The Challenge facing Sinn Fein

With the focus having switched from Westminster to Stormont, speculation will continue to grow about the nature and likelihood of any deal to deliver a return of devolved government.

Yet many continue to miss one key factor which is likely to mitigate against a quick return to Stormont.

The republican leaders now in the spotlight will be very conscious of the reality that the most popular and reinvigorating measure taken by a Sinn Fein leader over the past decade was Martin McGuinness’ decision to pull the plug on the devolution era.

That was not the result of any grand scheme hatched by Sinn Fein leaders to precipitate a political crisis, but a product of grassroots pressure across nationalism forcing the party leadership’s hand.

How that situation came to pass is not simply a tale of DUP arrogance and misconduct, but is also a criticism of how republicans had allowed themselves to be outmanoeuvred into a position in which the DUP appeared to be the dominant player at Stormont.

Highlighting the DUP actions which enraged nationalists in the final weeks culminating in Stormont’s collapse and in the months that followed is relatively straightforward- RHI, NAMA, Liofa, Community Hall Fund, Crocodile barbs- all collectively provided many straws that broke the already weary camel’s back.

But the republican leadership must also engage in the type of critically self-reflective process necessary to ensure they recognise, acknowledge and address the shortcomings in their own approach, both at key negotiation junctures in the past and through the devolution era.

It is a very long time since a round of political negotiations was concluded in which there was a broad sense across nationalism that a fair deal had been struck.

The fact Sinn Fein continue to have to lobby for an Irish Language Act, Anti-Poverty Strategy and Bill of Rights only serves to underline how their failure to nail down in clear terms the delivery of promises secured in earlier negotiations (going back to Good Friday) should caution against agreeing any set of proposals which leaves any room for doubt regarding the content, mechanism and timetable for delivery, never mind consequences for failure to do so.

To that list of unfulfilled promises could be added the Maze Long Kesh ‘deal’ reneged on by Peter Robinson, and the cock-up surrounding the devolution of policing and justice which only came to pass due to the political and personal tsunami that affected the DUP and Robinson household.

The pledge to deliver on the Military Covenant in the DUP-Tory deal is deeply provocative and will cause considerable anger within nationalism, as will the language used when describing British Forces and their role in the conflict. There is already more than a suspicion that the DUP-Tory deal contains below the radar agreements on issues that could further antagonise nationalists and precipitate a new political crisis in the not too distant future in the event of this one being resolved in the short to medium term.

The commitment by the British Government and DUP to “adhere fully to their respective commitments set out in the Belfast Agreement and its successors” will be the starting point for republicans refusing to budge until the outstanding issues from those past agreements are resolved.

Yet it is in the nature of the relationship between the two parties at Stormont that republicans will either succeed in restoring faith in the devolution project amongst their base community or run the risk of once again alienating them.

The DUP are not for changing.

If a deal is signed this week, or in the Autumn, it will need to signal the beginning of a harder, sharper and hungrier approach from Sinn Fein.

Re-establishing an equilibrium between the competing political forces is vital to the long-term stability of a revived Executive, and the change necessary to bring about the realignment must come from the republican side.

That poses real challenges for a northern Sinn Fein leadership still feeling its way through a phase of transition.

The mistakes of Fresh Start and what came before, of blinking first and erring on the side of pragmatism to keep the show on the road, must be fully appreciated.

One area I would expect to see progress upon is in relation to the appointment of the Justice Minister in any returning Executive. There was a sense that Sinn Fein had demeaned themselves and their community when they effectively endorsed a publicly proclaimed DUP veto of a Nationalist Justice Minister ahead of the appointment of a nominally Unionist elected representative, Claire Sugden, to the post in the ill-fated Fresh Start Executive.

Conceding to the DUP’s attempts to subvert the principle of objective need being used to direct funding at Executive level was another critical mistake.

The approach that led to the acceptance of the Social Investment Fund programme in its form needs to be openly ditched by republicans, and the case for funding, including the additional funding secured as part of the DUP-Tory deal, to be allocated on the basis of objective need must form a central part of Sinn Fein’s delivery agenda before and after agreeing any deal with the DUP.

Gerry Adams was right when he remarked of the DUP-Tory Westminster deal that the ‘devil was in the detail.’

The challenge for Sinn Fein is to make sure that they get the detail right this time.

For Sinn Fein, no deal is much better than the wrong deal.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    “For Sinn Fein, no deal is much better than the wrong deal” Sounds very Brexiteering that sentence ?

  • aquifer

    The DUP may now be basking in the warm glow of 1Bn of public accountants’ gold, but the collapsing economy may see other regions get comparable injections, taking the lustre off it fast. Surrendering local control to semi-detached GB ministers would flatter the DUP’s ‘mini mee’ little Englanderism, but also SF’s ‘Bad Brits’ narrative, while postponing political delivery by those two ‘never never’ parties who have built their progress on promising their followers too much political jam tomorrow. Direct Rule must be the hole that these political on-the-runs are likely to fall into. The centre parties are entitled to another election, but appeasing the extremely needy will come first.

  • Lionel Hutz

    The problem for Sinn Fein negotiating with the DUP is that Sinn Fein want change and the DUP don’t. The DUP want the status quo by and large. And it’s much easier to block change than it is to enact it

  • Gopher

    There is no reason why the Assembly should survive this round of talks. Both the DUP and SF will fancy themselves in fresh elections in the Autumn or New Year. By that stage one red line around the first minister is redundant one way or the other. SF can fight the election on the Irish Language and Marriage equality in the absence of any practical policies. The SDLP and UUP are dead as the Norwegian blue its just a question now of who mops up their votes. The DUP will be happy to sit on their loot or give the nod to projects until such time as the assembly returns or not.

  • ted hagan

    Very true. From being lean and mean a few years back, Sinn Fein have become dull and plodding… and enjoying the fruits of power to much.

  • ted hagan

    All Sinn Fein’s radical ‘reforms’ seem to have been magicked up after the collapse of Stormont rather than before, where, as Chris says, they had become lazy complacent.

  • Ciara 007

    That’s incorrect. Go back over the record of about five years and you will find that SF have been in favour of ILA, Marriage equality, bill of rights etc. But Chris is correct. They failed to push the issues and instead rolled over in front of DUP intransigence, in order to keep the Assembly up and functioning. But they got no thanks for it, their Base grew weary and their opponents goaded and jeered what they saw was weakness. A lesson learnt the hard way it seems.

  • chrisjones2

    ” the most popular and reinvigorating measure taken by a Sinn Fein leader over the past decade was Martin McGuinness’ decision to pull the plug on the devolution era.”

    Really odd. AT the time I seem to remember many commentators lamenting that if Marty had been at full force as opposed to in his last days, he would have negotiated this out and resolved it.

    So now the collapse wasnt Gerry’s fault it was poor dead Martin’s

  • chrisjones2

    Election for what?

    We had an election and there has been no agreement. Without a deal to vote on where are the Manifestos to vote for?

    When it goes it goes for perhaps 5 years

  • mickfealty

    I’m afraid TE has called it right here ( Chris. It all echoes the Brexiteer bravado. I do agree with the broad sweep of your analysis, but I’m not sure continuing to run away from the problem is the way to go about sorting out it out.

    I’ve been looking at North South trade figures and the internal patterns have not significantly changed since the late the 19C, despite the fact we’ve had cross border bodies set up to promote such things for twenty years plus a supra national governance structure to facilitate pattern changes nothing has made southern markets more accessible to northern firms and vice versa.

    Now, I don’t want to exaggerate, twenty years is nowhere as long as it seems when you are talking about big stuff. But the big economic dependency for both parts of the island, but particularly NI is trade with GB. But it seems to me far too much effort has gone into building constructive crises in Strand One issues and not enough on developing synergies and strength in Strand Two (in which SF seems to have as little interest as the Unionist parties).

    With Strand One stuck because of SF abstentionism, and Strand Two going nowhere because of Northern Nationalist indifference to it, the DUP outfoxed them via a powerful strategic engagement in Strand Three (and let’s remember this is not the first time the DUP has flexed this particular muscle at Westminster:

    It’s the lack of republican ideas (as well as poor use of the agency its Northern Irish mandate grants it) which has allowed the DUP to dominate so easily in NI. The tendency of most of us to just put the blame on “the Unionists” is one of the most debilitating factors. As Denis Bradley said last week on Spotlight, “one abstention is fine with northern nationalists, but two begins to look like carelessness”.

  • npbinni

    SF, like all its fellow Republican-minded travellers, is only concerned about symbolic and cosmetic ‘victories’. Real bread and butter issues are only side issues for a party whose primary goal is to dismantle and eradicate the ‘British presence’ in Ireland. That means they have to focus on silly things like a language act and bill of rights in order to appease their supporters. If Irish were a strong, viable language it wouldn’t need to be propped up with legislation and a whole bunch of money. And what ‘rights’, specifically, are limited to only one side of our community? It’s pure window dressing.

    Republicans of all shades are showing that, having failed to bring down Northern Ireland by murder and mayhem, they now wish to use any other means at their disposal to achieve the same objective. Good luck with that.

    SF may think they are in a strong position because of their ability to get out the vote, legitimate or otherwise, but what, in positive terms, has SF ever done for anyone in NI? I would suggest, nothing.

  • Granni Trixie

    Yes, opting out is the easy bit. But sf are taking their mandate for granted if they think pays off in the long run. People want solutions.
    Are they prepared to take the blame for DR?

    And as I’ve said on another thread how come an ILA and Arlene-not-as-Leader have become the biggies and Legacy issues are not apparently?
    Has to be a rouse leading somewhere?

  • T.E.Lawrence
  • mickfealty

    When Alliance start taking seats off them, they will start to worry. 😉

  • Skibo

    Mick if you are referring to Stormont as strand one then you are belittling the issue of negotiations if you describe Sinn Fein’s attitude to Stormont as abstentionism. It is not. They fought an election on policies and won a substantial mandate. There has to be agreement on a bill of rights and the Irish Language Act otherwise we face another election. The only ones to fear that are SDLP and UUP.
    Strand two I take is North/South bodies where Unionism has paid lip service other than part of the Health infrastructure but I believe that was instigated more through the Health Ministries.
    For years the North South bodies were completely abandoned by Unionism and nobody told them if there is no north/ south, there is no Stormont. I hope if Stormont returns, Nationalism and the Irish Government will need to give this serious impetus. I believe that was what SF were inferring with their comments on the influence of the Irish Government.
    Should SF be handcuffed to a staunch brexit party through Stormont while negotiations are taking place?

  • Zeno3

    “A few short years” I wonder does anyone believe that. I wonder does Gerry himself believe it. It is clearly nonsense, but why make that statement? Is it to keep the less intelligent voters on board? Goad the unionists? What possible reason can he have?

  • mickfealty

    It was Denis Bradley’s phrase, not mine ( After six months of ill defined and nebulous conditions/red lines for their return, it fits.

    Most of the failures to implement their agenda in government are SF’s not the DUP’s. The ILA will get across the line if it’s gutted and programatic rather than with justiciable rights.

    Bill of Rights was begun by both parties in government, but against the advice of the first HR Commissioner the consultation threw up a version that could not have passed muster in any other part of these island.

    I heard Gerry talking up the all island Charter of Rights which we had an early had in with UCC and the British Council to try and get a public debate going in, and couldn’t get people interested.

    You have to know when you’ve failed to begin to understand how you’ve failed and how you might succeed. These proposals failed because they were designed to make unionists choke on them, rather than succeed.

    We’ve been hearing the SF version of these events endlessly since long before Slugger began. It’s got so that people in the lobby seem afraid to say anything unless someone in a party has already told them something.

    “We’re playing a long game” they say. But so are others. Their main rivals north and south have each renewed leadership and parliamentary parties. Adams is nearly seventy, and still no Strand Two power.

    It’s important to look not just at what parties say but also at what they’ve done or are doing. That’s how you figure what weight to put on their words. SF and SF only have choked democracy in Strand one and two.

    So a resilient opponent has responded and moved neatly to Strand Three and demonstrated the opposite of SF’s original purpose which is that power must only be resident on the island of Ireland.

    The stronger SF gets, the stronger unionism gets. It’s a cast iron quid pro quo. Those buying bonds in the demographic argument (the only big idea NI SF has) will find themselves coming up short when pay out day comes.

  • Brian Walker

    Chris, The big question is whether you win any or all of these arguments by continuing to boycott the Assembly. How are they advanced under direct rule?.Normally parties contend for votes in order to win power. As both DUP and SF can have power anyway without a majority they have neither sanction nor advantage whatever the margin between them within the system So in a sense surges one way or another are beside the point, apart from the little matters of damage to the business of government and community relations and the fact that this community looks pathetic.

    Are you counting on the Irish demanding joint authority and the British conceding it? I’d say the likely outcome would be continuing stalemate. Nifty tactics, poor strategy.

  • Skibo

    It doesn’t really matter who pushes the United Ireland project, there will always be a backlash from Unionism. What will happen as elections go on is the back lash will be weaker each time.
    Between 1998 with a turnout of nearly 70% in the assembly and 2017 in the GE with a turnout of over 65% the Unionist overall vote has dropped 13000 while the Nationalist vote has risen by 14000. A change of 27000 votes or around 5 MLAs.
    The rectifying of the constituencies will help correct the deficit further.
    At some stage enough of the soft Unionist community are going to ask themselves is their future really so positive with the UK as the South continues to be the fastest growing economy in the EU. The North has continued to fall in real terms since it’s inception. The bogeyman is the border and until it is resolved, it always will be.

  • Skibo

    Some would say he hides his nationalism under a cloak.

  • Skibo

    Do you not think the fact that there are no Nationalist representatives attending Westminster is a major statement?
    If the DUP have learned nothing since the Assembly fell and want to continue with the same tactics of trying to anglicise all things Irish if they cannot prevent them, what is the point in returning to Stormont.
    Perhaps more pressure can be put on the British Government by both SF and the Irish Government than could be put on the DUP within Stormont.
    As can be seen from the press reports, the actions of the DUP are not acceptable in England, why should they be acceptable here?

  • john millar

    “At some stage enough of the soft Unionist community are going to ask themselves is their future really so positive with the UK as the South continues to be the fastest growing economy in the EU”

    Soft Unionists -contradiction in terms

  • Ryan

    If Sinn Fein had any sense they would make sure they get the key things they want, Irish Language Act being the most prominent, before they re-enter Stormont. If they cant get Irish Language Act, Funding being allocated on Objective Need (this is 2017 and not 1967, right??….), etc then keep the doors of Stormont closed no matter what, there’s no point keeping it up just for the benefit of the DUP and their allies. The people who SF represent should come first and not those who wish to disadvantage them at every turn.

  • Glenn

    “That was not the result of any grand scheme hatched by Sinn Fein leaders to precipitate a political crisis, but a product of grassroots pressure across nationalism forcing the party leadership’s hand”

    Is this not a claim often made by republicans of Unionists. Where was their famed leadership and work through the issues. The shinners knew all about RHI for months before Nolan made it an issue. It was only then when the shinners decided that the time was right to bring Stormont down.

    They are now suffering the consequences of their actions and they are now cornered with no outlet.

    Now let’s talk about bonfires, parades and flags to take the republican voters focus and deflect on how the shinners are in a situation of their own making.
    I did love the John O’Dowds ranting at what have MP’s at Westminster ever done. Timing is everything

  • Brian Walker

    It isn’t only a question of finding the DUP “unacceptable” as if that’s all there is to say, its Sinn Fein behaving like striking workers and treating the Assembly as optional. It partly stems form both parties being democratic centralists and in the Sean Lemass’s famous phrase only a little bit constitutional. Faced with problems they turn in on themselves,retreat and retaliate. In many ways they are two peas in a pod.. Their default is beggar my neighbour and their perspective is narrow with a weak concept of the public interest. Chris Donnelly is an excellent example of the modern Sinn Fein, calm and analytical, seeing the world, but only through a Sinn Fein lens.

  • Skibo

    Brian everyone views life and statistics through a lens, one shaped by their up-bringing and education. It is not limited to Sinn Fein leaning analysts.
    Back through the previous agreements work was done on all sides and commitments were made and concessions given.
    I believe Republicanism has not been found wanting in what was agreed. The bill of Rights and the Irish Language Act have been agreed previously and still not actioned.
    This has to stop and if that means Republicanism holds out till these are agreed then so be it.
    Sinn Fein do not look on the Assembly as optional but is an assembly domineered by Unionism where the rights of those who do not fit into what the DUP see as good British citizens are not recognised any better than no assembly at all?
    I believed in the assembly and what Martin did but every year the signs were there that Unionism were not prepared to allow a Republican view on life to wreck their fiefdom. I stood for it till I could take no more.
    My view on the Assembly changed the day that Arlene Foster stood in the Assembly and gave a statement from the office of the Executive and confirmed before she gave the statement that she did not have the agreement of the deputy First Minister. A total disregard for the principles of the GFA.

  • Brian Walker

    Skibo, You will at least acknowledge that a lot else was going on to make a clear narrative difficult. This is not to deny SF grievances but the sudden shift from togetherness to divorce looks opportunist

  • Skibo

    Or what was closer to the truth is the external togetherness covered a multitude of internal friction.
    You have to remember there are MLAs who still refuse to converse with Sinn Fein members.
    Note the Paul Given trying to stop the Liofa grants stating he had no funds and all the time financing grants to Orange halls where he could double the finances at the drop of a hat.
    The wording of these grants were in such a way to block sports halls and GAA in particular. The constraints were eased near the end to allow two GAA applications to go through and take what was a blatant sectarian view of how the funds were applied.

  • Eoin

    How is an Ghaeilge limited to one side of the community?

  • mickfealty

    That’s just a cop out.

  • Skibo

    No it is not. Just the same as it is for a soft Nationalist. There are those who, while come from a Unionist background would not be too bothered if there was a United Ireland, it does not stop them being British.
    The same goes for people who comes from a Nationalist community where they want reunification but are content to live within the UK until conditions are right. It does not stop them from being Irish.

  • Skibo

    What part of what I said is a cop out? Is it just a cop out to say it is a cop out?

  • john millar

    “No it is not. Just the same as it is for a soft Nationalist. There are those who, while come from a Unionist background would not be too bothered if there was a United Ireland, it does not stop them being British.”

    In over 50 years I have never met a “soft unionist”. If anything they have hardened.

    (I would love to see a “border poll” to smoke out the alleged garden centre unionists)

  • john millar

    “How is an Ghaeilge limited to one side of the community?”

    Largely because of the chucky ar la and every word a bullet brigade
    Suck it up

  • Skibo

    In fifty years, it has never mattered about how hard or soft Unionists were but as the numbers head to parity, it will become vitally important. I am sure the circles that you move in probably have hardened a bit. Not sure they could get much harder though!