SF’s northern opponents mistake electoral for political strength. FF doesn’t.

Interesting oped by Alban Maguinness in the Belfast Telegraph. In particular, this bit…

Last week, Arlene Foster’s olive branch to Sinn Fein was summarily rejected. This was despite the positive and flexible tone of her statement and her promise, on the restoration of the Executive, “ … to bring forward legislation to address culture and language issues within a time-limited period to be agreed”.

She added that the DUP had nothing to fear from the Irish language in itself. [Emphasis added]

The penny drops, if slowly. Unionism never had much to fear from Irish. The most fluent person I encountered growing up was a Presbyterian lady who’d learned it in the YMCA in the 30s.

She gave me the Irish for Norway and Sweden in conversation as Gaeilge when cleaning her windows for a few bob in the late 70s. A key problem with current narratives in Northern Ireland is the inability to account for complexity (unionists and nationalists are both guilty).

It reduces every noble cause to a list of nit picks and invites folk to miss the bigger picture. I’d go with Alban up to the point he suggests that…

Sinn Fein has taken a strategic view that the Assembly and Executive are expendable and do not have to be restored. They are prepared to weather out the problems that direct rule from London will bring and put up with the freeze on politics within the north that would be consequent on direct rule happening.

In a nutshell, Sinn Fein have abandoned the partnership spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and strive to put themselves into a position of complete political superiority in the north and, in the meantime, concentrating all their major efforts in achieving power in government in the south. [Emphasis added]

But a careful look at history suggests something else. Sinn Fein was happy in politics with the DUP until Alban’s own SDLP withdrew from government. Without the Stoops, there was no one other than the big two to attract all criticism.

[Deflector shield compromised, Captain“? – Ed]  Something like that, yes.

What Alban misses (or forgets) is that Sinn Fein’s story on RHI doesn’t stack. It never has. The deal with the DUP on that would have to have been done before the 2016 Assembly election.

That may be why the party disappeared it so quickly, replacing it with several more plausible demands.

We can now expect them to try to pressurise the SDLP to come back in and take up their previous whipping boy status in order to get that damned deflector shield operative again. Mr Eastwood would be well advised to make them sweat for that.

The other limitation of Alban’s analysis is that it seems to buy into Sinn Fein’s own talking point that they are on the edge of some sort of breakthrough in the Republic. As I’ve already said, I see narrow gains for them. But, it’s awkward.

Having accepted they cannot lead the next government they’ve now promised to enter government after the next election. And then, their most likely partner publicly denies them any such a place.

As Noel Whelan (no particular friend of the opposition leader) notes

To those who might seek to argue that Fianna Fáil would say one thing before the election and do another after the election, Martin can point to the fact that they ruled out going into coalition with Fine Gael in 2016 and stuck with that policy after the election, albeit he facilitated Fine Gael’s return to government as a minority.

Whelan focuses on the defensive, but this was also an offensive by Martin by inviting voters to compare him with Adams. Despite SF’s roll forward last year, the chamber maths between SF and FF have shifted in FF’s favour (they’ve now more than double the TDs the smaller party).

Further gains for FF will widen and that gap and weaken SF’s influence. That odd content free announcement by Adams that he’ll remain SF President, whilst promising more in November, starts to look and feel like pressure.

The precise exegeses of southern politics matter far more than most (but not all) northern commentators tend to presume. And you don’t have to take recent internal rumblings to understand that things are far from the healthy state most northerners tend to presume.

This exchange with Dr Matt Treacy (former advisor to Martin Ferris) is worth watching…

They are really in a bad place, they have to get into coalition down here. And all their chips are on that, they want to get into coalition with Fianna Fail after the next general election. It’s whether Fianna Fail go along with that, or not.

They are simply running out of options. In the north, the DUP are going to be calling the shots. If they go into Stormont the DUP are still dominant party. If they go into coalition here it will be as the junior partner, but they have to.

There are rumours (albeit from DUP sources) that the party is trying to push the deadline for a restart back to the Spring to cover any snap General Election (Leinster House can talk about little else just now). That would be a clear case of putting party before people.

True or not, the party’s excuses for the breaking the historic power sharing arrangement don’t add up: unless you allow for the possibility that Sinn Fein is just looking after party interests over that of its own electorate whilst winding up them up about “the meanness of the Prods”.

The danger for the party is that this liberty with the voters’ mandate may now be broadly embedded within the party’s general political ambit. In the south, they could be punished for such a deep lack of political seriousness just when the economic tide is rising.

In the north, after the party’s electoral apogee of March, the only road is down. And not just for Sinn Fein. Without a genuine successor to McGuinness (Martin, in case you’re wondering), northern nationalism is rudderless and ceding most of the credible ground to unionism.

And that’s not a game that ends well, for anyone.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    not unreasonably.

    The unreasonable thing is, seeing that, then going off and voting SF, as if that isn’t ten times worse.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    where’s the inconsistency? Fine surely to criticise DUP where they’re at fault and praise positive actions like the flexibility shown to SF recently (which has wrong-footed them)

  • Granni Trixie

    But sure aren’t “Republicans” subsumed into “Nationalists” now?

    And I so agree with you about the amoral way some people talk about what has happened – must really add to the hurt of victims/survivors.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    to her credit yes, I think she has

  • Granni Trixie

    Reforms essential if Stormont is to stand any chance of doing better.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    and it’s true, I think / hope!

    I suspect unionists will feel safe moving away from DUP if they see nationalists moving away from SF. I do think nationalists have to move first though. They went over to SF before unionists went over to the DUP. The horror of the Republican Movement leads the dance, has done for almost 50 years. Only nationalist voters can really end the cycle.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    The term ‘Republicans’ in NI I use as a subset of Nationalists – those nationalists who believe terrorism can be an acceptable tactic. The bad ones basically.

  • Granni Trixie

    I meant to direct attention to what I see as a conscious strategy in recent years by SF to present themselves differently to the outside world either to steal SDLP clothes or shed stigma of their own “old” identity. I imagne internally “Republican” still attracts value.

  • The worm!

    “It’s a two way street, it requires also unionism to reach out to nationalists, show us they are not all bogey men and women.”

    Well actually, why?

    As Mr Fealty continually, and correctly, points out, unionism doesn’t need change or seek change. For unionism, the status quo is their position anyway, even now the time for Irish nationalism is running out and a failure to do a deal soon is going to bring back direct British rule.

    And I believe (although I stand to be corrected) that is the thrust of his article, the Republican methods for achieving the unification of Ireland have failed Irish Nationalism in general and it needs to put someone else in to bat.

    Or more basically, it needs to see the failure first!

  • Neiltoo

    Not inelegant at all, just my Friday evening funk!
    I honestly don’t think that the EU will insist on NI staying in the customs union if the rest of the UK doesn’t. It would be seen on all sides as undue interference in a countries sovereign right to govern its own territory (despite the unique position of NI) They may mutter about it but they won’t ‘insist’ on it.
    The Govt. and the DUP are tied together now, bringing benefits to both sides but also restrictions.
    The DUP cannot let the Govt. fall, the possibility of a Labour victory in a general election would in all probability be the DUPs worst nightmare. (OK, second worst!)
    I don’t think that the Govt. could get a no deal Brexit past parliament so it won’t happen. The loss of Mays majority means the Brexit deal will be far far worse than it otherwise might have been because the EU know that the British can’t just walk away as much as they might like to because parliament won’t let it.
    I think that the DUP know that they will have to give a bit on some of their red lines (how can they not) but they must fear how that will be used against them on down the line.

    I guess it doesn’t affect their support but the SF position on the EU has flip flopped all over the place over the years to the extent that it’s hard to take seriously any position they take pro or anti EU membership. They will say whatever best furthers their ultimate goal. I often wonder how many of their supporters would enjoy living in the kind of Ireland that SF would envisage! Their economic policies and ultimate aims don’t get nearly enough scrutiny.

    To get back to the point of the border. I think all the players will need to get in a room and thrash out a solution but that can’t be done until we know what sort of a relationship the UK will have with the EU, on that point David Davis is entirely correct.

  • Oggins

    Why actually?

    To show us that we all can live together and respect each other. Something to be frank we have failed to see from each side as well? To show the Catholics who are happy within NI there is scope for them to have their identify. If you fail to see that there has been a complete lack of respect of each other from both sides or just see one side, I am not sure whether to continue the discussion!

    I think the failure so far is that there hasn’t been a broader coming together for a unity case. That is the failure within unity. To allow SF to be the sole ‘owner’ of this is much the fault within nationalism and just SF.

    Ultimately SF need a strong SDLP, they movement from the parties in the south and they need a major event that would allow the middle to consider the question.

    They are banking on a Brexit failure and getting into government in the south to drive that.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    ‘Republican’ doesn’t seem to have the mark of Cain on it within nationalist circles as it does for others, so SF will no doubt continue to use it. There’s an ambiguity to the term (as there also is to ‘Loyalist’) which appeals to some people. By calling yourself Republican or Loyalist you can play the tough guy while simultaneously claiming you don’t necessarily support the atrocities. Having your cake and eating it is always appealing to the weak of thought.

  • The worm!

    I assumed you would realise that I was talking in terms of politics.

    Respect and courtesy towards those you come in to everyday contact with on a personal level should always be a given.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    They do have input, as before, through Strand 2. Isn’t this a non-issue? Direct rule applies to the intra-NI stuff (Strand 1), it doesn’t affect any of the Republic’s bits. This call for more of a Dublin role seems to me like attempted encroachment. We thought the Republic had learned the lesson of how toxic that can be – so important we respect each other’s sovereignty and the carefully agreed terms of the GFA.

  • mickfealty

    It’s actually pretty synchronous.

  • Sub

    So there is going to be an Irish language act then?

  • Lawrence Anderson B

    12 to 18 months down the road ain’t very far

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I hope there will be new legislation on Irish, ideally covering provisions on cultural matters for both communities. The exact content is of course for negotiation and democratic deliberation. It won’t be everything SF wants but I do think something fair can be agreed.

  • Oggins

    I was talking about politics. There has been a lack of it given and has been obviously documented the past couple of years, which I don’t need to call out? Why would you ask the question why should they? Do you feel that unionist politicans shouldn’t?

  • mickfealty

    Well, maybe. The cheap pound is already driving retail prices up I suppose. NI’s economy however is largely supported by public money. Besides the transition period (if it’s agreed) may mean any damage happens on a slope more than a cliff edge.

  • John Doherty

    “Flexibility” more like desperation to stop the slippage electorally.

  • Sub

    So that’s a No then and we are back to square one.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    It is now; it wasn’t initially. The nationalist shift towards SF happened substantially from around 1999; the unionist surge to the DUP was mainly 2003 and after. There was that few years where unionists were just about sticking with Trimble while SF was bigger nationalist party. Labour’s cutting SF second and third and fourth chances and leaving Trimble dangling did for him and brought on the DUP hegemony. But it did happen in that order.

    I agree now the two hardline camps are mutually reinforcing. Take away the DUP though and SF would still be doing their thing, ethnic grinding and pushing for ever more greenery. Take away SF and I genuinely think unionism would be transformed. Support for the hardline in unionism is largely about defence, holding the line – not pushing for fresh gains. It’s not a mirror image. Take away the attacks and the defenders can take off their armour and put down their shields.

    The other side of that though is unionist parties being much less socially liberal – I’m not suggesting the unionist parties are paragons of virtue or without problematic aspects too. But SF is the one piece of the jigsaw that if you changed it, could transform all the other pieces.

  • mac tire

    I think, with the exception of 2010 (GE) and 2014 (Council), the DUP have always had more votes than SF in local, Assembly and Westminster elections.

  • The worm!

    As you rightly say, in political terms the disrespect has been two way, although I tend to think that’s probably more to do with who has been representing Irish nationalism, and how they’ve been doing it, than the cause “per se”.

    Irish nationalism doesn’t need to abandon any principles, but it looks like it needs to rethink immediate priorities.

  • Oggins

    Look we could go tit for tat on who said what, did what, and didn’t do that. Ultimately we are never going to agree.

    Language used by senior DUP people and their leader on Irish language has been disgraceful. Naming play parks after IRA men is stupid.

    I ask again, because I think you haven’t answered my question, or are dodging it? Do you believe that unionist politicans shouldn’t show respect?

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Remember the ‘plague on both their houses’ moan by a shinner recently?

    Do you think that complaint will hold fast when people will confront them about Provo atrocities in future or will the ‘plague on both their house’s line be wheeled out?

  • sparrow

    ‘Support for the hardline in unionism is largely about defence, holding the line – not pushing for fresh gains. It’s not a mirror image. Take away the attacks and the defenders can take off their armour and put down their shields.’
    If a particular status quo is based on injustice or inequality or a denial of civil liberties, then those who don armour or pick up shields to protect it are actually aggressors, not defenders.

  • The worm!

    ” Naming play parks after IRA men is stupid.”

    Just stupid?

    Not equally disgraceful?

    As for the respect thing, too general. Show respect to who or what, Catholics, the cause of Irish nationalism, Irish nationalists themselves, Sinn Fein politicians? What do you want them to respect?

  • Oggins

    Equally yep, without doubt. Stupid as in there was thought process to it.

    Well why did you answer why should they if it was too general?

    Let’s start with Gregory and curry my, with Arelene and her crocs for a few. As said, it has been well documented,and I don’t think I need to call it out. As in I am happy to identify stupidity as above, I expect you to be able to do the same.

    So again can you explain your comment on why should they show respect? I am a bit concerned you called it out at the time, but now want more detail?

  • Georgie Best

    The usual whataboutery. Why not just say that Irish is an important part of Ireland and that an appropriate act will be passed without all this other nonsense?

  • William Kinmont

    If it is a none issue then it could be talked up to outflank

  • mickfealty

    Somewhere in the archives Mark McGregor did a couple of graphs showing the change on both side and there was a distinct mirroring going on.

  • Accountant

    I am still waiting to see a credible articulation of this oft-trotted out “rights denial”. What are these fundamental freedoms that unionist are denying to non-Unionists ? The right to be properly Irish; oh yes, I forgot, there’s a democratic process for that as well. Or maybe it’s membership of the Orange Order; not sure you’re missing much there either, although I wouldn’t know – it’s hardly mainstream. Or maybe it’s the online bullying from insensitive posters like me. Surely not the right to speak Irish (Irish is banned in NI according to a recent contributor to the BBC chat). Please enlighten me.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    because I do not support giving carte blanche for SF to dictate whatever it wants in the act. It needs to be something the people as a whole are comfortable with. They can’t just put any old thing in there.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I agree the status quo cannot be defended, we need the guilty mem of the Troubles behind bars. Their defenders are as you say really aggressors

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I’m sure they’ll be claiming the DUP was also a terrorist organisation as ever

  • MainlandUlsterman


  • MainlandUlsterman

    How is that a no? I support new Irish language legislation in principle and I’m saying let’s go ahead and talk about what should be in it with a view to agreeing and passing something substantive and meaningful that will boost the development of the language.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    whatever the motivation, it’s a good thing though, yes?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    you’ll have to ask the DUP. I don’t see why not as long as it’s not used for territorial marking, it’s not a new gravy train and something equivalent is done for Protestants.

  • file

    leave Mín an Chladaigh out of it please, or you will have people from Glasair Chú on here claiming that they are not part of Mín an Chladaigh.

  • sparrow

    ‘What are these fundamental freedoms that unionist are denying to non-Unionists ? The right to be properly Irish; oh yes, I forgot, there’s a democratic process for that as well.’
    The fundamental freedom that unionists, together with their allies in the British establishment, deny non unionists is the freedom to determine the future of their own country according to normally accepted democratic principles. Ireland was partitioned at the point of a gun, and remains partitioned, against the wishes of the greater number of people on this island. Until that basic injustice is put right, any talk of ‘democracy’ on the part of unionists is just so much hot air. In this context, referring to unionists as ‘the defenders’ is somewhat inaccurate, unless you believe in trying to defend the indefensible.

  • mickfealty
  • Accountant

    So, the biggest unionist oppression of non-unionists is denial of a democratic mechanism for securing a united Ireland ? I think you need to find another strand to the expression of your nationalist passion.

  • Brendan Heading

    Or it suits them to have a political vacuum at Stormont? Instability serves them well …

    They were desperate to be in government for the past ten years. The DUP behaved as they did because they believed that SF were locked in and couldn’t walk away.

  • Brendan Heading

    That sounds fair to me. I think RHI translated into a drop in unionist turnout and even some transfers to the SDLP. SF did a good job of motivating unionists to reverse that, though.

  • sparrow

    It’s not the denial of ‘a democratic mechanism’. It’s the denial of democracy itself on this island. Partition affects every aspect of life in Ireland and all of its people. Despite this, the views of unionists – who represent a majority in just 4 of the island’s 32 counties – are elevated above the wishes of everyone else.

  • The worm!

    Yes, precisely!

  • Accountant

    Yeah, we’re a bit like those damned Kosovans – how dare you want independence from your bigger neighbour.

    Why won’t you let them roll those democratic tanks in ?

  • sparrow

    The expression ‘arse about face’ springs to mind when I read that. Unionists are British – they are the bigger neighbour. And the only tanks – well, Crossley tenders, saracens, etc – that have rolled into Ireland over the decades have been British. How dare those Irish want independence from their bigger neighbour!

  • Accountant

    Well the Irish invaded western Scotland.

    How far do you want to go back ?

    The point is, the people whose lives you are trying to play god over are the ones who surely get to decide.

    Or perhaps you could ship all the British/Unionists out and then democracy can prevail ?

  • sparrow

    The people who should get to decide are the people of Ireland, by which I mean all the citizens of the island. Why should something which affects all of us be decided by just a few?

  • Accountant

    Because it affects them most ?!

  • sparrow

    Does it? There are nearly half a million citizens in the 5 border counties of the Republic. Why don’t they get a say?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    they were desperate to be in previously because they had allowed themselves to believe they could use the Peace Process dynamic to keep rolling back unionism and indeed the Union. What happened was that they hit the ceiling of where that could go. The GFA is set up to create fairness between the two communities, not deliver a slide towards victory for one of them. They belatedly came to realise they were bashing their head against a brick wall trying to push it further. Of course they blame the wall for being there; but really they made a stupid error – one for which we’re grateful though, as it gave us the chance of a bit of local government for a while at least.

    But the calculation has changed, because of (1) that gradual realisation the GFA does not have the dynamic towards Irish unity they kidded themselves on it did; and (2) Brexit. It seems SF no longer sees it as essential for the NI institutions to be working; and indeed that it can prosper when they aren’t. Whether it’s thought this through long term I don’t know, probably not. I think it’s a wait and see strategy, built for the next few years of flux in the Brexit negotiations and beyond, which SF guesses may throw up political opportunities it can exploit, particularly over the border. It wants to avoid being tied into the necessary consensus building of coalition government so that it is free to leap at whatever may come its way without having to find a pretext.

    So my guess – and I hope I am wrong – is that they have little interest in a stable administration for a while. If they do go into one, they will set up some escape hatches so they can flounce out again when it suits them and blame the DUP without losing face. No doubt the DUP will supply the necessary ammunition for that, but to be fair to the DUP, any party in government with SF is going to be the fall guy, whatever they do. It’s not something behaving well actually avoids, as we saw in the UUP years before Trimble went.

  • Oggins


    Are you going to respond?

  • The worm!

    Well firstly I was somewhere with no internet access (yes some such places do exist) from early Saturday evening until yesterday late morning.

    However, I thought I’d been pretty plain but if you wanted detail on who or what they needed to respect, then I’d need detail on who or what you want to know it about.

    I always think it you want precise answers, then you have to initially provide an equally precise question.

    So, over to you.

  • Oggins

    My question that you seem to be avoiding is/was ‘well actually why?’. In relation to it being a two way street and unionists should also try to reach out. I can’t understand why you say, why should they?

  • Oggins


  • The worm!

    I wasn’t avoiding it at all, the answer to that is there in my first post!

    “As Mr Fealty continually, and correctly, points out, unionism doesn’t need change or seek change. For unionism, the status quo is their position anyway, even now the time for Irish nationalism is running out and a failure to do a deal soon is going to bring back direct British rule.”

    Now bear in mind that, as I did clarify, we are talking politically so basically, unionism doesn’t need to as it’s not seeking anything.

    But Irish nationalism is seeking something (ultimately a UI) so it does.

    All politically speaking again I must emphasis.

    Oh, and I’m trying to reply back and forth here while moving sheep, and it’s wet, and they’re scunnered with the weather, and I’m scunnered with the weather. So if you can’t be patient for a reply I’ll not bother to be blunt! 🙂

    Oh, and the dogs say they’re scunnered too!

  • Oggins

    AAA now your playing with words.

    Of course unionism is seeking something, it’s called unionism!? They should be trying to out reach to the middle and soft nationalists.
    The best way for unionists is to kill softly so to speak. This is something that DUP doesn’t get, it’s the mirror opposite of SF.

    Shocking weather is right, I am glad I don’t have to rear any animals now!