If Republicanism is running out of road, doesn’t it need a new narrative roadmap?

As we get closer to family holidays, it gets harder to find anything coherent to write about when it comes to Northern Irish politics.[Columnists have to write to earn a dollar, you don’t! – Ed] Some are taking a quiet Twelfth as a good sign for the autumn.

But as Steven Agnew pointed out at the John Hewitt Summer School, all urgency is draining from a set of talks with the ever expandable deadlines. That could make a restart unlikely.

However we’ve had these silent periods before, and they’re not reliable indicators of anything much. And a summer when politicians don’t say much is generally taken to be a good one.

As Brian notes, the world in which we live is being reshaped around us, without much influence or participation from the people who live in Northern Ireland. It’s indicative of another point made at the John Hewitt: ie that political structures without politics are useless.

Judging by Brian Feeney’s latest column, Sinn Fein’s strategy is to hope that Brexit screws up in some way so they get to blame the DUP for helping to land the big Brexit fish (a competition they themselves failed to show up for).

But NI at peace (or even at war, if you consider the ‘Needham doctrine’ under Thatcher) remains a very cheap date for the rest of the UK. The private sector barely figures in the present economy, and only within agriculture and agrifoods is North South trading significant.

That northern nationalist opinion barely perceives how Brexit creates serious vulnerabilities and threats to the Republic, compounds the problem facing a political leadership which is making capital with southern voters who have little affinity to the national question.

This, along with that extraordinary admission by Adams of just how little Sinn Fein has achieved with its overwhelming mandates over the last ten years, makes it hard to anticipate where any of this is going.

It’s as though the party is running out of stories and just grabbed something from the cupboard. On one level it’s been gifted a pantomime villain in the shape of the DUP, but as we’ve seen in the last year, that also has a serious downside.

Far from weakening the DUP, in crashing the Assembly, Sinn Fein has strengthened political unionism to the point where it now has the only political team being seen to do any actual work on the part of the people of Northern Ireland.

The hope that liberals will be grateful to them for their support over matters like marriage equality by backing them in a border poll misses the point that any hope of a victory in such a poll needs to hold out the possibility of a material advance in circumstance.

That’s very hard for any political movement to achieve when it appears to be making a habit of political absenteeism, first in Westminster and now Stormont. Taking any track that poses the least risk to its own political capital may look clever in the short term,

Taking any track that poses the least risk to its own political capital may look clever in the short term, but looked at the rear view mirror as a series of failures (the import of Adams’ January speech) the lack of any threaded reasoning or story (other than ‘themuns’) is striking.

One of my favourite blog pieces of recent (if also one of my lesser read ones) posits the idea that story is incredibly important in politics. With the playwright Bryan Delaney emphasising powerfully why it’s important to pick carefully the stories we tell about ourselves.

Friday thread: “In this country we need to be extremely vigilant about the stories we choose to tell ourselves”

In practical terms, what is Sinn Fein’s reasonable price for returning to the jobs they were voted to do at Stormont? Certainly, a Bill of Human Rights is something they both tried to work on together and failed. So what are its ideas for avoiding that failure this time?

Such ideas are only in evidence via their own too tangible absence.

There’s more general absence of creative ideas about how to bring the two parts of the island together again. When pushed it always comes back to the same old Border Poll or blue sky conferences that never seem to have any impact on offerings to the electorate.

It’s easy to lecture Sinn Fein about such things. And with some justification. They have after all been at the forefront of nationalist politics in Northern Ireland since before the final retirement of John Hume.

But they’re not the only ones failing the test of relevancy in the context of a Long Peace. We’re at what I would call a corridor moment (when nothing may happen for quite a long time). It could be the right time to start asking (and trying to answer) some difficult questions.

Like, for instance, what false or outdated assumptions are nationalists and Republicans operating under? Such questions might help identify what’s currently sabotaging the political process and/or preventing the launch of genuinely new initiatives.

Above all, space needs to be cleared for the production of new stories capable of taking Republicanism on a meaningful and fulfilling journey by means that are consonant with the historic and popular all islands agreements of 1998 (and the 19th amendment).

After ten years of a power-sharing arrangement that nationalism demanded and (some) unionists resisted, it is odd that it was nationalism that has spurned the opportunity (limited as they may be) to influence present choices in partnership.

It’s as though having been delivered the means to influence, the courage to imagine has deserted them. Those are two vital ingredients. In the last chapter of Ireland in 2050, Stephen Kinsella quotes Daniel Taylor…

The power of an imagined end, and it literally can only be imagined, lies in its ability to influence present choices.


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

  • the rich get richer

    May we all Rest in a Peaceful Summer……..

  • tim plum

    I think SF overplayed their hand at the last Stormont election and when the DUP gained a seat at the Westminster grownups table SF was caught off-guard. They have nothing new to offer at this stage. The DUP can play the long game by waiting out SF, going into direct rule and still being in charge. SF brinksmanship went one step too far this time.

  • the rich get richer

    The Shinners are quiet and maybe no harm for awhile…….

    Gerry might even call it a day……..or maybe not……

  • murdockp

    I think what we are seeing will be called ‘peak sinn Fein’ the SNP achieved peak support last election and now the only way is down.

    The problem is at some point you have to deliver and apart from DLA and benefits for its core support, SF have delivered little.

    Socialist parties are great in opposition but terrible in government. From Venezuela to cuba they have failed to deliver as they just don’t understand the role of the private sector in growing an economy.

    For the SF activist private sector = evil and public sector = saviour.

    Give voters a credible alternative and here hoping things will change.

  • Karl

    Narrative roadmaps are needed by analysts and politics students.
    Movements need momentum. Given the events since December theres been plenty of that. SF just need to make sure they dont spin out of the ‘brexit wash’ going backwards.

    Given the likelihood of upcoming events – brexit negotiations, constituency reform, direct rule, possible Dail and Westminster elections, brexit deal – this is not a likely outcome.

    Now to take advantage of the oncoming crisis. DUP may have got their hands on 1.5 billion but as a hanger on to one of the most unpopular prime ministers in UK history, off the back of brexit negotiations that are already threatening aviation, power generation, farming and jobs they are unlikely to be tbe long term winners in a society that values european citizenship. The tipping point may well be generational within unionisms middle class.

  • Karl

    The last place any grown up would want to be is in the middle of the Tory / Brexit meltdown.

    The DUP were forced to vote against a pay rise for nurse , police and firefighters that cost less that their bribe. That’s just the beginning.

  • Karl

    Yeah. Scandanavia is a dump.

  • Zeno

    It would cost more than a Billion pounds to give every public sector worker on 36 hours a week a rise of 10p and hour.

  • Ruairi Murphy

    “After ten years of a power-sharing arrangement that nationalism demanded and nationalism resisted, it is odd that it was nationalism that has spurned the opportunity (limited as they may be) to influence present choices in partnership.”

    Why is that odd? You have identified a key reason in your same sentence. Opportunities for influence are limited as you point out. The degree to which they are limited is debatable but evidence of the last 2-3 years is of progress stalling, bad faith intentions on the part of the DUP and a complete rejection by the Unionist electorate of any perceived “moderate” Unionist who seeks to engage with a “shared future” vision of Northern Ireland in good faith.

    Sinn Fein may be using the current uncertainty to put the Border Poll debate front and centre but for the majority of Nationalist voters we are where we are because there has been a retrenchment from the DUP/majority Unionism and a perception from Nationalists, whether correct or otherwise, that there are intentions to drag us backwards and away from the spirit of the GFA.

    The GFA and St Andrews Agreement are not perfect documents that have the answer to all of NI’s problems but most reasonable people can apprehend the spirit and intention of both. Newton Emerson likes to talk about Sinn Fein being technically outmaneuvered by the DUP with respect to agreements and that may be the case, but for Nationalists its clear that the spirit of the agreements are not being honoured and that is why Sinn Fein were pushed by their electorate to put their foot down in January – a decision clearly approved of by the nationalist electorate in the subsequent assembly election.

  • Neil

    The DUP can play the long game

    The DUP long game is in play for as long as the current Tory govt remain in power. The Nationalist long games is measured in decades, not years. Brexit will have an impact, of that we can be certain. Until we know what that impact is, it’s steady as she goes. We’ll deal with the circumstances when we know what they are.

  • Zeno

    I’m sure that Unionists would say that SF are not honouring the spirit of the agreement either.

  • Redstar

    Lol, MIck you’re not scraping the barrel you’re through the bottom of it

    Numbers, trends and demographics

    Yes it’s playing a long game but as I keep highlighting ( I personally believe the majority = unity guff is nonsense) when our Unionist friends end up in a minority in a North of Ireland still firmly in the U.K.- that’s when the fun begins…

  • Zeno

    Yes indeed and going by the nationalist surge over the past 20 years it will only be another 60 years. Roll on 2077.

  • Redstar

    Put very simply the only way this statelet can even have a remote chance of functioning is through total equality. Since the founding of the statelet unionism has been based on inequality/supremacy this place will never be at ease

    When the unionists find themselves still within the UK but as a minority is when it really will become clear this place is untenable

  • Redstar

    I could debate the timescale with you all day however what’s certain is inside or outside the UK the game changer for Unionists is when they end up,in a minority

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    I thought they were a minority already. The fun that you seem to be looking for is when/if Nats become a majoprity in NI. Or don’t I understand your sense of fun?

  • Redstar

    A minority as in working under a Nat FM for nstance

  • Zeno

    Have you not read the GFA? Do you think Martin Mcguinness was working under Paisley, Robbo and Arlene?

  • Zeno

    As I said roll on 2077.

  • Zeno

    In less than a generation Swedes will be a minority in their own country.

  • Redstar

    Nats had no problem with it, they have never had any experience to the contrary. Unionists however being a minority….. I am not even sure they would even attend Stormont

    Their abysmal track record to this day in sharing power with ALL parties even at council level- is testament to the supremacy mindset which is part and parcel of unionism

  • Zeno

    You really don’t understand OFMDFM or the principles of the GFA.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Who will become the majority in Sweden? Naturalised Swedes?

  • Redstar

    I understand that for decades every Nat controlled council has fully shared power with ALL parties yet every Unionist controlled one has refused

    You don’t seem to get the fact that unionists first loyalty isn’t really to Britain, Mrs Windsor or any of that old guff- it’s to being top dog

    Unionism, Orangism etc is all based on supremacy so frankly whether the North ends up,in or out of the Uk is almost irrelevant-the game changer is when Unionists are in a minority

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Yet again, unionists are already a minority.

  • mickfealty

    File under ‘themuns’? Any more?

  • Zeno

    Roll on 2077

  • Zeno
  • Redstar

    Not at all Mick, bit of a cheap shot

  • mickfealty

    It’s not. It’s mentioned in the piece. And you’re spray painting all over the comments as if to prove my point about sheer lack of an enabling story for Republicans ‘iad fein’.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    It’s the same old ‘if they can do it, so can we’ and just hope their electorate never notice. It’s clear that SF electorate were beginning to feel some degree of disillusion but then along came RHI and the Sinners exploited it to distract from problems closer to dúchais – but we’re all preoccupied with Brexit now. SF have been out-manoeuvred by events outside their control. Oh well, the penny may drop that Eire Nua’s 4 green fields exist in a globalised context. Next step: engagement?

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Thanks for that. The comments section is hilarious, particularly going back home to rape goats.

  • Zeno

    Yeah I saw that………. lol

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Only foreigners would do that of course. Would Swedes face similar accusations if they migrated to say Somalia? They’d be foreigners then.

  • Zeno

    I don’t think that having an influx of immigrants has suddenly turned Swedes into sex criminals. Do you?

  • Skibo

    Mick can you explain what you mean by the paragraph:
    “After ten years of a power-sharing arrangement that nationalism demanded and nationalism resisted, it is odd that it was nationalism that has spurned the opportunity (limited as they may be) to influence present choices in partnership.”
    I saw no resistance on the Nationalist side, but I did on the Unionist side. Perhaps you are examining the wrong party for road blocking.

  • Skibo

    To celebrate the silver anniversary of the reunification of Ireland.

  • Skibo

    The DUP have now maxed out. If the constituency boundaries change and the numbers of MPs drop, they will lose two seats. Sinn Fein will gain. It is Sinn Fein who are playing the long game.
    Direct rule will only happen if there is new legislation is passed and will show nationalists that when the rules doesn’t work in the interests of Unionism, the British change the rule book.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    What? Don’t you get it? People only become sex criminals when they migrate to other countries.


    Mr Adams must be enjoyiing all this, his longtime critics are getting annoyed.Harris and R.D. E are
    turning on Coveney,they are even resurrecting Connor Cruise O Brien,one of the gretest failures in
    Irish history,The likes of Michael Martin or Sean Donlon telling Gerry what to do will not worry him
    either.He has the experience and seen off plenty of his critics. Mick is gloating about the strong
    position Arlene is in,which may be true,However the Shinners are also in a stronger position than
    ever before. Plenty of talking to be done.Very interesting times ahead.

  • eamoncorbett

    Part of the problem here Mick is the either, or choice contained in the GFA . You read it in the endless postings about UI versus UK , it gets monotonous. If the end game for SF and the DUP is neutralising the other as it would appear at the moment then the constitutional issue will eventually need looking at . Whether you disagree or not with SF tactics it now seems to be fix then break , fix then break again
    I believe the DUP know in their heart of hearts that Brexit is bad for NI ,but it holds out the hope that obstacles will be placed at the border to halt any perceived coming together of the 2 jurisdictions.
    Anyone trying to fix this conundrum must take these considerations into account.
    To summarise, both Sinn Fein and the DUP have agendas , but neither agenda has the best interests of the electorate at heart.

  • Reader

    Redstar: I understand that for decades every Nat controlled council has fully shared power with ALL parties yet every Unionist controlled one has refused
    There has been no power sharing in councils. There has been *office* sharing (Mayor, etc.) but no *power* has been shared.

  • eamoncorbett

    The Secretary of State has a duty to reconvene talks at the earliest opportunity in a direct rule situation and he cannot favour one side over another ,as for the long game , SF and the DUP have each other over a barrel, neither can win but rest assured there will be plenty of losers.

  • Granni Trixie

    Your last sentence in particular articulates what has many despondent.

  • Granni Trixie

    It’s not just Nationalists who are not treated as equals in unionist dominated councils.

  • DaptoDogs

    Analogies can be dangerous, but I fear that this is too focused on the what happens in NI when the real game is elsewhere. The DUP are now in the Parnell position of 1885. Given SF absenteeism, they could be in the Kingmaker role for some time. When Parnell’s Nationalists had that role they (and almost everyone else) assumed that Home Rule was copperfastened. They were wrong, and indeed their hubris ensured partition. As Twain assured us, history doesn’t repeat but it often rhymes. The DUP will end up in the firing line for all that befalls the British people post-Brexit, at that point GFA terms will be moot.

  • mickfealty

    You can see it written a dozen different ways, but the refusal to pursue a common public purpose gives rise to dangerous ambivalences: https://goo.gl/zExkHG.

  • Deplorable Ulsterman

    Again, why should traitors be treated as “equals”? That is not a reasonable demand?

  • Deplorable Ulsterman

    Scandalous that an Ulster patriot should have power in his own homeland. You are talking as if this is some massive territory rather than a miniscule part of the world 6x smaller than the Irish nationalist state.

  • Deplorable Ulsterman

    You can’t have a “shared future” between loyalty and treason – that will not work and is why the so-called “agreement” will never work.

  • Deplorable Ulsterman

    Keep talking your nonsense about this so-called “equality”. You, or anyone with a modicum of understanding of history or logic, will understand that the impossible quest for “equality” only ever leads to chaos and destruction (and millions of more deaths than any more ideology as it was tried in many countries) Chaos and destruction, of course, being exactly what you want.

  • sparrow

    ‘what false or outdated assumptions are nationalists and Republicans operating under?’ Interesting sentence and one you could perhaps expand upon. The only outdated assumption that springs to my mind is the one held by republicans that armed struggle was justified as a response to partition. Other than that, the over arching nationalist assumption – or story – that Ireland is one country and will at some point be reunited is as valid as it always has been. I also think you over estimate the importance of Sinn Fein’s role in securing reunification. When it happens, it will happen because the political establishment in the south decides that it is achievable and begins to engage seriously with northern unionists over the heads of the Shinners.

  • Get The Grade Get The Grade

    I do hope you are a parody account because I can sense you are going to be really, really, really upset when nature runs its course and the inevitable reunification takes place.

  • mickfealty

    It’s a generically wicked question seeking a multiplicity of answers, with the possibility of finding new ways around the block.

  • mickfealty

    I can add some ideas of my own, but I’d prefer others to come up with their own thoughts first. I don’t want to channel or pre empt other (better?) answers.

  • Georgie Best

    The people of Ulster do not want a homeland and most of these so called “Ulster patriots” do not identify with Ulster at all, but only a few areas around Belfast.