the price of dulce, but the Shinners weren’t banking on an election when the scandal broke. They were gifted it by the DUP. We can hum and ha all we like about what might and what might not have happened but if your granny had testicles she would be your granda Ted

  • T.E.Lawrence

    “The Sunshine Shinner” I like it but don’t tell Martina ! Yeah I forgot all us Unionist live on the Darkside we are bad and nasty and banished not to see the Sunshine !


    The growth of Sinn Fein is causing panic,you only have to read Stephen Collins article or
    the Eoghan Harris article Sundy.He takes his anger out on F.G and F.F.the Ceann Comhairle.
    Michael D,RTE BBC and Spotlight.Not the slightest respect for the half million who have
    given their first preference to Sinn Fein.Those people are entitled to give their support to
    Adams as any other party.The Shinners played it well the way the treated Arlene at the funeral especially after she compared them to crocodiles.

  • Ciaran O’Neill

    Mick, Sinn Fein members, reps and voters live in the north. The party clearly have worked to get the best out of institutions. With regards screwing the place up, you might want to have a butchers at those whose long term economic plans for the region consist of only increasing the size of the begging bowl they already have. That is where the real screw up truly lies. SF don’t have to screw anything up, the DUP and their Brexit stance will ensure enough misery will be heaped on people here that they can make their own minds up come referendum time

  • Ciaran O’Neill

    Harris’s latest article can be accurately described as the rantings of a paranoid individual who is trapped within the constraints of twentieth century partitionist thinking. The man doesn’t deserve any acknowledgement whatsoever, we should just let him get on with deciding who’s backside he’s finally going to kiss in the FG leadership contest

  • ted hagan

    Well if they didn’t want an election, as you say, then they werepretty daft then, weren’t they, since the election paid such dividends? Sinn Fein knew Foster wouldn’t budge an inch when they made the call for her to step aside and therefore an election was inevitable. This helped lance the boil of anger and frustration among many SF party members who saw the party as having gone soft.

  • ted hagan

    They said so? Of course they said so. That’s what politicians often do before performing a somersault.

  • Katyusha

    Martin’s efforts were absolutely the right path to take, and if any criticism can be leveled at SF for their performance at Stormont it is that they became complacent and left the place on life-support for too long while their southern campaign was not producing gains as quickly as they might have liked. Eventually the frustration of their supporters with the system became too much.

    When history looks back at SF’s first ten years in Stormont under MMG’s tutelage, his magnanimity will stand in sharp contrast to the behaviour of his coalition partners. It will indeed look like the DUP were completely out of step with modernity and uninterested in either powersharing or compromise.
    It is also significant that SF did everything it could to keep the Stromont show in the road. If it collapses altogether, the failure cannot be ascribed to a lack of effort on the part of SF, and MMG in particular, who because of his position within the republican movement was able to make conciliatory gestures that no-one else could have made, and was immune from the assaults from within the republican movement that may have toppled a weaker leader had they tried the same strategy.

    No, the legacy of MMG’s time at Stormont is that even when SF put their best effort into trying to make the state and its powersharing structures work, NI simply isn’t a viable political construct. It is destined to fail by dint of its design. That’s an important result to demonstrate, one which is not exactly out-of-step with SF’s ideology.

  • Anon Anon

    Any statement of politics in the long run is never about the long run. It’s about now. We do not predict anything well.

    The Canadian Conservatives actually *disbanded* in 2003. Their replacement party was in power in 2006. Post referendum, the SNP couldn’t have dated propose a new referendum on the current Parliament. But Brexit changed that. The Republicans faced unified Democratic government in 2008. They’d retaken the house by 2010. We have no idea what events will happen or how public opinion will move.

    SF could conceivably become the next party in the next election, for all that means.

    If they got a UI poll which all parties and the governments took seriously, you and I and Newton have no idea how the campaign might go. I think it’d lose, but there is an outside chance the middle classes in and around Belfast would break for the EU. A close result might energise Nationalism, which might have more events.

    The long run is really just many short runs. Does SF’s or the DUP’s policy work right now? That’s generally the best we can do. Even things that look like long term good bets can bite you in the ass. It’s more art than science.

    In 30 years it’ll be 2047. I’d shy away from too many predictions beyond that.

  • Dónall

    So Gerry Adams is like Hilter because “he can’t help himself”? Is everybody who can’t help themselves also like Hitler or just politicians that you don’t agree with? Or perhaps we are just seeing Godwin’s Theory in action.

  • Skibo

    Brian, everyone seems to take the stance that Martin would have rolled over and agreed to what ever Arlene wanted. I saw a difference in his attitude this time. Particularly when Arlene came out and said who did Sinn Fein think they were to dictate to her. I think the relationship had well and truly broken down at that time.
    As for the pan nationalist front, I think the negotiations on Brexit give the very reason why there has to be a combined Island front. Call that what you will.
    In the end I believe closer cooperation on an all island basis will show that reunification is the answer.

  • Skibo

    Can you confirm how MO’N messed up the Ballykelly move when it was stalled by the DUP?
    The A5 development was lost on lack of detail as was Casement. I believe the lessons have been learned and as you can see the A6 has been approved and Casement has moved onto the next stage.

    I agree with your statement on RHI being the biggest screw-up but it was run to the finish with the Red Sky debacle and the influence that a certain window manufacturer had within a certain department.
    That still does not get to the bottom of the NAMA scandal where the largest land deal in NI history was carried out, selling loans and bonds to an American multinational who just broke it up and forwarded the loans on at a profit. I believe this was one area where Stormont should have stepped in and set up their own bad bank to recirculate the loans.

  • Skibo

    POC will not go. It is still in the Nationalist’s interests to keep it at the moment and will be in Unionist interest to keep it in the future.
    How we can minimise the use of it to what it was designed for is another issue.

  • Skibo

    It is very interesting when SF and the SDLP and Alliance speak on the same programme, just how close they all are in policy. Alliance seem to have shifted slightly to the green side or is it just that they can see that the west of the Bann is rich pickings with the demise of the UUP?

  • Granni Trixie

    Change to POC isn’t optional it’s an element in essential reforms alongside transparency, accountability etc.

  • Skibo

    Ted any chance you could put that list together of all the things that is on the GA shopping list?
    When you have done that take off all the things that should have been sorted through previous agreements and see from what is left, how it differs from the requirements of the SDLP and Alliance

  • Skibo

    Granni would that be a red line? Have Alliance got any red lines?

  • mac tire

    Well, maybe not on the green side per se but, yes, there are lots of similarities on plenty of policies.
    Along with the Greens there is a progressive alliance there and, even in the talks, there are issues where they are at one or very close to each other. But instead of focusing on that as a positive some on here would rather focus on Adams or some such other distraction.

  • Granni Trixie

    As far as I’m aware no, APNI have gone into talks to do business without “red lines”. However I would remind you that they did not take the Justice Ministry last time round because Sf and DUP would not even discuss 5 areas, one of which was The abuse of POC. Alliance saw then that without some change the Executive would continue to be ineffective. Unfortunately they have been shown to be right.


    You are correct,however,i do enjoy his rants,.you see he thinks he is a major player,
    nobody gives him any heed,though,This is the man who was a disciple of Connor
    Cruise O Brien,A minister who was kicked out of office by his own constituents,
    I suppose it was to be expected such major Attacks on Adams after two very succesful election in the South then doing the same in the North..


    Its all about gaining seats, thats what Gerry does best, When leaders start to lose
    seats their leader goes.Just look at the Labour party in the South.Gilmore lost over 100 councillors, Burton lost 30 TDs, Kenny lost a third of his party in the Dail, Adams
    is in a stronger position now than ever..

  • the keep

    We will see.

  • ted hagan

    Only a few short months ago SF were happy to be in cahoots with coalition partners DUP in shrugging off any complaints from Alliance and the SDLP about their lack of progress in numerous areas.

  • john millar

    “When history looks back at SF’s first ten years in Stormont under MMG’s tutelage, his magnanimity will stand in sharp contrast to the behaviour of his coalition partners”

    Indeed like the wife beater who stops beating his wife (because it looks like he is going to prison) -and then throws a fit because she won`t take him back

  • Skibo

    I know and I also know some couples who look wonderfully happy together out in public but in the private of their own homes, they live nearly separate lives.
    I think SF always put on a show of getting along while the DUP always made it clear that they were sharing power because they had to.
    In fairness, I believe that has always been Unionism’s attitude to the GFA. I think they always believed that in the end they could push the whole system towards a weighted majority. Unfortunately time and demographics have caught up on them and their majority now lays in the hands of the centre ground.
    That is where the new battle will lay, Unionism and Nationalism courting the centre ground.
    At the minute, Unionism are still in their “my way or the highway” attitude. Republicanism is heading that way believing that the numbers are going to work out for them. I don’t think that Republicanism will walk away from Stormont completely but they will be looking for substantial completion of previous agreements.
    Finances may dictate just how far down that road it will go.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    and they are nothing short of disgraceful – the rise of SF is an embarrassing for Ireland and reflects poorly on it.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    it needs a shift in thinking from the idea that it is already a country, surely, waiting to be “re-united”. That thinking is utter delusion. The task for nationalists is to create a new country that has never existed before. Only those nationalists that grasp that can really claim to be working for Irish unity. The others are just working for the victory of one side over the other in an ethnic squabble.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    “They tried to reach out to unionism, most apparent through the actions and good faith of MMG. The gestures were not reciprocated, the concessions not returned, the agreements not honoured.”

    If you can’t see how ridiculous that sounds to a unionist ear, I give up.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Apparently we’re insufficiently grateful for the IRA stopping killing us.

  • Katyusha

    I disagree, MU. Well, the word country is misleading here, or ambiguous. There is a need to create a new Ireland as in a new state that has never existed before.
    Of course the Irish as a people and a nations re much older than partition, much older than the UK and much older than the nation state. Whatever legal arrangement they found themselves under at any point in history is so short term and transient as not to affect that.

  • Katyusha

    Luckily, unionists will not have a monopoly on writing our history. If you can explain why it is ridiculous while keeping your narrative confined to the years that SF and the DUP were in coalition, then I’ll be impressed. I doubt you can do it without digging up a tired argument about the IRA, now almost twenty years from the GFA and counting.

    The argument you’ve quoted is exactly the argument as to why the institutions are not running at the moment, and the reasoning expressed by the supporters of SF for the party to pull it down. You seem to think that just allowing SF into government is compromise in itself, and Unionism does not have to give anything more, or attempt to compromise and collaborate, or reciprocate any of SF’s actions, or even honour the promises they themselves committed to. If that is the general attitude of unionism (and I’m not saying it his, but the DUP have shown spectacularly bad faith), then that is not powersharing and you can say goodbye to Stormont.

  • Katyusha

    Embarrassing? Well maybe Eoghan Harris and the editors of the Sindo would agree with you, though we get more fury and indignation from them that someone would challenge the littles cabal of the business classes in Ireland, especially a party supported by working-class Dubliners, whom they do not hesitate to look down on. I, for one, am excited.

    If anyone should be embarrassed, it should be Irish Labour, for their sellout and abandonment of the Irish working class, running the grand old party of James Connolly into the ground, and turning the only major Irish party that had its roots outside the ear of independence into an object of ridicule. It’s a shameful state of affairs of one of the grand old democratic socialist parties of Europe. SF have simply filled the vacuum.

    Again, you are always fighting the SF of the 1980’s rather than the present day. How do you square that with a party that only started to make significant strides into southern politics in the 2000’s? Is Mary Lou a disgrace for defecting from FF in order to uphold values of socialism for Dublin’s working classes, or for her tireless work in promotion of mental health, when mental illness is a serious issue in Irish cities, north and south?

  • Ian James Parsley

    If you cannot operate in matters of government in both jurisdictions, it strikes me as obvious those jurisdictions are not close enough politically and economically to be united.

    In other words, it would be a fundamental admission that Northern Ireland is a different country.

    I’m not sure that’ll work well for SF, tbh!